Maxine Hillestad: Fashion Buyer at Major South Africa Retailer Mr. Price

Maxine Hillestad: Fashion Buyer at Major South Africa Retailer Mr. Price

Maxine and I coordinate our interview over Whatsapp, mainly in Spongebob Squarepants memes and emojis. The nine-hour time difference between Vancouver and South Africa takes some thinking through. Maxine Hillestad is a Blanche Macdonald Global Fashion Marketing graduate who has taken her skills clear across the world, “seriously, you have no idea how far away South Africa really is. It’s in another hemisphere!”, and landed a job in the Buying department at major South African apparel, homeware, and sportswear retailer, Mr. Price. She’s risen through the ranks of their portfolios, or divisions, over eight years from an intern to a junior buyer trainee in Underwear, to one of the main Fashion Buyers of their Ladies Shoes portfolio. It’s pretty ironic since shoes are one of her biggest passions and the inspiration for her Instagram handle, @stilettosgal. Shoes, as it turns out, were also the source of one of the biggest lessons on her very first day as a trainee in the Underwear department. 

Can you tell us about your first significant shoe-related learning experience?

So I’m standing on this ladder that’s pretty tall with armfuls of bras that I’m loading onto a rail. I was so excited to be hired and working, and it’s in FASHION right, so I’m wearing these cute heeled boots and this little skirt and a cute top—just looking the part. Well, I fell off the ladder and caught my arm on another rail on the way down. I landed in a pile of bras and underwear on the floor with my skirt hiked over my bum and my top all askew. It hurt so bad! But it was so funny. We all laughed so hard after, though my arm still isn’t the same! When I see new people coming in wearing heels on their first day, I always warn them like ‘Have a backup pair of sneakers with you. Trust me!’

When I see new people coming in wearing heels on their first day, I always warn them: ‘Have a backup pair of sneakers with you.’

What a way to learn that lesson! So what initially led you to want to work at Mr. Price?

It’s one of South Africa’s oldest retailers and I’d grown up going shopping there with my parents. My grandpa also worked for Mr. Price for 37 years on the operations side, setting up new stores and organizing contractors and things like that. So before he retired, he brought me in for a job shadow sort of thing because he knew I’d like it there. I’d just moved back with my family from Vancouver where I’d graduated from Blanche Macdonald so I was looking for a job, I just couldn’t decide where I wanted to start. I’d applied for a position at Mr. Price in-store because I didn’t think I had enough experience to land a position in head office straight away. In South Africa, most kids don’t work at all before they’re in their late 20’s, after doing university and all that. And I was only 19 when I came back from Vancouver so I thought I’d be way too young for a ‘career’ job. But when I went in with my grandpa, I talked to HR, and they were like ‘Oh with this diploma, you’ve got more than enough experience. You can definitely apply for a job in the office.’

And how did you end up as a Fashion Buyer in the Buying department?

I’d always known I wanted to go into something fashion-related when I was younger. Around 14 years old, I started to understand that Buying was a thing to do, but I didn’t know what it entailed. I thought it was literally picking things you liked out of a catalogue! Then at Blanche Macdonald, we studied Buying and I realized it was something I wanted to pursue. It was a brutal class, but it was pretty much a perfect intro into real life as a Fashion Buyer, so when HR said I could apply for an office job, I knew what department I wanted to go after!

Blanche seemed perfect because it had small class sizes which was a focus of mine. We learned SO MUCH in such a small amount of time. It was perfect, really.

What brought you to Blanche Macdonald in the beginning?

Being new to Canada from South Africa, I knew I’d wanted to do something in fashion, so I started looking at fashion schools. My high school fashion teacher knew my ambitions and said she’d known people who loved it at Blanche and became successful adults after, which is always good! Blanche seemed perfect because it had small class sizes which was a focus of mine. My sister’s best friend was applying to university classes back home with more than 100 people and I just thought ‘how do you learn in that?!’ The program’s focus was broad enough to give you a good overview of the whole industry but narrow enough that you always felt like you were learning something pertinent to Fashion. I know people here who have three-plus years of studying behind them, so I assumed I might have to study more at some point. We learned SO MUCH in such a small amount of time. It was perfect, really. 

You’ve worked in a lot of portfolios at Mr. Price. Can you give a bit of an overview of your career journey with them?

Mr. Price is excellent for hiring from the inside, and one of the things they like to do is shuffle everyone around every so that the buyers become what they call “all-rounded” and get to know anything and everything about different departments, from shoes to underwear to casualwear.  I’ve been lucky to really, really benefit from these shuffles. It makes it so we all know the different portfolios, and there’s always a fresh set of eyes in the department. It makes for super strong and knowledgeable employees because you learn new fabrics, silhouettes, and everything that goes along with a specific portfolio. I started in Underwear and was there for a few years as a trainee learning everything and understanding some basic system knowledge and buying tools etc. Once my boss recognized that I was beginning to do well, she wanted to move me into something a bit more ‘fashionable.’ From there, I went to Jewelry. That was a whole other step up the Buying ladder because I was given more responsibility here where I actually got the chance to negotiate with suppliers and have my own small buying portfolio instead of doing just the admin tasks. I was in Jewelry for a year and a half or so, and then I started moving through portfolios a bit quicker. 

Buyers at Mr. Price become ‘all-rounded’ and get to know anything and everything about different departments, from shoes to underwear to casualwear.

From there, I went to RT Formal, which is formalwear for our junior customers, so it’s very trendy, young, and cute. After a couple of months there, I was promoted to Junior Buyer. That was a vote of confidence, but you’ve still got a Fashion Buyer above you to help you and make sure everything is going OK. Then I went to Kidswear. That’s the first place I felt like my growth couldn’t even be measured. I worked my ass off! Kidswear was the first department where there wasn’t any other fashion buyer equal to me. I basically slept at work for a few months while I got a handle on everything.

After Kidswear, I went to REDX Sportswear, which is more like the sporty look but not so much of the actual sports, high-tech stuff, and it included swimwear too. By this time, I’d been at Mr. Price for a while, and learned SO MUCH—but I wanted to travel. Where I live now, Durban, is the equivalent of West Vancouver, maybe, so it’s relatively small. I wanted to see more of the world’s marketplaces. I mean, travelling was one of the main reasons I went into Buying! So I resigned. I found another job that would allow me to travel and gave my resignation notice, had my going away party, and had even been given my going away gift. The afternoon before I was supposed to leave for good, the Managing Director called me into her office. She was like, ‘Actually, we’d rather you not leave. You’re quite valuable, passionate, talented, and we’re going to put you in a bigger department and make sure you travel.’ I’d never actually wanted to leave Mr. Price, so it was like a dream come true! They could’ve just said that and got me to stay and then dragged their feet about it all, but no! I quickly moved to Ladies Denim. And that’s a vast portfolio! It covers denim jeans, skirts, leggings, and most other casual wear all relating to bottoms. Denim is so technical, so you’re suddenly learning new terms for washes and abrasions and treatments, and you have to know your fabric bases. It was all new suppliers who I  had to make relationships with and it basically felt like a new world to me. 

I thrived there and every day I just felt so good about what I was doing.

And was the travelling experience everything you’d hoped?

The funny thing is, travelling for work is never what it seems; it’s not glamorous nor luxurious. I did know that going into it, but some people are a little shocked on their first trip. It’s up at 6am, lugging suitcases to obscure locations, and all-day meetings where you’re to be alert and build good connections with the suppliers—but the marketplaces truly are incredible, as well as just shopping the high streets of London.

What an incredible career journey! How do Ladies Shoes compare to the other portfolios you’ve been on?

Shoes is the portfolio I’ve always dreamed of being on! It’s a little crazy to think that I’m here now. As far as the workload, let’s say it’s been an eye-opener! I have literally never worked so hard. I’m up until about 1 am working most nights. At the moment we’re booking our Autumn/Winter assortments for next year and a new portfolio means a whole new world in terms of new supplier relations, an entire department of history to learn—like what has worked and hasn’t in the past.

As a fashion buyer it’s our job to know exactly what our customers like and look for, and what they don’t like. The other day I was maniacally watching YouTube videos on how shoes are made and shoe moulds because you have to understand what’s happening at the factory as this all helps you negotiate the best possible price and make sure that the product ends up looking as good as it possibly can. I make sure to learn absolutely everything about whatever portfolio I’m on, so they know why I was given this opportunity. It’s very easy for a supplier to take advantage of a new fashion buyer but as mentioned already once you’ve moved around a lot and grow your confidence you learn to not let suppliers or anyone else push you around. That’s so important. It’s not just a given, and you don’t just get to keep what you’ve been given. It’s a lot of work to get there and succeed.

As a Fashion Buyer it’s our job to know exactly what our customers like and look for.

How does the retail scene of South Africa differ from Canada’s?

It’s completely different. We have H&M and Zara, but those are the only two retailers that have managed to stay here. Often our conversion rate makes things just too expensive for people. We’re also a season behind, so when it’s summer in the northern hemisphere it’s winter for us, and that gives us a preview to what trends are coming.

Can you describe your own aesthetic?

I feel like I change so much! I have always loved colour though. I wear something sparkly almost every single day. A couple of weeks back our team decided to set a dress-up day and the theme was All that Glitters. So here comes Maxine with her sequin bomber jacket, sequin eye makeup, and sequin scrunchie, and I get to work, and NO ONE was wearing anything sparkly! Except for one person who was all like, ‘Max! I’m wearing sparkles!’…It was silver hoops. I made so much fun of her!

It sounds like a fun office!

Oh, we have so much fun. It’s a fantastic company to work for. My closest friends are all my work friends. I even met my boyfriend working there! When I started, I was the youngest by years, but now there’s such a young, energetic atmosphere. We have such fun Christmas functions, parties, quarterly parties to celebrate success, and guest speakers. It’s not intimidatingly corporate, and you’re encouraged to speak your mind and dress in your own fashion style.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

The enjoyment I get out of it. Many people only do it for money, but even when I’m working late or things go to shit, I love it so much. I also love being a fashion buyer because it’s relevant in a way no one expects. For example, when that whole Will Smith and entanglement thing was new, my coworker who does the buying for Accessories came in and was like ‘Guys, look,’ and she had a bucket hat made with the word ‘entanglement’ embroidered on it. And because of her relationship with her supplier, that hat was in all of our stores within two weeks! People actually made memes about how we must always be working, and the memes were the best part of our month! 

I love being a fashion buyer because it’s relevant in a way no one expects.

What are three things you couldn’t get through the week without?

Coffee! I’m the pits without it. I don’t even open my eyes to make it! And of course, snacks. We’re always snacking at the office. And it sounds so lame but honestly, my boyfriend, Kyle. It’s therapeutic to have someone in the industry at the same employer who knows everyone you do to talk about things with. My parents blankly stare at me when I talk about work so it’s great to have Kyle so him and I chat about work often. And the obvious—shopping! After all, retail therapy is just about the best kind of therapy out there!

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