Hip Hop Comes To Business School

When you imagine a luxury-focused MBA based in Paris, your mind’s eye is probably filled with the sorts of images you see on perfume ads; women in flowing Dior ballgowns descending staircases, or beautiful people in shades lounging about on yachts or pouting as they brandish expensive handbags in front of the Louvre. On the luxury track of the Global MBA at ESSEC Business School, a renowned French player in business education, they teach their students about the storied brands of Old Europe, of course. But this year, a new angle has been added: the influence of hip-hop on the luxury industry.

The classes are run by The Hopenclass, a non-profit which launched during the pandemic, in April 2020, and which describes itself as a “cultural and creative space to (un)learn” which stands “at the intersection of Culture and Academia”. In practice this means that they organize “talks, courses, and workshops complement traditional education by challenging the status quo”, which focus on “emotional intelligence and soft skills over academic excellence and aims to “tackle thought-provoking topics and feature voices academia is missing out on.”

The course on luxury and hip-hop, called ‘Sound, Status and Style: Unveiling the Mutual Influence of Hip Hop and Luxury’ is curated by Sissi Johnson, an academic and consultant who has worked with brands including LVMH, Kering, and Nespresso.


Sissi Johnson teaches the new ESSEC course on hip hop

Johnson points out that luxury and hip-hop have a long, symbiotic relationships. Brands like Gucci get namechecked endlessly in songs; Lil Kim has been wearing (lots of) Chanel since the 1990s; Jay-Z recently sold half of his champagne brand, Armand de Brignac, to Moët Hennessy; and Harlem designer Dapper Dan went from selling clothes which used the logos of luxury brands in New York in the 1980s, to seeing Gucci release a version of one of his designs and even released a line of menswear in collaboration with the Italian brand in 2017. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. These days, the world of luxury is not all about Paris, London and Milan. As global brands appeal to people in all parts of the world, they tap into the popularity of one of America’s greatest exports. In short, any self-respecting MBA who wants to work in the world of luxury needs to know the way hip-hop has used and in turn influenced the big brands.

The first class in ESSEC’s program introduced students to the basics of hip-hop, its history and cultural influence. “We wanted to make sure that students understand the essentials and the fundamentals of hip-hop before we even start talking about luxury,” says Sissi. To do that, in its first class The Hopenclass enlisted the help of Rocky Bucano, executive director of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in New York City, which opened in 2019. “He was around when hip-hop was created years ago, and he’s from the Bronx where hip-hop was born,” explains Johnson.

ESSEC and the Hopenclass have, in a way, been helped by the pandemic and the rise of remote teaching, because it has meant that speakers like Bucano have been able to join the class. When the expectation was that speakers appear in person, it probably wouldn’t have been possible (or economical) to fly him to Paris for a session. Zoom, though, means that he only has to spare a couple of hours of his time, and enrich the experience of a handful of students thousands of miles away.


The second class in the series was about sneaker culture. “I feel like sneakers are like the new stilettos, and almost more so in the pandemic,” says Johnson. “Even if you’re fabulous, you want to be comfortable.” Again, a top-notch speaker was invited — Sean Williams, a famous New York sneaker collector and expert, and the host of a podcast called Obsessive Sneaker Disorder. Among the topics discussed were sneaker culture at LVMH, including the influence of American designer and DJ Virgil Abloh, who became artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear collection in 2018, and the “problematic” designs of another American, Jeremy Scott, who is creative director of Italian fashion house Moschino and the designer of some eye-catching sneakers. In a nod to the global spread of sneaker fashion, the class also explained how a particular brand are used as a signal in Afghanistan for Taliban members to recognize each other.

Future classes will cover other parts of the luxury world, such as perfumes and cosmetics (“An Overview of the Women in Hip Hop then and now and their influence on Beauty: From Missy to Fenty”), Luxury Automobiles (“Whippin’ and Pulling Up: How Hip Hop impacts the global ‘nouveau riche’ millennial consumer interest in luxury cars”) and Wines & Spirits (“Hip, Hop, Hurray: Reshaping the Culture of Celebration”). All will feature special guests, who ESSEC won’t reveal just yet.

The course has clearly hit a nerve. ESSEC has 27 students currently taking the Luxury Brand Management stream of its MBA, and 18 signed up for the Luxury in Hip-Hip course, which consists of seven sessions spread over 22 hours, even though they get no credits for it. A vote of confidence has also come from outside campus; ESSEC say that employees from luxury brands have been coming along to the sessions. We hear that they were also joined by academics from other Paris business schools. Recently graduated students from ESSEC’s executive education programs have expressed an interest in attending future classes. ESSEC says that it is keen to run the course again next year, and it is even considering adding hip-hop to its Executive MBA.


What do the students make of it all? Ana Nocon, a Polish MBA on ESSEC’s luxury track, has been working in the fashion industry for 16 years, first as a model and later in production and PR, moving to China in 2012 to work as a model agent. “I’m loving it, she says. “Obviously, we know that there’s a lot of connection with hip hop and luxury, especially in recent years, and a lot of us were very curious about the course.” The structure of the classes – which are run in a very collaborative, interactive style without slides or the trappings of traditional pedagogy – was appealing and chimed the iconoclastic nature of the subject. “After the first class we were really taken aback because they invited some really great speakers. I mean, we knew that luxury and hip-hop are connected but not to this extent. It was eye-opening, and really entertaining,” Nocon adds.

The diversity of the class also deepened the experience for all concerned. “The cultural perspectives were really interesting, for example people from China and India were able to talk about sneaker cultures I didn’t know about, and were able to fill in gaps that we didn’t even know we had,” says Nocon. Having people come into the class who are potential employers is also reassuring. Overall, the classes have been a hit. “I think this should be the future of business education classes,” says Nocon. “Thinking outside of the box and not just sticking with the traditional, looking around and seeing things that are actually happening in the world, but which nobody has thought of as an academic path yet.”

Now that could be a trend worth following.


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