Material Minded – The Fashion Industry Turns to Business Schools

EM Lyon graduates - new owners of Courrèges

The catwalks and hemlines of Paris and New York are rarely associated with the study of cash flow and net fixed assets so beloved of business schools around the world. And though former supermodel Tyra Banks turned to the Harvard Business School for an executive education course to help with the running of her media empire, the likes of Gucci and Chanel used to be more likely to target wealthy MBA graduates with advertising campaigns for their luxury brands, rather than have them manage the marketing campaigns themselves.

But as with fashion, times change. LVMH and rival luxury and retail group PPR are now considered among the most attractive employers for MBA graduates, as they increasingly look for more hands-on alternatives to jobs in finance and consulting. With fashion houses expanding into lucrative markets in Asia and Latin America, and building an online presence that requires fresh thinking to market their brands, business schools are reporting a marked increase in fashion and retail jobs.

So how can a business education help make sense of a sector whose seasonal collections typically lose money, and a workforce of models who are high maintenance at best? At Courrèges, the French fashion house whose futuristic collections of the early 60s sent shockwaves through the industry, new owners Jacques Bungert and Frédéric Torloting are applying some of the lessons learned at business school to rethink the way to profitability and market share. They studied together at the entrepreneurially minded EM Lyon, and spent several years running their own video production company before sharing the top job at the French office of advertising agency Young and Rubicam.

“The time at EM Lyon gave us a rigorous background in business thinking and managerial know-how that has served us well to run our own business,” they say. “You build the confidence to look at challenges as a source of opportunity, rather than as a stumbling block.” In the case of Courrèges, the pair are looking to revitalise a brand that was the talk of the town when it introduced the mini-skirt to haute couture in 1964 (though supporters of Mary Quant would argue otherwise).

Gone are the expensive spring and autumn fashion shows and big-name designers, and in their place an emphasis on timeless designs from a creative team. They are also focusing resources on the online shopping experience, with followup phone calls and community-building on social media rather than outlets in airports. It appears to be working, with demand from Asia and the launch of a sportswear line for men pushing the company back into the black.

The shift to e-commerce and an ability to measure results on the internet plays well to the analytical side of an MBA education. Though Vivek Agarwal had worked for Citibank on mergers and acquisitions in the oil and gas industry, he used his time during the MBA at the IESE Business School in Barcelona to write a business plan for an online start-up to introduce Indian fashion to the UK. His courses ultimately convinced him to focus on the high end of the designer market, and the launch last year of his company, Strand of Silk. “My years in banking combined with the MBA gave me the discipline to evaluate companies, identify where the cash flow was coming from, and really helped with writing the business plan,” he says.

The MBA also gave him credibility when it came to convincing Indian designers to work with him. “It was clear to them that I was not just doing this as a hobby, but had a serious business background to give the venture a real chance of success.” The fact that Agarwal had studied with classmates from more than 50 countries also gave him an insight into how people make buying decisions based on culture and background. “The multicultural learning environment was invaluable, and brought a lot of structure and insight to our marketing approach. The use of the case-study method at business school means that you are constantly sharing perspectives. We are trying to establish a high-end product with an unknown company, so understanding different behaviours is key.”

The loyalty of gentlemen to their Savile Row tailor was initially a barrier to entry for Patrick Grant when he bought Norton & Sons eight years ago. Sitting in the student lounge at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, he had come across an ad in the Businesses for Sale section of the Financial Times. With a long-held passion for craftsmanship and clothing, the former engineer saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move away from the power and telecoms industry and to revive a struggling bespoke tailor that had been established in 1821 and had made suits for US presidents and European royals.

“When I first visited the shop they were down to one tailor and one part-time cutter. Where previously they were turning out 2,000 suits a year, they were now down to fewer than 100,” he says. With no background in fashion, but buoyed by a background in manufacturing and keen to apply what he’d learned at business school, Grant set about raising money from the bank and restoring the firm to health.

“It didn’t need an MBA to see that the business had lost its focus. Beyond the small amount of tailoring, the firm was also selling guns and offering sporting tours to Africa. I knew we needed to do one thing and do it well, so we went back to hand tailoring. I cherished our small-scale craftsmanship rather than hiding it, and was proud to source everything we did here in Britain.”

Grant sought advice from his professors about writing a coherent business plan and canvassed the opinions of his Executive MBA classmates to better understand his customers. But beyond certain technical skills that have proved useful for managing cash flow and determining company strategy, he feels that his time at business school was the opportunity to spend time thinking rather than just doing. “The MBA was not about teaching you things, but teaching you how to think. Being able to sit down and really think about your business gives you much needed clarity and pays enormous dividends.”

He has also developed a sense of self-belief. “We’ve got a good plan in place, and I’d like to think we’re executing it well. If you don’t have the confidence in yourself you tend to chop and change.” With nine tailors now on board, and exporting to a client base across Europe, North America and Asia, it looks like a new generation of gentlemen agrees.

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