Italian business students trade high finance for high fashion

Jul 28, 2011

SFU, Milan’s Università Bocconi team up to learn about B.C.’s fashion-design industry

by Brian Morton, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER – So what can Vancouver teach a group of business students from Italy’s fashion capital, Milan, about the fashion industry?

A lot, apparently.

As part of a one-month program jointly offered by Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business and Milan’s Università Bocconi, 31 Italian undergraduate business students are in Vancouver this month … to brush up on B.C.’s fashion scene.

They were joined in the program, which wraps up this week, by six SFU business students.

While students gained an overview of the global fashion industry through an understanding of the strategic, organizational and managerial features of fashion companies — both luxury and mass market — they also studied the fast-growing B.C. fashion scene, where design often intersects with active west coast lifestyles.

“Their overall feeling is that there’s a huge amount of opportunity here,” Rebecca Rytir, Beedie’s international coordinator, said in an interview about the program, called Management of Fashion Companies. “And they were surprised at some of the wonderful designers we have here.”

Rytir said one of the main themes students picked up on was the extent to which B.C.’s outdoor lifestyles dictate local design.

“[They] learned the westcoast lifestyle strongly influences brands. It’s so different from what’s available in Milan.”

She said students studied the full range, from the high-end fashions of Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew to how a “stretchy-pants company like Lululemon can be so successful.”

Rytir said that the business students are passionate about the fashion-design industry and that the program not only offered insight into the North American, Canadian and west-coast fashion-design industries, but compared them to the well-established and enormously successful fashion industry in Europe.

“To have the expertise and enthusiasm of business academics and students from Milan – the home to global-class fashion labels such as Armani, Prada and Versace – makes this summer experience even more vital,” she said.

Students looking at industry analysis, business models, and positioning strategies also studied case histories, heard from guest speakers and visited leading fashion-design companies and retailers — including Vancouver’s Lululemon Athletica, No Limits Sportswear, and Holt Renfrew.

They also participated in a field trip to the Main Street neighbourhood, visiting smaller independent fashion designers and boutiques, including Smoking Lily, Two of Hearts Clothing, twigg & hottie, Eugene Choo, and Front and Company.

Bocconi student Giorgia Bernardi said she was particularly impressed with the support that smaller fashion retailers receive in Vancouver.

“The first thing I noticed was the importance people give in Vancouver to the independent fashion, like the little shops on Main Street. Secondly, fashion here is more for younger people.”

Bernardi noted that in Vancouver, fashion is largely built around sportswear and casual wear, “whereas in Italy, fashion is more related to fashion shows and the more famous brands.

“This is my first time to Canada [and] it opened a new world, a new way for me to see and follow fashion.”

Despite the interest, Vancouver’s fashion industry has suffered during the recession and many stores have been forced to close in recent months.

Some independent fashion retailers on Main Street also had a rough ride; stores that closed their doors included Narcissist and Made.

SFU business student Joel Thom participated in the program and became friends with many of the Bocconi students.

“[The program] was an inspiration and pushed me more into the field of fashion management,” said Thom, who is considering applying for an exchange term to Bocconi University through the international-exchange program.

“I’ve always had a passion for the fashion industry. I find the corporate side of it very interesting.”

Thom said fashion is like a religion for the Italians and that they found B.C.’s approach to fashion completely different.

“Ours is built around comfort and active wear, while theirs is built around the luxury brand.”

The class was co-taught by Stefania Saviolo, a lecturer in strategic management and director of the master in fashion, experience and design management program at Bocconi’s graduate business school, and Erica Corbellini, professor of fashion management at Bocconi.

June Francis, associate professor of marketing at Beedie, also offered a series of guest lectures on how the North American market works, highlighting successful North American and Vancouver brands.

Barbara Duggan, dean of the faculty of design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said there are more than 300 apparel companies in the province.

This article was published in the Tuesday, July 27 edition of the Vancouver Sun. Click here to read the article online.

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