Meet The Fashion-Forward MBAs

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Italian student Alessandra Basso has “fashion in her DNA.” So after a six-year career in communications and marketing for architecture and interior design firms, she set her sights on breaking into high-end apparel. But rather than signing up for design school or a textiles degree, she enrolled in London Business School in September 2012.

From luxury-retail concentrations to internships with high-street brands, a growing number of MBA students like Basso are leveraging a business degree to launch fashion-focused careers. And the market is ready for them. In 2013, the number of MBA jobs in retail jumped 28%, according to a survey by QS TopMBA.com. It should come as no surprise that a business degree is gaining popularity in a global apparel industry valued at $1.7 trillion in 2011. The U.S. fashion industry alone reported $284 billion in retail sales in 2012. It doesn’t take an MBA to know that’s big business.

Alessandra Basso is a London Business School MBA

Alessandra Basso is a London Business School MBA

Business schools have met rising demand among both students and employers with programs, clubs, and concentrations. Paris’ International Institute of Management and Kent State University’s College of Business Administration offer fashion concentrations in their MBA programs. Others, such as London Business School (LBS) and New York University’s Stern School of Business run luxury retail programs, which feed graduates to employers such as Chanel, Coach, and Cole Haan.

LBS launched its Luxury Management Program last October. The application-only initiative pairs students with mentor executives and hosts lectures by industry heavyweights ranging from Michael Ward, managing director of Harrods, to Jonathan Ackeroyd, president and CEO of Alexander McQueen. The program received some 100 applications in its first year and accepted 12 students – the school plans to gradually add more spots over the next few years, according to Gareth Howells, executive director of MBA programs at LBS.

While some designers may balk at the idea of boiling their creative work down to a commercial enterprise, understanding the nuts and bolts of business is essential, Howells says. “In the fashion and luxury industries, a lot of people don’t look at them as businesses, when in reality there are a lot of similarities – it’s about brand, marketing, entrepreneurial spirit, strategy, product design, innovation, and creativity,” he adds. “Sometimes creatives think that business is a dirty word and that the business side may stifle their creativity, but you can keep artistic integrity intact and still have a viable business.”

Basso agrees. During her MBA studies she co-authored a report that investigated strategies for up-and-coming designers to successfully commercialize their businesses. She and her fellow researchers found that “the coexistence of creativity and business” are essential to a thriving fashion brand.

The researchers also advise designers to find a business-savvy partner. Here’s where MBAs fit in, according to Basso. “MBAs can contribute to a fashion business by enabling an environment where creativity is rewarded and where designers are encouraged to take risks while providing the proper business boundaries to monetize creativity and ensure commercial success to it,” she says. In other words, rather than straight-jacketing a designer’s creative impulses, MBAs can keep them on track and in the black.