Followers of fashion struggle to break into luxury

Specialist MBA courses tailored to the sector are risky — getting a job is tough
Chloé's 2017 spring/summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show, Paris © AFP

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New York City is used to setting trends. But when NYU Stern School of Management announced a specialist one-year MBA in luxury and fashion this month, it was following rather than leading the crowd.

Specialist masters courses and MBA programmes focused on fashion are in vogue. Dozens of business schools around the world offer teaching and support for those who want to progress in or switch to a career in fashion.

Among them are institutions in the FT rankings of top business schools, including HEC Paris, London Business School, Politecnico di Milano School of Management and EMLyon.

However, some question whether a specialist MBA is the best option. The fashion industry does not visit school campuses in the hunt for talent, and pay compares poorly with traditional MBA employers, such as banks and consultancies. Median pay for those securing jobs in consultancies stands at $140,000, while for those working in the fashion industry it is $95,000, according to Transparent Career, a US employment service that specialises in compiling actual starting salaries.

Even schools that emphasise support for students hoping to work for multinational luxury brands admit that only a small percentage will be able to take the necessary electives, and even fewer will secure jobs in the sector after graduation.

LBS provides mentoring to MBA students through its partnership with Walpole, a trade group of 170 British luxury brands, but only for 12 candidates selected from its annual intake of 430 students. The scheme was launched in 2013. Just 24 of its graduates now work in fashion, according to Fiona Allsop, MBA programme manager at LBS.

Success requires staying power. “Fashion is one of those industries where you have to be really passionate about working in it to succeed,” she says.

It has proved hard for those students seeking senior jobs to find work, according to Kevin Marvinac, Transparent Career’s co-founder. “Obtaining a job as an MBA at companies that don’t have robust on-campus recruiting policies is always more difficult,” he says.

Stern is aware of the comparatively low return on investment for MBA graduates who do manage to secure fashion industry jobs. It proposes to charge $96,000 for its specialist fashion MBA, compared with $138,000 for its full-time programme.

Of the 352 Stern MBA students seeking employment after graduation last year, just over 3 per cent received offers in the retail, luxury or fashion sectors, according to Jeff Carr, director of Stern’s Fashion Lab — the specialist course teaching centre.

The luxury and fashion MBA is likely to be a niche choice, Mr Carr concedes. “We are looking to start with 20 students,” he says. “If in a few years I can bring in 60 who are passionate about the fashion industry and get them into this business that would be an absolute qualified success.”

India-born HEC alumna Bhavna Suresh understands the risks of trying to break into the fashion industry. The 29-year-old mechanical engineering graduate applied to the Paris school’s MBA course in order to switch careers. Fashion seemed a good market and HEC had industry connections. Six months into the two-year course, Ms Suresh co-founded online clothing rental service StyleBank, with support from tutors and classmates. But the venture lasted less than two years before it folded. Ms Suresh went on to make use of her experience as a tech entrepreneur rather than pursue another fashion career. She was hired by Rocket Internet, the Berlin-based start-up group.

Her HEC tutors warned about the “shortcomings” of the fashion sector, such as the difficulty in matching demand and supply for garments and the risk of dead inventory, Ms Suresh says.

Alumni networks and partnerships are often the best ways to help graduates move into the fashion industry. Katherine Wadsworth arrived on the MBA course at LBS having worked as a consultant and investment manager. She left as a senior manager at Farfetch, the London-based online luxury retailer. LBS opened doors to internships with the fashion label Emilia Wickstead and the retailer Harvey Nichols.

“It gave me a language with which to converse across business lines [at Farfetch],” she says. “People management is one of the skills learnt on the MBA that I use daily.”

Classmates were interested in moving into fashion, but they were a “small subset” of the group, according to Ms Wadsworth. Of those, barely three in 10 are now working in fashion.

But some do make it. Andrew Tudor, a sales planning manager at French fashion house Chloé, was an accountant at KPMG Canada when he was accepted on to the MBA programme at HEC Paris. He admits that he knew his ambition might not work out so he took a generalist course.

“It was a case of let’s see what you can do with the MBA. And if doesn’t work out maybe look at consultancy,” he says.

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