Career Perspectives: Crispin on Dynamic Fashion

My criterion for the ideal summer job was simple: I wanted an environment that would allow me to explore the psychology underlying consumer decision-making in an operational setting. I quickly discovered that finding a consumer products company in New York City, my self-imposed location constraint, was going to take a little more effort than simply going through the job bank and sending out resumes. I was not a happy camper but I was rather motivated by the challenge.

Numerous cold and warm emails, nearly 60 resumes, two job treks, and a good deal of providence later, I landed an internship at Liz Claiborne International (LCI). Whew! I was very excited about this opportunity as fashion products are the ultimate consumer products. It seemed that the tedious application process had turned out to be worth the effort after all.

LCI is a wholesaler/retailer operating a portfolio of fashion brands put together to optimize the corporation’s ability to respond to changing consumer demands and tastes across multiple geographies, distribution channels and market segments. This portfolio approach is the brainchild of Paul Charron (HBS ’71), the CEO of the company, who during his ten year tenure at Liz Claiborne has revolutionized how large fashion companies here in the United States approach their operational positioning.

I had no idea what to expect of the internship so I was a little taken aback (though like a true HBS trooper I made sure the surprise didn’t register on my face) when, at the beginning of my internship, I was informed that I would be presenting my work to the CEO and senior management at the end of the summer. As it turned out, this was a harbinger of a truly terrific, high visibility and high involvement work experience.

My role was to work with one of the six division presidents and assist in the annual strategic planning exercise. Specifically, I focused on analyzing the division’s internal organization and processes, and I recommended changes that would enable the division to better cope with additional growth. To be able to influence the shaping of an organization was a truly rewarding experience and I was grateful for those RC LEAD classes. That “fluffy” stuff is more important than I thought!

Outside my actual project there were several aspects of the summer internship that I found truly meaningful. One of note was the weekly lunch meetings between the MBA interns and senior corporate management. At these informal lunches, we got to pick the brains of senior management on any and all aspects of the business and corporation. There were only five MBA interns (as the program is new) so this was a unique opportunity to interact directly with the leaders of a Fortune 500 company.

My general impressions of the company and the industry for those thinking of this as a career path: LCI has undergone tremendous changes over the years. The growth in the number of brands and product categories has added a tremendous amount of complexity to the operations. Therefore, in addition to filling traditional functional roles such as in marketing and finance, an HBS MBA graduate with a general management bent can add a lot of value to the corporation by helping to define and shape the organization such that it will be able to handle this complexity in the most efficient manner possible.

That being said, my opinion (and it is only my opinion) is that MBA graduatues joining LCI will have to proactively manage their career as the value of an MBA is not yet as clearly defined and understood at LCI as it is at a McKinsey or a Pepsi or a Procter & Gamble. There is (rightly so) a premium on an understanding of the product and the dynamic nature of its appeal to consumers.

In addition, the dynamic, fast paced nature that characterizes the industry is a factor to consider. This is an industry where new products have to be shipped to stores every month or so. It’s a relentless cycle of designing, product development, manufacturing and selling. The constant challenge is to keep up with the dynamism in trends without losing sight of brand’s essence.

On work-life balance: It gets very busy depending on which functions you work in, especially during market periods, but all in all, it’s pretty darn fantastic.

One final note, for the guys who may be thinking of going into this business, it’s worth noting that you will develop so much more respect for our lady professional colleagues who for the most part have had to work in situations where they are the minority gender.