Leading Design at Stitch Fix

An interview with our VP of Product Design, Christine Fernandez, on her journey to design leadership, building an inclusive design team culture, and what makes Stitch Fix special

Behind the scenes

Christine Fernandez, VP of Product Design at Stitch Fix

What does the VP of Product Design at Stitch Fix do?

I lead the Product Design, UX Research, Content and UI Design and Design Systems teams at Stitch Fix. We’re responsible for deeply understanding and designing end-to-end products and services for our customers, stylists and internal teams, such as Merchandising and Operations. I’m biased, but I think it’s the best job in the company! I love going to work every day.

Can you give us a quick overview of your background and how you got started in design?

My passion for design is rooted in a desire to connect to people—through storytelling, understanding human truths and needs and bringing more meaning to our everyday lives. 

Growing up, I was happiest when I was making things. Writing was my first love—creating stories and poems. When I was in 2nd grade, I remember writing everyone in my family little poems for Christmas. They were cute, but I don’t think I was a prodigy in the making. :)  Later, I moved into visual mediums like drawing and photography. (I built a darkroom in my closet at one point.) Eventually, I studied graphic arts, film and motion graphics. 

Once I discovered designing and coding digital experiences, that was it for me. I’ll never forget the feeling of turning lines of code into something visual that people could tangibly interact with. Pure magic. I knew it was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. 

I started my career working at design agencies and consulting. I loved the variety of solving problems and designing digital experiences across so many different landscapes—from retail and eCommerce to connected home ecosystems, fitness programs and apps, mobile phones, and multitouch tables and windows. Eventually, I landed at Uber where I led design for our Rider products, then Art.com where we partnered with Apple on the first VR for the wall mobile experience. Now, I’ve been at Stitch Fix for the past 3+ years.

I love Stitch Fix because it’s a combination of so many things I find inspiring—the power of data and machine learning, complex service design (with many moving parts both digital and physical), and a mission I find deeply inspiring: to help everyone feel confident and be their best selves, every day.

To you, what is the business value of great design and how would you define great design?

There’s a quote from The Design of Everyday Things that addresses how good design is “invisible” because it meets people’s needs so well. I love that book, but I don’t I 100% agree. Using products that are poorly designed is painful, making poor design abundantly obvious (especially because it’s more common than good design). But I don’t believe great design is invisible—I think great design evokes emotion. It delights, excites, instills confidence, builds trust, drives a sense of connection and brings joy. Great design can deliver moments of transcendence. 

Our team uses a framework called the “Elements of Value.” It’s an extension of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, starting at the bottom with functional needs and up to  “self-transcendence.” I don’t think all products and experiences have to hit the apex—although that would be amazing. But great design delivers on multiple levels of that pyramid, far beyond just solving functional needs.

In an environment where customers have ever-increasing options for where they can spend their time, or shop, or do whatever it is they need to do, what are the products and experiences they use the most? They’re the ones that profoundly understand people, anticipate their needs, evoke all the emotions I just listed and more.

When you think about the most successful products, regardless of industry, they have this in common. Everyone remembers the first time they used a product or service that made them feel truly moved in some way. It goes beyond just brand or product “loyalty.” People will go out of their way to keep using those products—even if competitors offer options that are less expensive or more plentiful. That’s how design drives business value.

What is special about Design at Stitch Fix? What drew you to working here? 

Personally, I find Stitch Fix’s mission to be inspiring. I was a client long before I started working here. As one of the many women who don’t fit the traditional “mold” that fashion and retail are often promoting, our promise of enabling everyone to be their best selves—to look and feel their best every day, to feel confident in who they are—felt so moving. We truly center equity and inclusivity in our experience, and that has been (and continues to be) critical to our success. 

A few months into my tenure at Stitch Fix, I convinced a friend to give it a try. I’ll never forget receiving her call in the middle of a busy Tuesday at HQ. It was my friend, and she was in tears. She said she’s just received her Fix, and as a plus-sized woman, she couldn’t believe how wonderful everything fit, and how beautiful she felt. She said, “Tell everyone you work with that they are geniuses!” We see and hear about moments like this all the time from our clients. 

How we deliver this type of experience is another reason I love working at Stitch Fix. The combination of smart, data-driven personalization with the expertise of thousands of stylists is truly unique. People often ask me, “Is the data and algorithm magic ‘real’?” I can tell you yes, it is, and we’re always working to improve it. One of our internal tools maps our latent style model in space. It looks like a universe of a million stars—and when you click on one, it’s an outfit. It’s fascinating!

Another thing most people don’t know is that we design our own clothing lines—exclusive brands you can only find at Stitch Fix. We’re combining data and creativity in ways that, as a designer, I find endlessly exhilarating.

I also love our emphasis on partnership at Stitch Fix. It’s one of our core values, and with good reason. In addition to our product and tech partners, we work teams in data science, merchandising, warehouse operations, marketing and styling strategy. 

I believe all great teams have a culture of shared success, trust and shared ownership.

What are the hallmarks of strong design culture at a company?

Strong design culture is when the entire company (not just the design teams) prioritizes and tirelessly pursues great design. They hold themselves accountable for having a customer-centric approach to solving problems—and doing so in a way that continuously raises the bar on the quality of the products and services they deliver.

And they don’t settle. A lot of companies will say they do this, but when you look at how they operate, they’re not living it out. It shows in the products and services they put into the world. As a design leader, I view it as one of my most important duties to lead the charge in evangelizing the importance of design in everything we do. It’s not just about designing products. Our team partners with our People and Culture team to map the employee journey at Stitch Fix, and find equitable ways to improve it. 

How do you build an inclusive design culture?

If you want to build inclusive culture, I believe the first thing you need is diversity on your teams. Without it, there isn’t enough diversity of perspective. (As a Filipino woman, diversity and inclusion continues to be something I’m very passionate about.) Along with building diverse teams, it’s important to have company cultural values that encode inclusive practices into your way of business. Particularly on product and tech teams, the way we work is very cross-functional, so it’s hard to have inclusive design culture as an “island” in an environment where the broader organization isn’t aligned I’m proud of our Stitch Fix OS, which puts inclusivity at the center of how we operate as a company. 

As a team that enables everyone to be their best selves, it’s critical that we build inclusivity and trust into our products and services. We’ve been deliberate about continuing to evolve how we design for inclusivity. (We even made it the focus of a quarter of learning and workshops.) We also recently launched a new set of Experience Principles, which prioritize inclusivity as both a toolkit and part of our design and development frameworkess. We’re partnering with our DEI team to roll these principles out to the whole company.

What do you think is most important in your role as a leader, and what are some of your most valuable learnings from leading teams over the years?

There are a few things I’ve learned that have become the founding principals of my leadership philosophy for building strong teams and culture.

I believe all great teams have a culture of shared success, trust and shared ownership. I’m always working to make sure people are clear on what success looks like, and feel empowered to get after it. This requires encouraging people to speak up, and not feel judged if they fail.

It’s important to create an open environment where ideas and inspiration flow freely. There should be multiple channels for people to share their thoughts, because not everyone communicates in the same way.  Paired with this, you need ways of working and a design process that empowers teams to execute ideas with speed and quality. 

A leader's role is analogous to a conductor of an orchestra. You’re not the star player (not even close!). To be successful you need to make everyone shine. It’s critical to build an environment where we collectively understand everyone’s superpowers and can work together to make sure we’re enabling people to flex them.

Everyone is happiest when they feel they are growing. I strive to make sure everyone on the team has as many exciting opportunities to learn and grow as possible, whether it’s their craft, their leadership skills or their ability to work on new and challenging problems.

Quality is not a goal, it’s a habit. It’s a muscle that teams need to consistently build. I aim for a culture that ensures we’re always improving what we ship for customers.

I firmly believe in leading by example. You can’t expect people to behave and operate in ways you’re not modeling yourself. And your team looks to you—especially during challenging times and difficult situations. I show up the best I can every day for my teams, and  I’m always trying to learn how to be a better leader.

What about the Product Design team? Are there areas you’re most excited about as you think about the next year(s)?

We have such a diverse and talented team. Over the past few years we’ve established our UI and Design Systems team, UX Research team and Content Design team. 

We’re still at a size where everyone joining can have a huge impact on our team culture, the way we work and the future of our customer experience.

As we continue to grow our team, are there qualities you think are important for people who are considering joining our team?

I love the core attributes we hire for at Stitch Fix: We look for people who are bright, kind and motivated by challenge. We want people who love to collaborate and work with others, because our team interacts with so many different groups across the company. 

Of course, craft, communication skills and a growth mindset are things we look for. But we also like to hire for people who think creatively about how to solve problems, are passionate about building a culture of design thinking or bring new ways of working to our team. An area of passion or energy that adds to our team culture and ways of working. We’re still at a size where everyone joining can have a huge impact on our team culture, the way we work and the future of our customer experience.

What is advice you would give to someone who aspires to your role?

Always follow where your passion and energy take you—new problems you’re excited to solve, companies with ambitious missions and goals. Don’t shy away from taking on challenges that feel a little scary in size or scope (that means you’re growing, and you can do it!).

Don’t get so absorbed in the day-to-day that you can’t paint a compelling vision for the future. Be humble, authentic, and keep learning—there are always things to add to your toolkit to make you a better leader.

Lead with heart. Never compromise when it comes to your team. Keep a level head and a steady hand, especially when things are hard. That’s when people will be relying on you the most. And don’t forget to have fun—we’re so lucky to be designing the future every day!