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Designing my runway with CEIBS MBA

I’m Mayuko Kawata, a Japanese student ambassador from the CEIBS MBA Class of 2020. My family moved around quite a bit when I was growing up, and in my childhood I never spent more than three years in any one city. This is the story of how, after 18 moves from my birthplace in Osaka, I’m now living in my 19th home, a dorm room on CEIBS campus in Shanghai.

Wearing a traditional Japanese Yukata to host Japan Night on campus.

My career in fashion

My career path may be atypical of candidates who come to CEIBS to pursue an MBA degree. I started my career as a hair stylist in Los Angeles, working in a salon and doing hair and makeup on models for Los Angeles Fashion Week.

When I returned to Japan, I worked for the global fashion retail company Zara. I was based in their Harajuku store in Tokyo and at the same time was part of an internal team called the International Support Team. The team consisted of members from Zara’s headquarters in Spain and select members from Korea and Japan. Each member of this team would work in their home countries, and then would be called upon by headquarters to gather when Zara planned to open a store in a new market in the APAC region. Once called upon, usually with about a week’s advance notice, the team would meet up at the new store with the mission to put products in the new store, set up its stock room and warehouse infrastructure, and then stay for the next few months to train local staff in retail operations so they could eventually run the store on their own.

Filage's Spring/Summer 2016 runway show.

One of the most challenging experiences I had as a part of this support team was for a new store in Taiwan. I was put to the task of setting up the warehouse and training over 50 local staff in warehouse operations in one month. At first, I didn’t think any one of us, the support team, the local team, or myself knew how this was going to be accomplished  without a common language that the entire team could use to communicate. After a few days of spending time with the team, we were able to work out a way to communicate. It helped that some of the local staff understood English, some of them Japanese, and all had the patience with my very rusty and broken Mandarin which I had studied way back in my college years and regretfully had not kept up with. We got through it with a mix of languages, gestures, and pictograms, as well as with some strong motivation, patience, and teamwork. I’m not sure who was the tougher teacher, me training the staff in warehouse operations, or the staff training me in Mandarin. After a month, I left Taiwan with the confidence that the team was able to run the warehouse on their own and that I actually did pretty well at improvising in situations with a lot of uncertainties. I also left the local team with a promise that I would continue to study Mandarin and that by the next time we meet, we would communicate in Mandarin.

A promise not yet fulfilled

Fast forward a few years and I became a Merchandiser on a startup team responsible for launching a fashion brand called Filage for a Japanese apparel manufacturing and distribution company. Many people may immediately associate fashion brands with a designer who designs the individual garments that will be carried in the store. The responsibilities of a Merchandiser involves the execution of those designs so that the designer’s vision can become a reality. This means working with textiles distributors to source fabrics, working with garment factories to negotiate costs and lead times, and working with marketing and PR teams to promote the finished collection.

The Filage start-up team.

As a member of the startup team for Filage, I worked on their collection starting one year prior to their stores actually opening and the path was definitely not smooth. For example, we faced a one month delay in production for a large portion of the collection because most of our garments were manufactured in China, and due to environmental policy changes in China, many factories had to stop production to have their facilities inspected and then updated to comply with the tighter regulations.

Once the Filage stores opened, we found that it was not only the Japanese customers who were buying our collections, but the inbound Chinese tourists who really appreciated our brand. This was the case for Filage and many other fashion brands sold in Japan. Working in the retail industry and as a fashion merchandiser, I felt the growing impact of the changes taking place in China in every aspect of my role. So, naturally, my curiosity to learn about the China market grew.

Coming to CEIBS

When I decided to pursue an MBA, I knew I wanted to come to Shanghai and I hadn’t forgotten about the promise I made to brush up on my Mandarin. Also, Shanghai is the growing center of fashion in Asia so I wanted to see and experience the energy of the city for myself. At the time, I think I knew intuitively that in order to understand the bigger trends that are happening in fashion in Asia, I had to come to China, immerse myself in the culture, and to see what kind of styles, colours, and tastes resonated with consumers here.  One of the first things a professor of marketing taught me at CEIBS was to “always start from the customer,” and I knew I had made the right choice in coming to China.

The halfway point and beyond

In the 3 terms I have been at CEIBS so far, I have had the opportunity to run in the Hangzhou Marathon with my friend Shoko, the only other Japanese female student in our batch. I visited India for the first time with my Indian batch mates who invited me to their homes and showed me around Delhi to experience the sights and cuisines of India. I participated in the Japan Module and the Japan Night Event to learn about my home country from a different perspective and to celebrate Japanese culture with my batch mates. I had a friend who patiently taught me hours of Mandarin during the busiest times of terms 1 and 2.

Celebrating Japan Night with students, staff and faculty.

Thinking back, I’m surprised to see that many of the most memorable experiences haven’t been academic related. It shows that my CEIBS experience has been so much more beyond the classroom experience. As we approach the halfway point of our MBA journey, I look back in awe at how fast these months have flown by. I get a little sentimental when I think about how most of us will be going our separate ways in a few months but it makes me feel grateful for the experiences I have had with the amazing people I have met here at CEIBS.