He's looking fly in his Hermes tie, but former physicist Oscar Mariani fell into the glamorous world of luxury fashion unexpectedly, after quitting science for business school.
Oscar graduated with an MSc in Physics Engineering and an MSc in Optics and Photonics from MIP Politecnico di Milano in 2006. His heart was set on a career in scientific research, and he headed to the Polish Academy of Sciences to work on a project there.
Since he graduated with his MBA in 2008, Oscar has worked for elite management consulting firm Bain & Co. and high end fashion house Louis Vuitton as a sales manager and store manager. He currently works as a store manager for luxury label Hermes in Milan.
When we Skyped with Oscar, he was making a pitstop at his home after travelling between Paris, Lyon, and Istanbul to attend fashion events.
We asked Oscar, who only stepped into a luxury store for the first time when he was called for an interview with Louis Vuitton in 2009, about life in the luxury lane.
How did you end up working for Bain and Co., and then for Louis Vuitton?
I discovered that Physics is a one man show. I love it and still follow it but it didn’t fit my personality to follow it as a career. When I joined the MBA, I was the youngest in my class. It was all new to me but I discovered that management is fun. Through MIP, I got offered to go to Bain. They liked my analytical approach and were also looking for Polish speakers. I was with Bain for a year and a half and I gained a lot of skills in the short time.
It was exciting to be so young and dealing with strategic decisions however, travelling that much wasn’t for me. You need an athletic approach to succeed in consulting and enjoy it, which I didn’t have. I also like implementing solutions rather than just suggesting them.
Through MIP careers, I was offered the Louis Vuitton role in Milan. It was completely beyond my expectations but I joined it out of curiosity.
What are the key differences between the management consulting world and the fashion world?
It was in my roles as Sales Manager and eventually Store Manager at Louis Vuitton that I would say I learned real management. The pace in consulting is very fast and changes take place quickly but in fashion everything builds up on each other.
Luxury is a very slow industry by nature because by definition it is qualitative and long lasting. While in consulting you’re dealing with numbers, projects and timetables. Fashion relies more on the people you are trying to engage. Each success depends on a previous success.
At Louis Vuitton, I drove the opening of a new store and this involved a lot of project management and so my consulting skills came in handy. I had to work very closely with teams on their day-to-day operations. When you oversee people, you are in charge of making sure they are equipped with the tools to succeed, you reward them accordingly. You make sure everyone contributes to things like brand building and management.
Can you describe what your day-to-day role is like at Hermes?
There are 50 things to do everyday and the great skill you need is being able to build up agendas, find out what to delegate and understand that you will constantly have to review your objectives as the day goes on. So at Hermes, I start with reporting to HQ, meeting my staff, and going through our goals.
You never really get settled because you get 100 interruptions per hour. Somebody calls with inventory issues, another with HR issues or a client query. At the end of the day you’re lucky if you’ve done half of what’s on your list; and even luckier if it's the good half!
The nice thing is that you don’t get bored and yes, I do get an hour’s lunch break.
What are some of the Hermes fashion items you own and love?
Ties. I liked them before joining the company but since I’ve joined it's come to be far more than a piece of silk for me. I know what’s in each design and I also understand the concepts applied and the heritage that influences the creations. It’s similar to what we try to convey to clients as designs change.
Actually, the first time I ever stepped into a luxury store was for the interview with Louis Vuitton. I wasn’t buying fashion magazines to see what the new "It Bag" was. Now I have some luxury products and I appreciate the craftsmanship behind them. My challenge is to make sure I’m up-to-date with fashion and design and also make sure there’s someone in my team with excellent product skills.
What’s the most exciting thing happening in the fashion business today?
Fashion has become the melting pot of strategy. Brands that used to be local are going international because they are thinking about ways to either keep their clientele or capture the imagination of new ones.
The big luxury players have revenues on the scale of the largest multinationals, and companies are restructuring their management approach to become more competitive. This means that people are coming from other fields to give luxury a more structured approach and there is much more room for management experts and not just fashion people.
Do you have any advice for MBAs who want to get into fashion?
Fashion is not only about the items and marketing them or developing new products. Its about understanding the clients and the market. Don’t be afraid to start from the bottom and build up your base and knowledge from there. If you know the rules, you’ll work better.
You also need an international approach because to succeed in such an international business you need to be able to navigate different cultures. So take classes, travel abroad and do whatever you can to build yourself up in that respect.
Should we expect that you’ll be employed at another highly sought-after luxury brand soon?
I’ve only been at Hermes for a few months now. They offered me the opportunity to help with their organizational approach so my priority is to deliver and guarantee my stability within the company. I would like to stay for at least a few years.
Read more about students doing an MBA in Europe here