Although less affected by the crisis than other sectors, fashion has also recently had to adopt adaptive strategies. How has it changed, what are its peculiarities and what challenges must it face today?
My answer will consider this from the viewpoint of two different experiences: the first Italian, with a luxury company like Valentino, the second American, with Tory Burch, which is a company more orientated to affordable luxury. Despite their marked differences, in many respects their approach was the same. What both companies have done was focus on the product, that is paying more attention to quality, to what customers want, and to the structure of the offering. From the selection of suppliers and the search for new talent, to the care for all of the components (creative and materials), all of which are crucial for the success of a product. It is an effort that I have noticed in all segments of the offer. They have also developed an awareness that “specialization” is important: a company needs to focus on what they do best and enhance that aspect. This is not only to optimize the quality/price ratio, but also to give credibility to the products: the companies that have been able to keep this promise are those that have survived the crisis and come out stronger. I have in mind a number of examples of companies that succeeded and companies that did not.
The crisis has also prompted, inevitably, a radical review of cost structures; not so much the product costs, as the cost of doing business, of management: there were many inefficiencies to address, as well as a lack of skills, for example we needed managers who had both general and sector-specific or product-specific skills. Now there are many high-caliber managers with such skills, and this has brought many positive changes to the companies that recruited them.
A further re-orientation that companies have been required to make – not specifically due to the crisis but because of a structural change in buying habits – was a new focus on the customer, another strategic change together with the focus on the product. With customers looking to create a rapport that is always more individual. Companies can now learn more about their customers and their shopping experiences through the development of the digital dimension, and from the increasing use of mobile devices. Before there were fewer customers and you needed to focus on those who were spending more and were closer to the brand. Now that we are out of the crisis – especially in America – and these digital platforms enable a direct and personalized relationship with a large number of people, companies must invest in these new approaches that, in the end, bring customers to the stores or to the e-commerce channels.
Earlier you mentioned to the need for new talent and new skills in this field: how important was your MAFED experience at SDA Bocconi?
When I decided to enroll on the MAFED course many years ago, I was coming from the world of finance and consulting, and I had no specific training in this field, only a great interest in it. The Master was a privileged entry point into the world of fashion: had I approached it as a graduate, I would have had to go through a long path, with few opportunities to learn about managerial best practices. Instead, a post-graduate course like MAFED allowed me to merge the financial and consulting competences that I had already acquired with those specific to the fashion and luxury goods industry. Moreover, it is increasingly important for those who approach this field to have a solid foundation in management: I remember that the program had a decidedly intense focus on general management, which provided a broader context for the industry-specific competences.
From this point of view, does the fact that MAFED is based in Italy, and in particular Milan, the city of fashion and design, have a particular value on the international labor market and for the students’ own professional development in this area?
It has great value for several reasons. The first is almost trivial, because it is difficult to find post-graduate training at the same level in other parts of the world. If we exclude Italy and France, the training available elsewhere in the world is of a much lower level. Another major plus is the proximity to the most important economic areas of the industry. Here in the U.S. there are about a dozen colleges that offer similar training programs, but they are all far from a chain of creation and development, such as Italy’s, and this is a serious drawback.
So contact with leading companies in design and fashion really helps the participants of MAFED to enter or re-launch their careers in this sector?
Definitely. Bocconi, with its historic integration with the business community, acts as a guarantor to the corporate world, assuring that their students – under-graduate and post-graduate – are trained up to the standards required by the industry. But Università Bocconi and SDA Bocconi are not just a bridge to enterprises: the close collaboration between managers, teachers and consultants has contributed to many businesses developing a culture that promotes innovation, an awareness of the value of management education and the need for young talent.
Let’s finish on a personal note: what has MAFED represented to you, on a personal level?
I must say straight away that I am a “recidivist” because I was already a Bocconi graduate. Just this morning I saw on facebook a photo of a friend with her baby, who was celebrating his first birthday. This friend of mine is a girl I met 12 years ago at MAFED. Like her, I am still in touch with a good half of the 40 other people I studied with. Some I will meet with from time to time, and not only for business purposes. With everyone, including those who I see less often, there is a deep bond of affection and esteem. Many have been successful in our industry and for many years, in spite of the diaspora that took us to different countries, there has been an ongoing dialogue and mutual sharing of professional advice that has been very helpful. In short, it was a unique experience from a professional point of view but also personally.
Paolo Riva - Italian