Maria Polansky has always known that her future was in Fashion—the only question was where? Like so many before her, Maria’s fascination and interest in fashion grew all through her teenage years so that when the time came, she knew exactly where to go to find her place in the fashion world: “Blanche Macdonald was just so much better than the other schools I looked at, their campuses and program didn’t compare to anywhere else.” With her feet planted firmly in her first Fashion Marketing classes, Maria’s interests in becoming a stylist slowly started to give way to floor charts, colour stories, and the wonderful world of Merchandising—a career choice that has led her through some of Vancouver’s hottest retail locations like TOPSHOP, TOPMAN, and Holt Renfrew, to name only a few. Most recently, Maria’s experience as a Merchandiser led her to ARKET—a Swedish market and lifestyle destination for the modern family and their home. Though it’s the end of her workweek, Maria speaks with eagerness and excitement, describing her (non)typical days at ARKET, merchandising principles, and her favourite thing about the UK so far!
For those unfamiliar with the brand, describe ARKET’s target audience.
There’s a lot going on at any ARKET location because of all of the different departments. The best way to describe the target customer would be ‘the modern family’—even though that’s such a broad term. There’s a little something for everyone, including the home and lifestyle departments, but our main department focus would be the men’s and women’s. Our ideal clients have kids so they are around their 30 – 40’s with some disposable income, but there’s a lot of stuff for people in their 20s too. The clothing is very clean, minimal, and ageless.
There isn’t really a ‘typical’ day (at ARKET)—that’s why I love it!
Can you walk us through a typical day in your role as Merchandiser there?
There isn’t really a ‘typical’ day there—that’s why I love it! But we’ve got some loose outlines for the week, which is something like: Monday is catch up and planning for the week, recovering the store from the weekend, and other small jobs; Tuesday is the day we do our major flips or rotating departments; Wednesday we do any remaining or secondary flips and store maintenance for the rest of the week, plus there’s always windows and mannequins for us to do as well!
That’s a pretty busy week! So how long have you been in the UK now and how was the transition?
I’ve been here for eight months now, I came last May. My boyfriend is British so the transition wasn’t so bad. People here think Canada is pretty cool and having TOPSHOP on my resume has been really great because it’s a familiar UK brand. Working in the UK isn’t too different than Canada but a lot of the stores and brands are different so there isn’t much overlap in brands between both places.
Has your past Merchandising experience at TOPSHOP and Holt Renfrew helped you in your role at ARKET?
Those places were so different from each other and different from where I work now, but I learned so much everywhere I worked. I got to work in TOPSHOP and TOPMAN, so that spanned a little bit of everything in the whole store. There was always something to do and it was super fast-paced. Holt Renfrew was a lot slower but I worked solely in the handbag department there. The cool thing about Merchandising is that all the principles are the same but each brand has its own colour stories, branding, and visual guidelines. The brand may change, but the foundations of Merchandising don’t.
I was very employable though, thanks to Blanche Macdonald and my employment experience.
And what led you to choose ARKET?
When I first came here, I didn’t have a job so I kind of just applied all around. I was very employable though, thanks to Blanche Macdonald and my employment experience, so I did have a few offers. I ended up choosing ARKET because I loved the concept of the store, which was different from anything in Canada. Even their cafe is unique for the UK! I also wanted to work with a company that is focused on sustainability. They have a goal of being completely sustainable by 2030. As it is right now, 70% of their clothes are made from sustainable materials, with animal products that are ethically and responsibly sourced. The fashion industry doesn’t always get the best reputation but they really make and meet their sustainability goals, that they then convey to the customer. I’m also really glad I went with ARKET because they’ve given me some amazing opportunities as a Merchandiser. They’re big into training sessions, so I regularly get to visit the London head office. When I first started, I had a few weeks of training in London and Antwerp, Belgium. It was surreal to see my work in the windows on Regent Street and down the road from Ann Demeulemeester’s flagship boutique!
What lead you to Blanche Macdonald?
I followed fashion all through high school and started becoming more and more passionate about it. When it came time to apply for after high school options, I knew that I was going to Blanche Macdonald. A lot of the girls in my class had done at least some university and then eventually come back to their love of fashion. For me, it was the only schooling I needed.
And did you always know you wanted to go into Merchandising?
I was actually more interested in Styling but I found it was super hard to get into in real life. The next, most obvious thing to get into was Merchandising, which I really ended up loving! I loved the challenges that come with being a Merchandiser—making displays that look beautiful while also being able to achieve the commercial goals. It makes me happy when I move something and it immediately starts selling out.
The cool thing about Merchandising is that all the principles are the same but each brand has its own colour stories, branding, and visual guidelines.
How did you find the program?
It was such a good overview of the whole industry. I learned something new in each of the classes in the program. My favourite classes were Peggy [Morrision, Executive Director, Global Fashion Marketing program]’s Fashion Awareness and Tyler [Udall, Executive Director, Fashion Design Program]’s Styling class.
How did you find the Merchandising course as preparation for a career as a Merchandiser?
It was great! Vicki [Israel, Global Fashion Marketing Instructor] laid a great, solid foundation but as principles vary from place to place, there’s only so much you can teach. You definitely finish the class understanding the work that goes into the planning of stores and various fixtures.
What are some of the main points of consideration when Merchandising a store floor?
It varies depending on the store you’re in. At TOPSHOP we had some inspiration photos, and head office mannequins photos as a guide but we had a lot of creative freedom. At Holt Renfrew, everything was very strict because designer brands have a very specific image to upkeep. As far as ARKET, they have quite a few guidelines and most of our mannequins are guided but if there’s a good reason we need to change something, we can. For example, over Christmas, the men’s look was a very dressy outfit. In Birmingham, we sell a bit more casual pieces so we needed to dress down the look to appeal to our specific customers.
Don’t judge things based on your taste; always think of the store customer!
Do you remember your first ‘big day’ as a Merchandiser?
Yes! Before I became a full-time Merchandiser, I worked with a Wholesaling agency while I was in school and the owner knew I was interested in doing visuals and mannequins. She let me completely merchandise our trade show booth and it was one of my biggest accomplishments at the time. The other one was during one of my first few days at TOPSHOP. I was given an accessory wall all to myself and that was a huge deal!
The advice you would give to other students who want to get into Merchandising would be:
A good Merchandiser has a good overall knowledge of fashion and knows the language used to talk about it. Don’t judge things based on your taste; always think of the store customer!
When you’re feeling drained of inspo, you:
Take a break! Every single time I’ve felt uninspired, I’ve been overworked.
The main British thing you’ve adapted to so far is:
Tea! I have multiple cups a day now! I really enjoy the speed of their lifestyle there. The British sense of humour is SO good, too. They’re super sarcastic but it’s great. A lot of my favourite shows and movies are now British. Also, their snacks are amazing!
What do you miss most about Canada?
My family and friends, of course! But I especially miss BC’s nature.