Other MBAs are sidestepping designers altogether and launching their own fashion-focused startups. Take Rent the Runway, a dress rental website, founded by two Harvard MBAs – so far they’ve collected $54.4 million in investment. Stanford MBA startup Bonobos, a men’s clothing e-commerce brand, has raised nearly $80 million. While Wharton MBA-led Warby Parker has raised a tidy $115.5 million for their vintage-inspired eyeglasses.
Sonali Lamba, co-founder of online dress shop Brideside, had no plans to break into the fashion business when she entered Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business in 2010. The former investment consultant did, however, plan to start a company in the wedding industry. “In true Kellogg form, I really approached the industry by seeking out the consumer pain point and where that is the biggest and where you can monetize it,” she says. “I never anticipated selling apparel, much less selling bridesmaids dresses.”
The self-professed fashion-blog junkie found that her MBA opened doors in the new industry. A Kellogg professor facilitated an introduction that led to Brideside’s first designer relationship, Lamba says. More importantly, the B-school experience encouraged Lamba and her Kellogg MBA co-founder, Nicole Staple, to experiment with new business models – the same way designers experiment with new cuts and fabrics. This approach led them to create a boutique bridesmaid shopping experience online.
Not everyone was sold on their idea at first, including dress designers. “You would see some who really nervous about cannibalizing sales from brick-and-mortar stores,” Lamba says. She again credits her MBA for the skills to develop a compelling case for their business model.
Basso and Lamba agree there’s a need for designers and MBAs in a successful fashion business. The two should complement one another like a perfectly paired tie and trousers. “In general, I believe that designers cannot do everything by themselves. Similarly, business people need to partner with creative people to develop successful fashion businesses, so both need each other,” Basso says.
In fact, MBAs have the power to create a few trends of their own, according to Lamba. “I definitely think the creative and design minds will be the ones driving fashion forward, and where the MBA comes in is when we think about the innovations and the opportunities to explore new business channels.”