6 Tips for MBAs Trying to Break into the Fashion Business

As a new university term begins, BoF’s editor-in-chief Imran Amed outlines 6 important pieces of advice for MBAs trying to break into the fashion industry.

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LONDON, United Kingdom — One of the questions I get asked the most is “As an MBA, how can I break into the fashion business?”

When I first started exploring opportunities in the fashion industry after years of working in management consulting, the prospects looked pretty bleak.

Most of the time, people would say, “Listen, you seem like a really nice, smart guy, but I’m really not sure there is anything for you,” or “We don’t really hire MBAs” or “we don’t need business strategists.”

When I’d meet the odd MBA or former consultant or banker who had managed to make the transition themselves, they’d say something like, “You know, it’s really just about luck, and being in the right place at the right time.”

It wasn’t the message I wanted to hear, but still a sign that this was not going to be an easy nut to crack and I would have to doggedly keep trying to find something that would click.

Over the last decade, as the fashion industry has become more professionalised, the industry has been more welcoming to MBAs. Many, like me, have entered the industry through entrepreneurial ventures and advisory work. But as jobs in fashion are so sought after, it remains very competitive indeed to break in.

If you want to work in fashion, you need to understand everything about the industry, get to know the people who work in it, and identify the areas which are the best fit for you and your skills.

Here are some of the lessons I have learned along my own journey.

1. Be as informed as possible about the industry

I remember scheduling a call with an alumna from Harvard Business School (my alma mater) who was working at Ralph Lauren. In our informational interview, she turned the tables on me and asked, ‘So, where do you think you’d fit into the industry?”

The truth is, I had no idea. I didn’t know very much about the fashion industry and was still seeing it through the lens of a consumer, albeit a more informed one. My takeaway: make sure you understand the various roles that exist in a fashion company, the various steps of the fashion value chain, and have a good understanding of where your skills may be appreciated along each step.

Alas, there was no website like The Business of Fashion back then, where I could immerse myself in the real behind the scenes of the fashion industry, so I had to make an even greater effort to scour the Internet for content and read everything I could find.

Today, there is much more information available, but there is also a lot more to keep on top of as the industry is undergoing a period of great change. Make it your obsession to stay on top everything, every day. If you are truly interested in fashion, then this should be a pleasure, not a chore.

2. Build industry relationships — and nurture them

Over time, I have learned that fashion is a relationship-driven industry, a community of people who are all connected in some way or another. This means that everybody you meet will know somebody else you should meet.

When I was first exploring fashion, I met with everybody I could possibly convince to take 30 minutes out of their schedule — from senior fashion executives and young designers to merchandisers, wholesale agents and industry veterans — and did much more listening than talking.

Some of my best teachers have been the friends I have made from across the industry. And as we share the same interests, we learn from each other. More than anything else, this has been the most important resource of all in terms of learning about how the industry works and a great support network for me as my own fashion career has developed.

3. Make an effort to understand the creative side of fashion

Fashion is a creative business. Without the creativity of designers, we would have nothing to sell. Without the business side, designers would have no way of sustaining themselves or their creativity.

When I meet MBAs who want to break into the industry today, I usually ask them who their favourite designers are. The truly passionate and well prepared individuals are the ones who see and can talk about the creative and the business sides of fashion as intertwined.

If someone can’t answer a simple question about their favourite designers in an informed and well-thought out manner, then I know immediately that their interest in fashion is only a cursory one. And the truth is that in order to break into this business, you will need to live and breathe it because it is of genuine interest to you — not just the glossy, fun parts, but also the behind-the-scenes machinations that make the industry tick.

4. Understand where the market is moving

Over the past ten years, fashion and luxury have been completely upended by the digital revolution. New markets have emerged in Brazil, Russia, India, China and beyond. And, consumers have become more and more attuned to issues like sustainability and ethics.

Anytime there is a movement in a market sector, new opportunities emerge for people who are smart enough to spot them in advance.

Do you speak Mandarin? Do you have a background in computer science or technology? Learning how to position yourself amidst the forces that are reshaping the industry will help you to better communicate what you can offer to the industry.

As Wayne Gretzky, the star hockey player once said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

5. Consider interning with a young fashion business

As an MBA, the skills and expertise you can offer could be very valuable to a smaller fashion business that needs professional management.

What’s more, working with a smaller company will enable you to see more dimensions of the business. If you intern at a big company, the chances are you will only see one small slice of what is a very complex, global industry.

In a small business, you will be able to more easily see how all the parts fit together, and where the best future opportunities for you may lie.

6. Be patient

The time that elapsed between my first meeting with a fashion industry professional and my becoming a bonafide fashion professional myself was more than two years. Making career transitions takes time. Getting smart on the industry takes time. Meeting the right people takes time.

So, stick with it. If you are truly committed to working in fashion, it will happen because you will create the right circumstances for you to make your mark.

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  1. Let’s not forget the most important one, willing and financially capable of working for 6 months at an unpaid internship in an expensive city such as NYC, Paris, London, etc. Keep in mind, this is after years of schooling and hoping your student loan payments will not immediately kick in after graduation.

    Joshua Miller from Vista, CA, United States
  2. Great summary! If I could add one additional point to nurturing relationships, I found a few mentors in the industry who generously agreed to take me under their wings, and help me navigate the industry and understand better the various roles I could play. Today those mentors are now among my closest friends and even advisors to my jewelry business. I cannot underestimate the value of this mentorship in helping me pursue my passion for jewelry and find opportunities where I could live this passion every day.

    Zameer Kassam from New York, NY, United States
  3. In regards to an internship, as a student who has done a 2.5 month completely unpaid internship and was “let go” after asking too many question about a paying position, I would have to say that never again am I going to work for free. I am finishing up my AA in Fashion Design, and have recently decided to pursue a BA in Intl Business Marketing. I am not going to waste my time looking for internships in an industry where wannabe fashion designers far outnumber the business professionals. I am blessed with design talents as well as experience in the professional field. My advice would be to go where you are needed. With the emerging market for wearable products, I have my eye on both the tech and fashion industries. I will work on my business skills and when it’s time to start my own fashion brand, I’m sure I will be more than prepared for both the design and business aspects of a luxury brand owner.

    Vitalina Pavlovna from Ontario, CA, United States
  4. Great article, but does anyone have any advice for people who are currently working in fashion/retail but considering MBA in order to further develop strategic skills and business accumen before returning to work in fashion? Since it’s not a requirement or prerequisite for the fashion industry, is it something that’s worth the time and money pursuing?

    Sara Galvez from Shuwaikh, Al ‘Āşimah, Kuwait
  5. Great article Imran! And what about when designers are looking for an MBA to partner with?

    Maia Bergman from United Kingdom
  6. This was my experience exactly, when attempting to break into fashion, in 2001 after 10 years of corporate retail marketing experience & an MBA. I liken it to breaking into any new field, however I found that fashion is very insular and also hesitant to trust outside industry experience. I was receiving offers to intern, but that doesn’t pay the rent.

    My luck came from networking. I had coffee dates with anyone and everyone, and always asked for two other names. I also attended trade shows to learn. Through a 9 month process, I figured out what I wanted to do, where I felt I fit and launched a successful wholesale business out of it.

    My post-graduate year in NYC was tough, no doubt. But NYC is tough, the fashion industry is tough. This article offers great ideas and tips how to get inside from the outside.

    Keep on!

    Gretchen Harnick from Astoria, NY, United States
  7. Love this, great article, just pretty much assured me I’m on great path!

    Sha'Nesha Taylor from Ypsilanti, MI, United States
  8. Thanks for sharing tho article. I am currently studying global luxury management in the south of France and while I’m obtaining a MSc in Global Luxury Management and not an MBA, I am hoping to transition into the luxury fashion industry. I’ve found that this industry is heavily relationship based. In the past, this industry didn’t rely on education but more so experience. The traction that I’ve gotten is from meeting people and to constantly talk about my interest/passion for the industry, which gets people interested in m career path. Please continue to produce pieces along these lines. Very helpful!

    Marquelle Turner from Fontenay-sous-bois, Île-de-France, France
  9. A very good initiative to discuss this topic -as the transformation of the fashion and luxury goods industry creates the need for a change in recruiting policy. A higher amount of professionalization means accepting someone with an outsider view, who may have seen best practices elsewhere.

    The difficulty is bridging the gap between professionalization and culture. An HR person once told me that they look for bright individuals yes, but who understand the specificities and emotionality of the business and fit into a grown and unique culture.
    Speaking of the various roles the industry has to offer, some of them are clearly more difficult to enter without prior experience in the luxury goods industry.
    Then I do have the feeling that the dimensions you mention above, weigh differently from context, role and country.

    The points you mention are indeed applicable to ANY industry. A follow.up article that goes more into depth could be of great value.

    Tana-Maria Schächtele from Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  10. Thank you once again for another great article Imran! I’m currently studying marketing and I’ve already lost count of the number of people telling me they want to work in the fashion industry yet when I ask them what’s their favorite designer their minds go blank. The only answer I get is that they want a really nice job at a famous company that pays well. Point #3 it’s so true and basic, and yet so many people get lost thinking about all the glitz, glamour and parties that happen once you’ve been working non-stop.

    I’m really glad you created this website. I think it brings a reality check to everyone who aspires to or currently works in the fashion industry as well as providing us with those inside notes on fashion we couldn’t get before.

    Damjan Znidarsic from Miami, FL, United States
  11. Thanks for this great article Imran. I personnaly used to work in the fashion industry (when I had the chance to meet you btw) and then I moved to the consulting side to learn from other industries. Now that I am willing to move back to fashion, I find it very difficult to break into it as people seem not eager to learn from MBAs and consultants and only count on industry experience. Maybe American brands are more opened to value other skills than traditional European brands. Hopes it will change soon…

    Tatiana Demaire from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  12. As someone who has always worked in fashion, and studied my Ba (Hons) at London College of Fashion, I wonder if there is an angle available to reverse this article- ‘Tips for fashion professionals applying to MBAs and breaking into the business world’.

    An MBA qualification, for many including myself, is seen as a route from a career in fashion merchandising and product strategy into an executive position within a fashion company.

    How seriously would you be taken when applying for an MBA with a fashion qualification, versus those who have come from prestigious business schools.

    Just a thought related to this great article.

    Nathan Byron from Italy
  13. the article is very relevant but i also agree with the Joshua’s comment (first comment). I have tried to make the transition from corporate into the fashion industry (and am still trying) – the industry is very relationship based – a lot of the jobs do not see the light of day on the interenet or event through recruiters because it is all done through word of mouth. I did an unpaid internship which i really enjoyed but had to leave because i could no longer support myself without a steady salary – but once you are in, the opportunities will present themselves. The only obstacle being money – the jobs are not well paid and if you are of a certain age and had a well paid job the transition is extremely difficult because one gets used to a certain lifestyle. This is only made worse by the fact that often in the industry you are surrounded by people for who money is not an issue. My advice would be to seek a ‘horizontal move’ across from what you are currently doing and not trying to enter the industry at the very bottom of the food chain hoping to work up to the top. I am very grateful for my experience and have not given up on the industry but having been at the bottom makes you look at things a bit differently.

    Liya Dashkina from London, London, United Kingdom