By its very nature, the world of fashion is fast-moving and exciting and those involved in any aspect of the business must be ready to compete with the very best. For merchandisers and buyers, entry to the profession used to be relatively straightforward. In the past, a high school diploma together with an outgoing personality, a sense of style and a commitment to hard work could be the basis for a successful career. Nowadays, while these attributes are just as important, there is a much greater need for further academic qualifications to back up on-the-job experience and innate aptitude.
To meet this demand, the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) offers a wide range of practical diploma and degree courses. One of them, designed specifically for graduates, is the part-time Master of Arts in Fashion and Textiles which is now in its twentieth intake. Students usually complete the course within two or three years and can combine elective modules with the option of writing a dissertation.
Leung Chun-Sun, associate professor at PolyU, has been teaching and running the course for twelve years as programme leader. He describes the MA as basically a "deepening programme" rather than a "broadening programme" like the MBA. This means that, while graduates of various disciplines are accepted for the course, they all bring a certain amount of practical experience to their postgraduate studies and this strongly reinforces the theories learnt in class.
Students range in age from early 20s to mid-40s and, without exception, are employed full-time. They may be involved in retailing, buying, manufacturing or some other aspect of the fashion business. Whether they are managing directors of small enterprises or working for large multinationals, what they all have in common is a working knowledge of some facet of the fashion and textiles scene.
Mr Leung says the mix of diverse backgrounds contributes to lively interaction in class which the students appreciate. He observes that, "The course broadens not only their knowledge but also their personal connections. One of the biggest advantages of studying is getting to know one's classmates."
The material the course covers is extensive, dictated by the nature of the business, and includes common core subjects supplemented by elective modules. As Mr Leung explains, "Merchandising is very broad-based. It is not a single discipline, but requires knowledge of products and processes, international trade, management, business skills and design. It is multi-disciplinary."
Various assessment methods are used. Each module is assessed through individual and group assignments as well as written examinations.
Mr Leung has seen the demand for education in the field steadily increase and attributes this to two main factors. "The demand for employment is quite high," he says. "Also, we noticed increased interest after the financial crisis a couple of years ago. People are keen to equip themselves with additional knowledge and skills." He also puts it down to the acknowledgement and recognition the programme has earned within the industry since it started and the fact that, "Word has spread".
Although MA students usually possess a first degree, equivalent professional qualifications are also considered for entry. Mr Leung recalls a student who applied without a degree and was accepted for the course on the basis of her professional qualifications from the Textile Institute in the UK. "She was very hardworking and she struggled through," Mr Leung says, "and she was later able to get a managerial position in a multinational company. Without her MA, she would not have got that job."
If MA graduates are still eager to continue their education, there is the option of a research degree. As Mr Leung says, "Some graduates, after completing an MA, go on to do a PhD part-time." However, this is comparatively rare as most find that the MA, combined with practical experience, is more than enough to help them succeed in the industry.
Getting a global view
Vivian Wong is in the third year of her MA in Fashion and Textiles at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Already a senior merchandiser for a multinational underwear brand, she notched up five years' experience in the industry before embarking on postgraduate study. "You pick up industry knowledge bit by bit with working experience," Ms Wong says. "Experience is precious but your knowledge is not always kept up-to-date or detailed enough. You do not really see the whole picture," she says, explaining her rationale for taking the course.
She admits that the first year of the course was difficult and found the mode of study was vastly different from that at undergraduate level. "You have to adjust," she notes. "It depends very much on your self-motivation and encourages you to learn for yourself. What you get from the classes is just the beginning."
According to Ms Wong, the schedule is tight. "You are not able to relax too much and have to plan your time well. Once you commit, you have to sacrifice some private time," she advises.
She particularly values the global view of the industry that the MA provides. "Day to day you just concentrate on micro views without linking it all up to have a more holistic view," she says. "The course is able to provide the bigger picture."
Of course, it is not easy to juggle assignment deadlines with work commitments. Ms Wong recalls one time last year when she really felt the pressure. "I had to work until two in the morning to finish an assignment and then hurry off to the airport at six," she recalls.
However, there is a payoff. "When you do the assignments and work from scratch through to completing the final version, you get a great sense of satisfaction."
Ms Wong is just one semester away from graduation - a little later than she had originally hoped. And what has she gained overall from the course? "I have learned how to learn proactively," she says.