Business Students Look to France for an Education in Luxury

Francois Nascimbeni, AFP, for The Chronicle

Stephen Charters, professor of Champagne management at the Reims Management School, in vineyards in Rilly la Montagne.
October 25, 2010

As a foreign-exchange broker working in Japan, Michael McCorkle used to covet the luxury-brand clothing that his clients wore but that didn't fit on his American-size body.

When the recession hit Japan in the fall of 2008, his company went belly-up and he found a new outlet for his luxury lust. He moved to France and entered an 11-month M.B.A. in international luxury-brand management at Essec Business School, outside Paris.

"I figured life was handing me an opportunity in the guise of a recession," says Mr. McCorkle, who graduated in May and has been interviewing for jobs in menswear in Japan, London, and San Francisco.

Luxury might seem like a risky choice at a time when even well-heeled consumers are tightening their Gucci belts. But academic programs like the one at Essec are thriving in France, where students from around the world are studying the finer points of marketing champagne, designer watches, haute couture, and fancy cars. Applications are up at some programs, and new programs have opened within the last two years.

Buoyed by healthy sales in Asia and other emerging markets, luxury brands are recovering from the downward spiral of the last few years, industry experts say. And wealthy consumers who were embarrassed to be seen making extravagant purchases a few years ago while others were struggling to pay their bills seem to be getting over it.

"They've forgotten about luxury shame," says Denis Morriset, executive director of Essec's luxury-brand M.B.A.

The program introduces students to the big names in luxury through guest lectures, case studies, and internships. "Even in the U.S., which is far from our base, we know Coach, Estée Lauder, Tiffany, and Calvin Klein, and they hire our students," says Mr. Morriset.

Essec recruiters interviewed 25 candidates from the United States in New York this year, up from 15 last year. Many of the students are American-born Chinese students who hope to work in booming Asian markets.

About 30 percent of the 40 to 45 students in each class are American, 30 percent are from Europe, and 40 percent are Asian. During a recent class on the Cergy-Pontoise campus, just northwest of Paris, Mr. Morriset introduces students to the world of selling luxury goods.

"Luxury retail is not just about functionality. It's also about selling the dream," says Mr. Morriset, whose résumé includes executive positions at Polo Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.

He asks students to comment on a slide showing a crowd of eager Chinese customers shouting and shoving their way toward a counter where a saleswoman is holding up Louis Vuitton handbags.

One student finds the scene unbecoming of a luxury store. "It's worse than H&M or the Gap," he sniffs.

Mr. Morriset urges students to look at the faces of the customers. "Look how excited and happy they are."

The Lure of Luxury

Mr. McCorkle came to Essec a decade after receiving his undergraduate degree in the United States. He majored in international relations at the University of Texas at Austin before taking a job in financial services in Japan. "That was at the peak of the bubble economy, and luxury was a way of life over there. Everyone was always talking about which watch they bought or which designer they wore," he says.

Mr. McCorkle had toyed with the idea of a career in luxury goods for more than a decade before losing his job in Japan. "I was 42, and it was now or never," he says. "I expected luxury to be adversely affected by the recession, but I didn't think the situation would last forever."

Americans are not the only students attracted to the programs. Abdoul Aziz Niasse, who earned a master's degree in luxury goods and services this year from the International University of Monaco, grew up in Senegal. He graduated from Northeastern University in 2006 with an economics degree.

Jet-setting and luxury living are a way of life in his family. "Thanks to my father's diplomatic status, my parents have always appreciated traveling; staying in fancy hotels and buying luxury goods during family vacations," he says. After graduating from the Monaco program, he started a job in Milan as a junior buyer for an Italian luxury menswear brand, Loro Piana.

The Champagne Bubble

Perhaps no product is as associated with a luxurious lifestyle—and with France—as Champagne. And Reims Management School, in the heart of France's Champagne-producing region, offers an M.B.A. with a concentration in wine management. As a sign of the internationalization of such products, an Australian wine connoisseur, Stephen Charters, holds the title of professor of Champagne management at Reims.

Mr. Charters researches and teaches about the cultural and social context of wine and Champagne consumption and the marketing of sparkling wines. The region is dotted with vineyards and wine cellars, and thousands of people there have jobs relating to the Champagne industry.

"While I don't think it's my job to tell them how to market Champagne, if we can help them reflect on where the market is going and how to develop the industry over the next 20 to 30 years, that can help."

The Champagne market has taken a beating in recent years, dropping 20 to 30 percent in many markets, he says. "Some houses saw sales drop up to 80 percent in 2008-9."

Meanwhile, sales in China have grown 40 percent or more a year, while the success of the mining industry in Angola has given Angolans more to toast to, Mr. Charters says.

"Champagne is a drink related to confidence," he says. "It's something you drink when you have something to celebrate. If the economy is doing badly, there's less to celebrate."

His latest research involves the relationship between wine and the place where it is produced. Like Cuban cigars and Vermont maple syrup, authentic Champagne can come from only one place, its marketers point out. "You can make great sparkling wine anywhere, but you can only make wine we know as Champagne here."

Mr. Charters isn't the only foreigner leading efforts to promote French products.

Ewan Ormiston, a Scotsman, directs a master-of-science program in marketing French excellence at Rouen Business School, on a wooded campus an hour north of Paris.

He and his students study how to promote everything France does well, from luxury fashion and watches to high-speed trains, posh hotels, and nuclear power.

Thirty-two students from seven countries are enrolled this year. The 13-month program, which began last year, includes a six-month internship, in which students work with French companies or companies that do business with France.

"As a foreigner living in France, I have the advantage of seeing France semiobjectively," says Mr. Ormiston, who worked for 20 years as a marketing director in Paris's fashion industry and is married to a French woman. "I want to share the French experience I have enjoyed."


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