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Working in Fashion with an MBA: Alumna Story

Working in Fashion with an MBA: Alumna Story main image

MBA in fashionFollowing on from our look at how an MBA can prepare managers for the challenges and opportunities of the trillion-dollar fashion industry, we decided to speak to someone who has followed this path to get a better idea of what it’s like to work in the industry – from the inside. After a near decade-long career on Wall Street, Somi Downey enrolled on NYU Stern’s MBA, specializing in luxury marketing, from which she graduated in 2014.

Since graduating she has worked as global merchandising planning manager at Coach. We asked her about what led her to where she is now, what she thinks it takes to succeed, and what the hardest – and most enjoyable – parts of her job are.

What was it that attracted you to working in the fashion industry?

I always loved fashion growing up. As a little girl, I was first enamored with the physical products of fashion – bags, clothes, and accessories. I enjoyed watching runway shows and even took interest in designing. As I got older, I became fascinated with the business of fashion – marketing, branding, operations, finance, and merchandising. I think fashion is truly an industry where art and science intersect.

How would you say the atmosphere and working environment differs in fashion? Or is it more similar to other business environments than one may think?

Before I started to work in the fashion industry, I worked on Wall Street for about a decade on a trading floor. So for me, the biggest difference in atmosphere is that I am surrounded by many more strong women leaders that I had in finance, which has been inspiring.

Similar to the finance industry, the fashion industry is also quantitative and many creative decisions are backed by financial data and analysis. As one would expect of any successful business, numbers mark and determine the scorecard of its performance.  

What does it take to succeed in the fashion industry?

Passion for the industry, an ability to articulate a creative direction or point of view with data, the humility to learn and adaptability to change.

Where do MBA skills really prove their worth in your role – what did you learn that has proved particularly useful?

I would say it’s not one specific class or a particular skillset that one needs to take or master, but the ability to piece together knowledge from several classes and experiences that prepare one for a successful career. While I look many of the fashion/luxury marketing focused classes, I also took a lot of finance classes such as bankruptcy/restructuring & private equity, given that many fashion companies do face financial challenges. Finance classes that sharpen one’s modeling skills are also very helpful. One of the best classes I took at Stern was leadership in organizations, which equipped me with the tools to better understand organizational structures and changes.

Post-graduation, most people get jobs in which he or she will work on a team. Business school forces one to collaborate with others whom one might not want to work with. It’s a really good skill to have because that’s reality!

Fashion is of course a very creative industry – do you find that in your role you are afforded opportunities to be creative?

Absolutely. I have to think creatively all the time. While there is a specific business goal I want to achieve, there are so many different ways to get there. Carving out that path takes creativity and collaboration. And of course, where I sit, I am looking at creative products all the time. Before when I was on Wall Street, I was looking at commodity prices and stocks where it was either cheap or expensive; but now, I am working with bags that people have an emotional connection to. My world is now talking about different color hues, leather materials, and shapes. 

What sorts of challenges are you dealing with day-to-day?

Learning to better influence partners to drive an outcome is not always an easy task. In any large organization, it takes multiple cross functional groups to agree to move an initiative forward. As a new person in the industry and company, I am learning how to navigate different processes and develop relationships.

What are some of the most enjoyable things about your job? Tell us something really cool you’ve been involved with – make us jealous!

It’s exciting to be part of the brand transformation at Coach. This year is the 75th anniversary of Coach and is has been very exciting to see the heritage product line launch in the spring. There is so much history with Coach as American House of Leather, and it’s a privilege to be part of the journey!

What advice would you give to someone looking for a career in the luxury sector?

Stay hungry and be curious. The retail industry, particularly the luxury sector, sometimes does things the way it always has. But by asking why, one can bring a new perspective and suggest a new way of doing something. 

Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is a contributor to and former editor of TopMBA.com. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

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