Why Fashion Needs to Step Up Support for Black Students

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Five years ago, Imani was a junior at Kent State University, and her future looked bright: She was a fashion student, and had made it to the second round of the CFDA’s Design Scholar Competition.

Her collection was inspired by African prints, featuring vibrant fabrics and elaborate headwraps. It was a way to pay homage to home.

But when Imani, who spoke to BoF under the condition of being identified with a pseudonym, sat down with her professor to receive constructive feedback, she was devastated to hear that her collection wasn’t commercial enough; that if she wanted to win the competition, she’d have to make sure her offering was acceptable “for the American market.”

The incident almost drove her to quit school and abandon her dreams of working in the fashion industry altogether. Her story, unfortunately, isn’t uncommon. When students like Imani are alienated from pursuing fashion on a systemic level, the industry will miss out on diversified forms of innovation and crucial new perspectives. But Black representation continues to be lacking in the industry at large, even as the biggest companies have recruited chief diversity officers and invested in mentorship programmes designated to boost the professional pipeline. The problem, Black professionals say, doesn’t begin at hiring — it starts with cultivating talent in the education stage.

“I don’t see a lot of Black or brown students,” said Dawn Karen, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I know all the Black … students by name, and they’re just sprinkled in for sure.”

The enrollment of Black students at fashion programmes are often not in alignment with population norms. According to 2022 US Census data, Black and African Americans make up 13.6 percent of the population. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, Black students make up 8 percent of its 2024 enrollment. At other schools, that number is even lower: 5.2 percent in Parsons’ spring 2023 semester for fashion design, and 4 percent at Pratt in its 2022 enrollment numbers.

Fashion schools are simply not doing enough to recruit and retain Black students, diversity experts say. Some Black students come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, which can lead to challenges in class preparation and cultural differences that may steer them toward careers with lower barriers of entry, such as nursing or education.

If fashion schools want to improve their relationships with Black students and retain them, they must first hire more Black faculty, experts said. This is a difficult prospect in its own right, as the fashion industry’s lack of diversity to begin with limits the pool of professionals available for these roles.

Sustained progress in improving the fashion industry’s pipeline of Black talent requires major companies to play a more proactive role in supporting Black students. For instance, large fashion companies can partner with HBCUs, or historically Black colleges and universities to form internship and mentorship programmes. Nordstrom, for instance, helped create a new fashion curriculum at Morehouse College, emphasising technology in product development. Gap Inc. too launched an initiative to grant cash to HBCUs to boost their fashion studies programmes.

Representation Among Faculty

Brooklyn boutique owner Farai Simoyi recalls her experience and challenges at West Virginia University being the only black student in her design programme. It wasn’t just an isolating situation, she said — it also affected her academic trajectory because she felt she had to go out of her way to be recognised by her professors.

“I was the one that would be extra polite, come in on time, spend time meeting with my advisor, extra hours, just so that I was able to build a relationship knowing that things wouldn’t be used against me in any other situation,” said Simoyi, who is also a professor and programme director of fashion design at Thomas Jefferson University.

If fashion schools want to better recruit and retain Black fashion students, the most effective tactic is to increase their Black faculty, educators say. According to the American Sociological Association, less than 6 percent of professors at universities are Black, and less than 2 percent of them hold tenure.

Kent State University saw a shift in their Black students as soon as it hired Dr. Michelle Burton as a merchandising professor in 2022, according to Jihyun Kim-Vick, programme coordinator at the college, though she remains the only Black professor in the fashion department.

“I could see that students were … opening up immediately [after Burton arrived], and that really kind of confirms that our choice was the right one.” said Kim-Vick.

Karen at FIT agrees. “They need faculty, Black faculty, because we teach a certain way, we create a certain environment,” she said.

At historically Black colleges like Howard or Cheyney University, Black students have more access to mentorship from Black professors. Black students are 15 percent more likely to graduate from college with a degree at HBCUs than from predominantly white schools, according to the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

But HBCU undergraduate programmes are far less likely to offer fashion programmes than predominantly white institutions, which is a significant contributing factor to the overall lack of Black talent in fashion, observers said.

Of about 100 HBCUs in the US, 12 have fashion programmes, according to BoF analysis. This presents an opportunity for large fashion companies to partner with these institutions, according to educators, by creating extracurricular fashion programmes, inviting students studying business or design to try their hand in fashion.

Fashion companies can provide students at HBCUs with “funding, mentorship, and a direct pipeline for positions,” said Billi Arnett, chair of art and fashion at Clark Atlanta University, an example of a HBCU.

New York-based nonprofit Harlem’s Fashion Row has a programme linking top fashion companies with HBCU professors and programmes. The organisation connected Kate Spade with Bowie State University in 2021, for instance. The handbag company held fashion seminars for Bowie students and even commissioned their work in some elements of the design process. In the three years since, several Bowie students have been hired by the brand, according to Brandice Daniel, founder and chief executive of Harlem’s Fashion Row.

“[Kate Spade] just started to build a natural and organic relationship with the students,” Daniel said.

Through Harlem’s Fashion Row, Gap Inc. also launched an initiative that resulted in over $1 million in donations to HBCUs to bolster their fashion studies since 2021. The funding allowed HBCUs to purchase new equipment, from textiles to sewing labels.

“The biggest focus has been creating meaningful and ongoing relationships with the students and professors,” said Bahja Johnson, former head of equality & belonging at Gap Inc. who spoke to BoF in September. “By forging relationships with these universities, we gain a valuable fresh perspective and cultural relevance that we would otherwise be missing.”

Ultimately, Harlem Fashion Row alone can’t make up for the disparity in racial representation in fashion, said Daniel. It’s up to the rest of the industry to take ownership over the talent pipeline, from scholarships and grants to summer programmes and mentorship opportunities.

“As we invest in [Black] students, we’re really investing in the future of fashion,” said Daniel.



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