As interest in luxury goods grows once again, sector-related MBAs are seeing a similar bump.
Although by no means immune to recession, it would appear that the luxury goods sector is still a highly resilient one. According to the MasterCard SpendingPulse monitor, luxury sales in the US alone are recording the highest year-on-year sales gain of any sector in the country at nearly 23%, and sales earlier this year were up by more than 15%. This fact has not been lost on potential MBA students from around the globe, with specialist programmes dedicated to the sector reporting increasing levels of applications.
A significant proportion of these applications are almost certainly fuelled by not just the glamour associated with the sector, but the prospect of employment when the usual sources of MBA jobs are still under headcount pressure. “In the last year we’ve seen a marked rise in interest in the sector,” says Professor Valter Lazzari of Italy’s SDA Bocconi, “because luxury brands fare so much better in such conditions than many financial institutions or consulting houses.”
So where should you be aiming to study if you are set on a career within the industry? Perhaps not surprisingly, the great majority of specialist programmes are clustered in the traditional homes of the luxury sector – France and Italy. SDA Bocconi in Milan has several specialised Masters including Fashion, Experience and Design Management, while EMLYON offers a Masters in Luxury Management and Marketing, which combines study in Geneva with exposure to key Asian luxury markets through a semester in Shanghai. Although not technically in France, the International University of Monaco runs a 10-month MBA in Luxury Management at its base in Monte Carlo.
Studying in an environment where fashion and luxury are taken seriously and where the offices of some of the world’s top luxury brands are quite literally just around the corner does seem to pay off. ESSEC, near Paris, says 70% of students on its International Luxury Brands MBA find jobs in the sector through networks generated by the school; the highest proportion – around 28% – enter the fashion and accessories area. SDA Bocconi graduate Paulina Chu, who has worked for both Gucci and Prada, says: “The school’s location in the heart of Italy’s fashion, luxury and design-based industries certainly didn’t hurt my prospects.”
But to get the most out of these programmes, students need to accept they will be as much about number-crunching and organisational skills as rubbing shoulders with designers and catwalk models. After all, many of the managerial challenges a graduate will face after business school may be just as down to earth as in more conventional industries; LVMH, for example, has built a roster of over 50 top brands such as Moet & Chandon and Louis Vuitton through applying the sort of rigorous business principles one would expect in any highly successful corporation. However, students will also need to grasp that there are definitely some facets of the industry that make it a unique place to live and work in.
Jean-Noël Kapferer, marketing professor at HEC Paris, and author of The Luxury Strategy, says the best programmes combine the traditional aspects of business education, such as a solid grounding in accounting, supply chain and marketing, with the luxury sector’s highly individual nature. “You have to break the rules of marketing to build true luxury brands,” he notes.
However, while the placement statistics of schools specialising in luxury brands suggest that their programmes offer opportunities to build a career in the sector, are they the only, or for that matter even the best, route?
LVMH, for example, regularly recruits MBAs into its FuturA programme, a fast-track scheme designed to create the next generation of business leaders. LVMH’s recruitment and development director, Antoine Tirard, says: “We need people who combine an entrepreneurial mindset and an international vision with pragmatic and creative thinking.”
However, the programmes it highlights most strongly as sources of talent are at schools such as London Business School, IMD in Switzerland, Columbia Business School in New York, and HEC, where the generalist model of an MBA programme is still the norm. Other schools have built up strong links to companies operating in the luxury sector, which were originally targeted, not because of this, but because of their commercial success. HHL in Leipzig for example has ties with Porsche, while ESMT in Berlin counts BMW as one of its founders and sponsors.
For potential MBAs with their sights set on the sector the best advice may be to keep thinking outside the box – no matter how luxurious it might appear.