Editorial

They paid $100,000 for a luxury fashion MBA. Was it worth it?

By Adrienne Gaffney
08 Apr 2019

New York University’s Stern School of Business started a fashion and luxury MBA last year, the first top US university to do so. As the students prepare to graduate, we ask if they found the education valuable.

This May, New York University’s Stern School of Business will graduate its first class of fashion and luxury MBA students, making it the only top-tier US business school ever to award such a degree.

For a long time, fashion and luxury goods industry skills were taught on the job. But employers have shifted from relying on homegrown talent to requiring graduate expertise, says candidate Christian Trautwein, who worked at Macy’s, Bonobos and Walmart’s Jet.com before entering the programme. “I was leaving Walmart and it was almost a prerequisite to be able to get into [senior positions],” he says.

The programme

Coursework includes retail strategy, operations, analytics and consumer behaviour. The Stern students also take traditional MBA classes like statistics and accounting, as well as electives around subjects such as digital marketing and consulting. The faculty includes Professor Thomai Serdari, who runs a popular brand consultancy and recently taught a marketing class where students discussed how upscale porcelain maker Wedgwood pioneered an early version of influencer marketing in the 18th century.

Mentorship

Perhaps the biggest draw for the 27 students enrolled in the three-semester programme is the group of industry professionals they network with. Each student is assigned a mentor from an advisory council that includes Stacy Van Praagh, president of the Americas for Alexander McQueen; Nicolas Topiol, chief executive of Christian Lacroix; and Emilie Rubinfeld, president of Carolina Herrera.

Topiol, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School and one of the programme’s creators, feels strongly that the traditional MBA is not quite in line with what fashion companies need. “The students, what they learn and their experiences are a little bit disconnected from the type of profile that luxury companies are recruiting for,” he says.

(The programme differs from other MBAs in that 89 per cent of students are female, compared to 35 per cent at Stern’s regular MBA. Over half previously worked full-time in fashion.)

In addition to teaching a course on licensing, Topiol has advised his mentee about job interviews and her potential career trajectory. At one point, she asked him what he thought about her returning to work at her previous employer. “I said it’s a great company, you should go back but this is the way I would do it and try to use what you’re learning now to position yourself differently,” he recalls. Topiol is now helping her tailor her post-graduate position.

Job placement

While advice and counsel are very much in the realm of the mentor’s responsibilities, Topiol stresses that securing the student a position is not. “If we do have openings then I’m definitely bringing them forward, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “But it’s not my job to find them a position.”

The degree is interesting to fashion recruiters, who have seen hiring managers show a preference for MBA holders, particularly in global marketing positions.

The Stern students will have a head start since they’ve been immersed in how labels manage their brands and tell their stories. They spent a week at the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, where they learned about the legacy of Italian brands, and visited the headquarters of Ferrari and Lamborghini, as well as the fabric mill that supplies Zegna.

“The job market is extremely active and competition is getting greater,” says Alana Yavers, vice president of recruiting and a fashion team leader for 24 Seven, a staffing company that works with companies such as Revlon, Ralph Lauren, LVMH and Kering. “A lot of these companies are looking for a package – what experience have they had, what do they know about the brand, do they fit in the brand.”

Meredith Steinmeyer, also a vice president of recruiting at 24 Seven, believes that fashion clients may find Stern luxury MBA holders more valuable than those with MBAs from other top schools. “Knowing that you want to get into fashion and getting an MBA in fashion and luxury definitely puts you in an advantageous position,” she says.

Students of new MBA programmes don’t typically have access to an extensive alumni network, but Stern says it ensures its fashion and luxury MBA candidates receive the same benefits as its traditional students. The specificity of the degree could also be regarded as a drawback since it requires candidates to commit up front to a career in fashion. The students who spoke to us appeared satisfied with their decision to take the course, though its final value will only be evident after the class rejoins the workforce.

At least one MBA candidate thinks the degree will open new doors. Gina Dai, who worked for two years in the consumer beauty finance division of Coty, says that she doesn’t think she would have been able to switch to the marketing role she’s now targeting without going to Stern and benefiting from the expertise of professors. “I don’t think you can get that kind of learning on the job,” she says.

Many students say they are well along in the interviewing process, with at least one having received an early offer from Amazon.

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