A steady stream of Lehigh Business alumni are making their way into the fashion industry.
By Mike Zimmerman
Image by Shutterstock/Kamieshkova/Doctor Black
When you think of a business school, fashion is not often the first consideration. Lehigh Business’ ties to the apparel business have grown organically out of what’s always been here. “Our graduates benefit from an excellent business education which they can apply to their industry of choice,” says Nevena Koukova, associate professor in marketing at Lehigh. “Retailing and fashion being one of them.”
Curriculum is just the beginning for Lehigh students looking for ways into the fashion industry. As it happens, over the past decade or so, other resources have emerged to help students gain entry, with everything from industry connections, alumni involvement and scholarships making the business a career path that’s not just viable, but a way to flourish.
Finding Their Way In
Nicole Ganot ’06 says her internship at Bloomingdale’s kick-started her career. “There weren’t many retail or fashion industry alums during my time at Lehigh,” says Ganot, “so I had to leverage relationships outside of school.” While the alumni network hadn’t been built yet, Ganot, who is now vice president of business operations at The RealReal—billed as the world’s largest online marketplace for authenticated, consigned luxury goods—says, “Lehigh provided me with the experiences necessary to approach business problems with a creative and analytical approach, hone my quantitative skills and think about the relationship between financial impact and the experience of a brand.”
Melissa Feeney ’16 found her way, in one sense, via the Lehigh swim team. During her junior year, she scored an internship at PVH Corp, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, which also owned Speedo at the time. “Being a competitive swimmer my entire life and even throughout my time at Lehigh, I had an instant connection to the corporation. That emotional connection can be a great way to stand out in interviews.” She’s now a senior analyst on the PVH Consumer Insights team. In her senior year, Feeney won an award from the Fashion Scholarship Fund.
The FSF (fashionscholarshipfund.org) has become a critical factor in Lehigh’s fashion industry success stories. The Fund, founded in 1937, is the oldest national nonprofit dedicated to educating and developing talent for the fashion industry. It awards an average of more than $1 million each year to 210 students from more than 60 participating colleges and universities nationwide. Lehigh has participated in the FSF since 2007, averaging two to three scholarship winners each year.
Olivia Hodina ’15 won an FSF scholarship her senior year. Since then, she has held positions at Ross, Bloomingdale’s, and is currently a product development project manager at e.l.f. Beauty (a position that came about through a connection with another Lehigh alum). She didn’t come to Lehigh for fashion and she acknowledges that many people she’s met in her work whose majors didn’t exactly line up square with the industry. “I’ve met people in retail and fashion who are psychology majors, communications majors, non-business majors.”
"Lehigh provided me with the experiences necessary to approach business problems with a creative and analytical approach..."
-Nicole Ganot '06
Dave Canfield ’14, another FSF winner, is now chief of staff at Saks OFF Fifth. “The Fashion Scholarship Fund was my ‘gateway’ into the retail industry,” he says. “I learned the basics of retail—my Retail 101—which I carry with me today. It really was eye opening for me and it’s been an amazing network to leverage as an extension of my Lehigh alumni group in New York City.”
Can You Please Spell ‘Gabbana’?
When one thinks of “fashion,” the next thought is usually “fashion designer” since that’s where the fame comes from. That may be one of the big myths of entering the fashion industry. Design is one part of a massive industrial machine with many career points of entry, even though designers get most of the ink.
“The industry needs great accountants, marketing people and supply chain managers and engineers,” says Mike Setola, CEO and president of Tharanco Lifestyles, a multi-division apparel company that includes brands like Greg Norman. “We seem to have been missing that important factor when attracting talent to our industry in the past.”
Setola serves on the executive board of FSF, is a Fund ambassador to Lehigh, and has helped the nonprofit evolve from a designer-first approach to a broader student appeal.
“Like many schools that are not retail or apparel centric, Lehigh has now developed a curriculum that introduces these disciplines, which when combined with a strong business concentration has built a solid foundation for students to excel, as seen by the success of Lehigh winners.”
“Nearly half of the FSF scholars are from the business discipline now,” says Setola. “We have seen year on year growth and interest from majors in marketing, supply chain, computer tech, and it continues to grow.”
As Setola points out, that pathway isn’t just a dollar scholarship. The Fund attracts top talent within the field to help students, with more than 100 corporate recruiting partners and 500 individual mentors. Perhaps the most important stat: 100 percent of scholarship recipients were placed at fashion companies in 2021. “Winning the FSF scholarship is like getting the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval on your resume,” says Setola.
“In the marketing department, we always ask: What can we do to increase career options for our students?” says K. Sivakumar, who holds the Arthur C. Tauck Jr. Chair and is head of the marketing department. “That’s why we encourage students to enter the FSF. I’ve always said the money and recognition for winning a scholarship are nice, but much more important are the mentorships and internships that come along.”
The faculty are instrumental in helping students not just enter the FSF competition, but get the most out of it. “I provide one-on-one guidance to interested students throughout the process,” says Professor Koukova, who runs the competition on the Lehigh side. “This includes help with industry research, idea formulation, merchandise planning, financial statements, and other practical aspects of their competition proposals. I also organize information sessions and workshops during the spring and fall semesters, where I invite Lehigh alumni and industry executives to speak about the opportunity and advise students on their specific projects.”
The most recent success story happened just this past school year.
Evelyn Siao ’21 won the top award from the FSF—the Chairman’s Award—a $17,500 scholarship, beating out more than 600 applicants. Her winning idea happened like most inspired ideas happen: out of thin air. While shopping for jeans, she realized the pockets on jeans designed for women were smaller than those on jeans for men.
It all fell into place: The pocket discrepancy became a metaphor for salary inequality. Men always have the deeper pockets.
“I knew right away I wanted to do something related to women’s rights because my family has a lot of strong working women,” says Siao. “I wanted to focus on diversity, wage discrimination and transparency.”
She created an 18-page “pitch” for Levi Strauss & Co showing how they could lead the charge in closing the gender pay gap in the apparel industry—while also making a fresh fashion statement on women’s jeans pockets (where smartphones sometimes don’t fit).
Best Bib and Tucker
If there’s a lesson here, it’s multi-level. It doesn’t matter if Lehigh isn’t known as a “fashion school” for it to have a robust pipeline of talent into the industry. It only matters that students—guided by faculty and mentors along the way—understand how many avenues they have into a thriving career.
“The fashion industry is broad-based, with retail, supply chain, marketing, sales channels and strategy aspects. It doesn’t matter if students are artistically inclined,” says Sivakumar. “They can succeed in the fashion business and not be a designer. That’s how we encourage the students and help them proceed.”