When Christal Agostino was pursuing her MBA a few years ago, she had a deluxe classroom – a Hermès boutique in Paris.
In the rarefied edifice devoted to luxury shopping, the Montreal native had to learn the intricacies of the high-end marketplace. But the focus was not on the legendary brand's crocodile handbags, some costing as much as a car, nor on its famous silk scarves, produced since 1937 and coveted worldwide.
It was on the sales staff, paragons of discretion, and how they interacted with customers of Hermès' pricey goods.
"The way they handled the merchandise – the way they wrapped it and presented it to the customer, walking from behind the counter to hand it to them – was incredibly fascinating to me," Ms. Agostino says. "They were creating a curated experience within the luxury experience. Nothing was done haphazardly."
Ms. Agostino had completed her one-year, full-time MBA at Queen's School of Business in Kingston and was in France at the time to expand her degree to include a specialization in international luxury brand management at École supérieure des sciences économiques et commerciales, better known as ESSEC.
The French business school, in collaboration with LVMH and L'Oréal Luxe, launched the specialization in 1995 to provide the high-end companies with a talent pool from which they could recruit, particularly in developing markets. Queen's became an exchange partner with ESSEC in 2006. So far, about 180 students have gone back and forth between the schools.
"The ESSEC MBA in international luxury brand management was the first MBA program of its kind to exist worldwide," ESSEC spokeswoman Anthea Davis says.
The program is 11 months long and is offered at two campuses in France and one in Singapore.
"It is today the reference worldwide in international luxury brand management education. We now work with all major luxury groups and independent houses worldwide," Ms. Davis adds.
Milton Pedraza is the chief executive officer of the Luxury Institute, launched 11 years ago in New York, and he says there's a growing need for specialized training in the luxury sector.
"Luxury is different from mainstream retail – the level of design, the level of quality, the level of relationship-building are all much higher than any other business segments," Mr. Pedraza says.
"You are dealing with the affluent and the wealthy who have special needs and requirements and who are paying a very high premium for their goods and services. So the level of expertise required to deliver that value proposition must be taught and learned."
Since ESSEC's program launched 20 years ago, specialized MBAs in luxury brand management have grown in popularity. They are also now offered at the Bologna Business School, in the Italian city that's home to brands such as Lamborghini and Maserati; the International University of Monaco; the NYU Stern Business School in New York; and the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy, to name some.
Most concentrate on a single facet of luxury, such as design and marketing. Others boost technological skills. Fashion in the digital age has become instant and a luxury goods education today includes video and social media training.
"Historically, luxury has seemingly been quite old fashioned and formulaic to its approach to business. However, with swift changes in technology, social media, e-commerce and expansion to emerging markets, we are seeing that luxury is now evolving and adapting rapidly," says Nicole McBride, office manager at Lambert and Associates, a retail network company with offices in Paris, London, New York, Milan and Florence, Italy.
"With change comes a demand for a new talent pool that can provide a fresh approach."
Canadian fashion entrepreneur Diane Robinson is the co-founder of the Huntress jewellery and luxury handbag, which made its debut recently at the Spring 2015 edition of World MasterCard Fashion Week in Toronto. In advance of launching her own business with partner Ron LeBlanc, she took the year-long luxury brand management MBA at the University of Monaco, graduating in 2011.
"You need both the language of business and luxury to compete in this field," Ms. Robinson says. "Our aim was to have a fully vertically integrated business and I needed to know every part of the business, from the rough to the runway."
The ESSEC MBA offers several specializations within its luxury brand program: fashion and accessories; fragrances and cosmetics; watches and technology; hotels and property.
Being broadly focused is what attracted Jessica Wang, another Canadian at ESSEC, currently enrolled.
"I have always had a passion for the luxury industry in general and when I found out about this program … , I was very intrigued," Ms. Wang writes in an e-mail from Cergy-Pontoise, France, where she has lived since September.
"I did a lot of research on similar programs offered by many other schools and found the one offered by ESSEC to be the most comprehensive. It does not concentrate on just one area of the luxury industry such as fashion and accessories; instead it also explores in detail other areas: wine and spirits, watches and jewellery, and cosmetics," she says.
Prior to becoming a student again, Ms. Wang worked for L'Oréal Group in Canada. When she graduates from ESSEC in 2015, she hopes to work in the fashion and accessories sector. She has a good chance of meeting her goal.
Since ESSEC's founding in 1995, its 560 graduates have gone on to work for every major luxury group and independent luxury companies worldwide, including LVMH, Kering, Richemont, Estée Lauder, Tod's Group, Zegna, Chanel and Hermès.
"We have a 95-per-cent success rate of students finding employment in the luxury goods industry upon graduation," Ms. Davis at ESSEC says.
Ms. Agostino took courses in all aspects of a luxury brand, including retail design, licensing, wholesaling, and the psychology behind an expensive purchase.
Her teachers included the former managing director of Giorgio Armani France: "He brought a wealth of information, a lot of real-time stories," says Ms. Agostino.
After she graduated from ESSEC in 2011, Ms. Agostino, 30, returned to Canada and landed a job in Toronto at the global office of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, where she worked on creating luxury partnerships.
In the spring of this year, she moved to Spafax, an international media and marketing agency that works with major airlines such as Air Canada and British Airways as well as Mercedes-Benz and other luxury brands. She produces their videos and glossy magazines.
"The story-telling behind the brand is what I love," says Ms. Agostino, crediting her specialized MBA program for giving her a heightened awareness of luxury as a layered category of consumer goods.
"A Hermès purse is very beautiful, a piece of art. But there's also a story behind it, what it represents as a luxury good, and what it means to the person buying it. It's a piece of their ego, a part of their personal brand."