Of all the industry-leading fashion, beauty, and luxury companies Laura Laufer has had the chance to visit so far in New York City, two stand out. The first was Estée Lauder, where executives explained how the large beauty conglomerate operates all its different houses and businesses, and how they cater to different customer demographics.
The second: Ralph Lauren, where Laufer and her fellow MBAs got to visit the company’s extensive private library — and see and hear the stories behind all the pieces that have ever been worn on the designer’s runway, featured in a catalog, commercial, or advertisement, or donned by a celebrity at a premier, awards show, or festival. The tour included the iconic American flag knit sweater Ralph Lauren launched in 1989, the one photographed for all their original campaigns and imitated by copycats and knockoffs ever since.
“That was a really impactful day for us,” says Laufer, a student in the one-year Fashion & Luxury MBA at New York University’s Stern School of Business. When the program was launched in 2018, the program was an entirely new category of MBA, and Stern remains the first and only U.S. business school to offer an MBA dedicated to the fashion and luxury industry.
“It’s very rare to find a program that gives you such a curated and specific experience and also doesn’t take you out of the industry for so long,” Laufer says.
“When I was looking at MBA programs, it was quite literally the only one that allowed me to get such a focused degree from an esteemed and respected university, and also only have to leave the industry for a year.”
A FIRST-OF-ITS KIND MBA
Along with Stern’s Andre Koo Tech MBA, the Fashion and Luxury MBA was one of two one-year specialized MBA programs launched in 2018 as the school thought more broadly about how it could differentiate itself in a crowded MBA market. Both cut by half the time required to earn the degree, reducing the total cost as well as the opportunity cost for students leaving the workforce. The estimated total cost of the fashion MBA is $160,733 compared to $244,828 for Stern’s traditional two-year program.
Both were also in specialized industries in which the business school has deep-seated industry relationships. Stern has been engaged in the fashion and luxury space for nearly two decades, beginning with the student-led NYU Stern Luxury and Retail Club which formed in 2004. In 2009, it added the specialization to its traditional MBA.
The Fashion & Luxury MBA brings three key distinguishing characteristics to the market, says Bryan Ramos, Stern assistant dean of Experiential & Global Education.
- It’s hyper-focused: “We’re not bringing in students who think they like fashion. We are bringing in students who are laser-focused on careers in the luxury, fashion, and beauty spaces,” he says.
- It’s immersive, hands-on, and experiential from start to finish. “You are not going to sit in class and hear lectures for 33 hours. You’re actually going to work on projects for companies and visit with executives.”
- It’s fast. In one year, “you can come in, be exposed to all these companies, get all the business fundamentals, get all these experiences and meet-ups, and then you can get back to the market quickly.”
And, it’s located in New York City – not only a world center for fashion, beauty, and luxury, but also a front-row seat to an industry forced to adapt to new technologies and business models.
A SMALL, TIGHT-KNIT COHORT
At Stern, the typical scaling number for an MBA cohort is around 60 students. That’s too many bodies when you’re taking a class to a clothing manufacturing floor or headquarters of a luxury brand. The program aims for about 25 students but fewer than 30.
“The whole industry is set up to facilitate a conversation that happens in smaller groups. It goes a little bit with exclusivity as well,” says Thomai Serdari, academic director of Stern’s Fashion & Luxury MBA and clinical professor of marketing.
“From an educational perspective, the small cohort allows the program to be high touch and gives students one-on-one time with these executives that are visiting us and when we’re visiting them.”
Because fashion and luxury is a relationship-based industry, each student is paired with an industry executive from the program’s advisory Fashion and Luxury Council – C-suite executives who know where the market is going. These include execs from companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sergio Rossi, and others. Mentors are paired with students based on their mutual backgrounds and goals, and work with the students throughout the academic year.
“Something that surprised me is their level of curiosity and interest in us as students,” Laufer says. “My mentor, for example, is so eager and excited to help and to guide me. I’ve shared with him my dearest aspirations for my career, and he has followed up and given me such meaningful advice. Having a mentor who has seen the fashion industry evolve has opened my eyes to so many different opportunities and ways of doing business.“
CREATING FEMALE FASHION LEADERS
While frontline workers in the fashion and luxury industry tend to be women, leadership is traditionally male. Women are just now starting to advance to vice presidential suites and beyond, but there is still a gender gap at the very top, Serdari says.
Because the pandemic delayed the start of the May 2020 cohort until January 2021, the program has enrolled four classes so far. Three of those have enrolled 80% or more women, including 87% for the Class of 2023 (see chart below.)
“We’re seeing the (gender) gap closing. It’s unfolding in front of our eyes right now where women are climbing up beyond VP and getting into the executive suite, both in American and European companies,” Serdari says. “That is the main goal for us: to really train the people who have the passion for the industry, but wouldn't have gotten to the C-suite without the formal education.”
‘THEY’RE ALL HIRING FROM OUR CLASSES’
As far as career outcomes, the program’s employment rate three months after graduation has risen from 78% for the first cohort (Class of 2019) to 94.4% for the latest (January of 2022). Total average first-year compensation has increased from $137,350 to $140,463.
“All the American companies that are based in New York City, they’re hiring from our classes. Ralph Lauren has hired tons of people. Estée Lauder, tons of people,” Serdari says. “We have graduates working at startups, in sustainability – which is extremely important in the fashion industry – and students who went to venture capital.”
Sam Romanoff graduated from the MBAs very first class in May 2019. Before the program, he was manager of ecommerce and digital marketing at Pat McGrath Labs, a luxury beauty company. He noticed meetings and in-house conversations that he wasn’t a part of and felt like he didn’t have the background to speak up. He decided to pursue an MBA to broaden his skills.
He chose Stern’s Fashion and Luxury MBA specifically for its accelerated time frame, Stern’s industry network, and its location.
“Nothing can beat New York City in terms of its culture, the brands, and the energy. It is not just an amazing place to go to school, but it is one of the luxury centers of the world. People from all over the world come to NYC for its fashion. Every major brand has an office here and many major brands have their headquarters here. The access to luxury is unlike any other city,” he tells Poets&Quants.
Today, Romanoff is VP of ecommerce and marketing at Temple St. Clair, a fine jewelry brand based in New York City. He manages a team of five. He credits the program with helping him both secure the job and grow it into his current title.
“It was discussed in my interview process and has been integral in my promotions. Now I understand many different parts of the business and am able to converse and be involved in finance, budgeting, supply chain, and other areas outside of my core role. It also has given me the confidence to lead a team,” he says.
“At age 29, I don’t think I would be where I am today without this program, its connections, the knowledge I gained, and the confidence it helped me build.”
A DEEPLY IMMERSIVE PROGRAM, START TO FINISH
The Fashion & Luxury MBA has 52 credits, compared to Stern’s 60 credits for its traditional MBA. It runs 12 months, from May to May. Without a formal internship, it is highly experiential from start to finish.
The fact that Stern has an entire department devoted to experiential learning is a key differentiator – not just to the Fashion & Luxury MBA, but to all Stern MBAs, Serdari says. The school calls it MBA experiential portfolio Stern Solutions, and it includes a suite of company projects and business cases, immersions, and other ways to get hands-on experience in the industry.
“The scale that Bryan (Ramos) and his team brings into the program is the most important part for the Fashion & Luxury MBA. The projects that we do function on two levels: On one hand, you learn how to manage the client, to be a professional, and to think about a new solution. At the same time, you are in a room and presenting to the people who make hiring decisions.”
Similar to the one-year tech MBA, the Fashion & Luxury program begins with foundational Stern MBA courses in leadership, marketing, accounting and strategy. Business cases come from the fashion and luxury industry, and professors invite industry experts to reinforce the content. It also has a fashion and luxury core and a slew of electives offered to all stern MBAs. There are two Stern Solutions projects built in.
Students begin the year with the summer NYC Immersion featuring a curated suite of lectures, speaker visits, and company field trips that highlight trends and disruptions the industry faces. Industry exposure can range from successful startups to established leaders. Romanoff's 2019 class, for example, visited the Lamborghini factory. While he’d worked in the luxury industry for years, he’d never met anyone from the luxury car sector. “It helped me learn more about the client and how they shop, what is important to them, and what other aspects of luxury they value and spend money on. Specifically, the personalization of the cars we saw on the line were beyond what I could imagine, and it made it clear that even buying something that expensive, these clients still want their car to be extra special and personalized to their exact taste,” he says.
The fall has a digital solutions immersion that analyzes how companies interact with customers, manufacture, and structure their operations through a technological lens. In January, students embark on a European immersion to Paris and Italy, studying manufacturing and structures of European luxury brands. (Covid restrictions have prevented the cohort from traveling to Paris the last couple of years, but they hope to return to the full immersion for this class.) Company visits may include Gucci, Bulgari, and other high-profile brands.
Over the course of the program, students are exposed to 30 to 45 different companies – either through site visits, class visits, project work, or one-on-one encounters.
“You can view these experiential classes almost like an accelerator for these students. It would take them probably 10 years in industry to be shepherded around to all these companies,” says Ramos. “They get to talk to senior executives who are telling them not only about the past, but also the present and where those companies are planning to go. They’re hearing it straight from the people that are making the decisions.”
A FRONT-LINE VIEW OF A CHANGING INDUSTRY
For Laufer, one of the biggest advantages of the program has been the network she’s been able to build – both internal and external to Stern.
“It's really rare to have such a curated, specific, and targeted pool of people available at your fingertips in the way that Stern has made such a great alumni network within the fashion industry,” she says.
“Further than that, I think it's really interesting to see the type of talent that have been attracted to this MBA, even though it is so focused. It is just such a high echelon of people. I’ve already learned so much from my peers.”
Even as the fashion industry finds itself in the middle of a seismic change – particularly in environmental sustainability and climate change – the program’s hands-on, high-touch format gives students a front-line view. It also provides real-world experience in dealing with those changes, Laufer says.
“Because we're young professionals, because we all come from different backgrounds, we are impacting the fashion industry in a way that I don't think any of us would have known how to do had we not gotten our MBA. We're getting that foundational business understanding and, with that, we're able to participate in this revolution. I am excited to see what the alumni of the program are able to accomplish in the coming years.”
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.