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.