Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Year In Fashion issue 12/11/2007

NEW YORK — Students aspiring to work in the fashion industry need to realize they must temper creativity with commerce — though they don’t need an M.B.A. to do it.

This was among the advice industry leaders gave more than 100 college students at the Fashion Institute of Technology last week as part of the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund roundtable.

Panelists included Kenneth Cole, Cynthia Rowley, Mervyns chief executive officer Rick Leto, Saks Fifth Avenue vice president and women’s fashion director Michael Fink and Nylon editor in chief Marvin Scott Jarrett.

“To me, the balance of art and commerce is the most important thing to keep in mind,” Rowley said. “As much as we like to think fashion is a high art form, we have to sell something to continue to create.”

Rowley, who hinted she had “something coming up soon,” used her Target line and her upcoming fragrance with Avon as examples of “something totally separate from the art,” partly because “the bigger the volume, the fewer risks you can take.”

Tim Gunn moderated the event, and FIT president Joyce Brown and Brad Miller, global commercial director of Dow Fiber Solutions, introduced the panelists to the audience of YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund scholars, as well as fashion students from FIT, Parsons The New School for Design, LIM College and Pratt Institute.

When a student asked what the panelists look for in a new hire, Leto said intelligence, leadership and creativity. “A blend of business skills and creative skills is the formula for success,” he added.

But business sense needn’t come from a business degree, according to the panelists. One student, considering getting an M.B.A., asked what a business degree gets you in the fashion industry. “An interview,” Cole said. Fink added, “An M.B.A. is neither negative nor positive.”

Leto recommended students entering the industry work for a designer before starting in the growing business that is private label. “Going straight to a retailer, you may lose the experience you can gain working with a designer,” the Mervyns ceo noted.

Rowley also recommended students pick a mentor with whom to work for a year before going out on their own.

This story first appeared in the December 11, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

And don’t forget the importance of being a visionary. “Nobody needs what they have,” Cole said. “I look in my closet every morning and see what isn’t there, then I go to work and make it. The ability to see what’s not there creates a reason to exist.”

YMA is honoring both Cole and Leto with its AMY Award at its YMA Geoffrey Beene Fashion Scholarship Dinner on Jan. 9.