As a fashion business consultant, entrepreneurship professor, and owner of my own luxury leather goods label, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is, “How do I network in the fashion industry—especially with little or no fashion industry experience?”

Let me just say that, as an introvert who was once a complete fashion industry outsider, I really do relate to this struggle—I was there. And you are not alone: Aside from the roughly .00002 percent of the population who naturally enjoy networking and do so with aplomb, most of us, whether in the fashion industry or not, find the concept of networking daunting.

Yet there are very few industries where you’re able to make it alone. You need a network when you’re just starting out in the fashion world—even if you’re most comfortable in your role as a solo creative—and also as you’re advancing. Most of us recognize the tangible value of a strong network and the give and take, the support and opportunity, that goes along with that.

How to build connections in the fashion industryPhoto source: Giada Graziano

There is help for this dilemma. You can learn to build your fashion industry network in an enjoyable way—or at least in a way that feels more authentic and comfortable.

Here’s how:

1. Reach out and politely ask for an informational interview: Yes, the industry is ultra-competitive. But I’ve found many in the fashion industry to be extremely generous, kind, and supportive. Even if you’re just starting out, it’s likely one of the first things you’ll do is build a website and start a blog and social media accounts for your business, or start a podcast. Once you do, ask people in the industry whom you admire and respect to be guests on your podcast, or interview them for a blog post or a social post. The truth is most are flattered to be asked and happy for the exposure, so it’s a win for both parties.

2. Network with your peers: Think about people who are already within your circle, at least to some degree, because you likely already have a built-in network. Any class you take, any organization to which you belong (such as an alumni organization or business group), any online social group you participate in—these are all natural and relatively easy places to start. You already have a shared interest or common ground, so take advantage of this existing close connection. And spread the word amongst friends and family who aren’t in the industry. I’ve found this sort of “warm” chatter amongst family and close acquaintances can lead to an expanded network, and while you want to focus on those in the fashion industry, it also pays to expand your circle in general, outside of the industry—because you never know who knows who. Most people inherently like to help others, and an introduction is one simple way others can assist you, and vice versa.

3. Take a leadership role: Consider starting your own peer advisory group. Can you think of a few friends or acquaintances in your field who would like to meet, virtually or otherwise, once a month or so to exchange information, share problems and resources? Facilitate such a group meet-up and you’ll find you are naturally growing your network. And remember, most of the people you’re reaching out to are looking to do the same thing: build a supportive, like-minded network in a way that feels enjoyable and natural. And as the organizer or facilitator, you’re usually in the happy position of being seen as a leader and connector of people.

4. Reconsider what networking really means: For many, the concept of networking immediately conjures up images of large-scale events peopled with total strangers, all armed with business cards, hoping to corner someone, give them a 30-minute earful about their business, and score a sale. And that’s why the term elicits discomfort in so many. Consider a mindset shift: think of networking as an opportunity to enlarge your circle of friends and acquaintances, and simply learn more about the person you’re talking to at any given event. It’s about small steps, about taking an interest in others and gradually establishing connections, instead of an overwhelming all-or-nothing approach.

I’ll never forget the time I went to an author’s book signing where I knew one person—the author. I was introduced to another attendee. We began to chat about the author, and from there moved on to our own work. This attendee listened attentively as I briefly told her what I do, and then in the warmest way said, “Your work sounds so interesting. Tell me more about what you do—and if there’s a way I can help you.” To me, this woman demonstrated the very best way to network: a natural and friendly approach, coupled with a sincere desire to learn more about the other person and help them, if possible, without the expectation of receiving anything in return.

Wondering about the best places, virtual or otherwise, for you to start building a network in the fashion industry? Stay tuned for more on this topic next week.