Fashion and Harvard Business School: Where MBAs and Fashion

by Vault Education Editors | September 21, 2010

  • My Vault

Looks like law students aren't the only ones with fashion on the brain. Page Six Magazine recently reported on a new trend towards fashion careers among MBA students at Harvard Business School. As author Annie Karni puts it, "a clique of stiletto-clad fashionistas are taking over campus." Cue less-than-transcendent Elle Woods references (not that I'm above them--see section titled "WWEWD: What Would Elle Woods Do?" in my article about the Fordham Fashion Law Institute).

Models at the 2010 Fashion Week Jason Wu showBefore discussing the article itself, I should say that I find the idea of focusing your MBA on fashion industry issues significantly less suspect than the idea around which the Fordham Fashion Law Institute was founded (namely, that fashion law is as legitimate a field of law as constitutional or medical law). Rather, I think specializing in business school can make a great deal of sense. Whereas law school trains you to be a lawyer and (pretty much) only a lawyer, business school is much more open-ended in terms of what effect the degree can have on your career. If you're a career-changer, an MBA allows you to segue into that new career. If you intend to stay in the field in which you already have some experience, an MBA will propel you to the next level, be that upper management or owning your own company. And if either of these plans involve the fashion industry, it would be wise to focus your business education on relevant subject matter. The only way specializing in a particular field doesn't make sense is if you're using business school to feel out your options. So, if you want to work within the fashion industry, by all means spend some of your time in business school developing those skills. General business savvy and knowledge are no doubt also important, but it's not like you can specialize in fashion anyway (or at least, not yet). The point is, I'm totally on board with the HBS fashion set.

But I'm not on board with how Annie Karni describes the women who engage in this trend. If you got into HBS, you're either very smart, immensely capable, or both. But instead of noting the intelligence or capability of these women, Karni focuses ad nauseum on how attractive and fashionable they are. I can excuse the latter on the basis that wearing nice clothes lends a level of legitimacy if your field is fashion, just as eating at good restaurants lends legitimacy to a chef. But is this seriously necessary as an opening paragraph?

When Olga Vidisheva, a 25-year-old Russian model with piercing green eyes and a 24-inch waist, struts into class, her fellow students at Harvard Business School snap up from their laptops. The 5-foot-8 stunner, who loves labels like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, stands out in a sea of crew-cut, khaki-wearing nerds.

Do I really need to know dear Vidisheva's height and waist size? Do we really need to succumb to the stereotype that all HBS students are "crew-cut, khaki-wearing nerds"? Does it not strike anyone else that only men can be described as "crew-cut," painting a picture of one pretty woman wading through a sea of bespectacled men? Where are the women without 24-inch waists and an interest in fashion?

If this were a one-off comment meant to draw the readers in, I'd get it. It would feel a little cheap (especially when the picture of Olga Vidisheva accompanying the articles pretty much makes the point all on its own), but I would have probably let it slide. But then, just two paragraphs later, she's at it again. "With their perfectly blow-dried locks and lip-glossed smiles," Karni writes, "These women lend a new glamour to the fusty business school, famed for churning out financial eggheads like Michael Bloomberg, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and ex-Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain." Again with the women defined only by their looks; again with the bespectacled (or, in this case, egg-headed) but shockingly successful men. As though women couldn't be "financial eggheads." Take Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo U.S. and No. 2 on Forbes' 2009 list of the 100 Most Powerful Women; Sally Krawcheck, Bank of America's head of global wealth management; Brenda Barnes, chairman and CEO of Sara Lee; Meg Whitman, former president and CEO of eBay and current California governor candidate; and Ann Livermore, executive vice president of the technology solutions group at Hewlette-Packard for example. All of these "financial eggheads" have MBAs, too.

Maybe I should be more forgiving. I will say that Karni makes at least one valid and valuable point: when it comes to tip-top MBA programs and a built-in alumni network, Harvard is one of the best business schools for those inclined to explore a career in fashion.

"Stanford's too small, Kellogg [at Northwestern] is too far from any fashion hub and Wharton has such a focus on finance that I don't know if you'd find enough people interested in retail," says Alexandra Nelson, class of 2010, a pretty blonde from the Midwest. "Harvard Business School is becoming the place for fashion."

As Karni points out, Gilt Groupe and Rent the Runway, two pretty innovative fashion companies, are both the brain-children of recent Harvard grads. A new site called FashionStake, which "allows customers to invest directly in a designer or pre-order items at a 40 percent discount" was also launched by HBS students earlier this month. In the budding world of fashion-related internet start-ups, you really couldn't ask for a more pedigreed group.

Seriously, though: "a pretty blonde from the Midwest"? Cool it, lady.

--Written by Madison Priest

Filed Under: Education

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