MBA Careers: Business Schools Take To The Catwalk

The fashion world has turned to MBAs to help commercialize creativity – and business schools are catering for careers in the luxury sector.

Chanel, Valentino and Prada have just finished their struts at Paris Fashion Week – but business schools have only just begun to embrace the fashion industry.

As female MBA founders have raised more venture capital investment by turning to the sector with technology and e-commerce start-ups, the fashion world has turned to MBAs to help commercialize creativity.

At the same time, business schools have been embracing the luxury sector as interest in careers in fashion and other luxury retail companies has surged.

The British Fashion Council struck a partnership with London Business School to investigate whether there is a formula for successfully commercialising creativity in the fashion industry. In May, the pair released a report to present their findings which was co-authored by two MBA students from the British business school.

The study found that there is a dearth of guidance available to fashion designers starting their own businesses, suggesting strong career prospects in a sector that already employs almost 800,000 people and makes £26 billion a year.

Whilst the industry has a clear appreciation of creativity, this tends not to be seen as success unless it is connected to commercial achievement. By attracting more MBA students who possess strong managerial skills to the fashion business, the British Fashion Council (BFC) hopes to beef-up its commercial prospects.

“We aim to encourage more MBA graduates to pursue rewarding careers in the sector,” said Caroline Rush, CEO, adding that she hopes this will be the first of several papers with LBS on the designer fashion sector.

The organization’s focus on the business side of fashion has grown from the increasing number of start-ups it sees struggling to write a business plan and secure investment. Europe and London in particular is seen as a hub for fashion technology start-ups, and a cluster of these are already managed or founded by MBA students.

The report’s key findings suggest that fashion businesses need strong product development, strong sales and distribution channels, and need to secure funding.

The difficulty of the sector often trumps designers – they must master a range of business functions as well as producing creative products. Yet fashion entrepreneurs agree that MBA students, who study most sectors and business functions, are ideally educated to handle the business side of catwalks.

“Designers should have an appreciation of business. It is important for them to think from a very early stage about putting in place the right business processes,” said Sian Westerman, a senior advisor at Rothschild, in the report.

This entrepreneurial flair is nurtured at many business schools, too, as careers departments and MBA students begin to recognise the start-up scene as a viable alternative to a corporate career.

The sector’s experts point out that Europe holds the vast majority of fashion destinations – Milan, London and Paris are renowned, although New York still holds weight during the recently ended fashion-week-season.

“Many luxury firms have been growing very rapidly in the past few years – especially Italian companies – under the guidance of talented and enlightened company managers,” said Alessandro Brun, career services director at MIP Politecnico di Milano and luxury management expert.

The leading Italian business school – based in Milan – runs a luxury MBA track and has launched a new International Master in Luxury Management (IMLUX) program, which is partnered with fashion giant Gucci.

“With the MBA we want to provide people coming from all business sides with basic managerial skills – accounting, marketing, finance – that they would need to operate a company in the luxury sector,” said Alessandro.

Like many business schools in Europe, MIP provides research - on which fashion and other luxury companies thrive on - and works with them on specific consultancy projects.

As well as consumer research, brands rely on the research of wider universities to develop unique products – essential for cracking the industry.

Stella McCartney is a leading fashion house whose collections are distributed in 70 countries through 600 wholesale accounts. The company’s team makes great efforts to use scientific research to study and test a range of textiles to produce “luxurious” fabric, according to the BFC report.

By developing closer ties with the biggest fashion groups, business schools are able to offer their students greater career prospects.

Alessandro said that as well as a partnership with Gucci, MIP is in touch with many managers in the key departments of these companies. “When we started teaching [the IMLUX] we already had a number of companies with which we were working with, which we invited for case studies, seminars, round-tables and company visits,” he added.

France may have just hosted the annual Fashion Week in its capital city but HEC Paris, one of the country’s flagship business schools, runs a management program on fashion and luxury in collaboration with Tsinghua University in Beijing. Like many other European MBA providers, HEC runs another program with a leading fashion designer – in 2011 it launched one with Kering, a clothing and accessories company.

One of the first European schools to cater for fashionistas was ESSEC Business School, also of France. Its International Luxury Brand Management MBA graduates students into careers with prestige luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Lancôme.

Charles Bell, a graduate of the course, said that his MBA is a signature in the luxury sector. “It has been a great business card to leverage,” added Charles, who landed a job at LVMH (Louis Vuitton) after a three-month summer MBA internship.

Outside of the Continent, some American business schools are also embracing the designer sensation. New York is seen as the US’s key fashion capital and one of its top resident business schools, NYU Stern, offers MBA students workshops with the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

These MBA students consult on finance, product market strategies and business plans – three areas which the BFC’s report noted as crucial for designers’ success.

Back across the Atlantic, Rebekah Shriver, a graduate of ESSEC’s luxury-focused MBA program, is enthralled by the sector.

“The combination of business and creativity is what separates the luxury industry,” said Rebekah. “You have to be able to work closely with creative people, and for me this is a challenging and exciting prospect.” 

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