Scholarship initiatives have become a popular way for brands, schools and nonprofits to diversify fashion’s talent pipeline — but is it enough?
When Olivia Landau, founder and CEO of the jewelry startup The Clear Cut, was studying to be a gemologist, she realized just how much everyone around her looked like, well, each other. The lack of diversity was stark for Landau, who’s a woman of color and a first-generation American.
“The diamond industry, historically, has been dominated by mostly middle-aged men,” Landau tells Fashionista. “Even to be a female entering this space is pretty new.”
While attending the Gemological Institute of America, she noticed most of her peers already had familial connections to the industry. And because it’s so insular, it’s also inaccessible, Landau argues. “It’s very niche, and it might not be a career many people had access to or knew was even an option,” she says. “That leads to the industry being very homogeneous.”
Landau set out on a mission to be different. Launching her own business meant she could inspire a new standard within the industry and open doors for underrepresented groups. In March 2021, in honor of International Women’s Month, The Clear Cut created its first-ever Scholarship Fund for BIPOC women who want to pursue a career in the male-dominated jewelry industry.
The scholarship sponsors one woman’s tuition for The Graduate Diamonds Program at GIA, covering both the e-learning and printed course material. After receiving her GIA certification, she begins a six-month paid internship at The Clear Cut. After the internship, she has the opportunity to join the brand’s gemology team as a full-time hire and get matched with a mentor. The brand’s inaugural scholarship recipient, Jessica Harwood, is in her final weeks of completing her GIA diamonds program and is now a full-time employee at The Clear Cut.
“She’s an extremely talented artist [who’s] amazing at designing and sketching,” says Landau. “She came and worked with us part time for her internship since the summer, and is now a full-time production associate working on designing and the production of our collection.”
Landau and her co-founder and COO, Kyle Simon, understand that the impact of their scholarship is currently limited to just one person. But they hope the quality of the entire experience — the funds for school, the internship, the mentorship and the possibility of full-time employment — can make up for the fact that they can’t give out dozens of scholarships, at least not yet. They haven’t finalized an application period for 2022, but they do plan on continuing the scholarship at some point in the year.
“It’s even really beyond just the scholarship component,” says Simon. “The training through GIA is invaluable, but it’s also [about] providing real work experience. Regardless of whether we had decided to bring on our first applicant full time, the opportunity to have work experience helps someone become employable.”
In other words: Scholarships are a key first step to diversifying the fashion industry, but actually changing the status quo requires doing away with all the gatekeeping, and there’s a case to be made for providing 360-degree support to one candidate, as opposed to, say, a few thousand dollars to several.
“Are you opening doors for them to have a successful career in this industry?” asks Landau. “That is the goal.”
The Education Connection
The Clear Cut is just one example of brands and schools introducing or sponsoring scholarships intended to specifically support people of color and those from underrepresented communities.
Early leaders in this movement have been Gucci, which in 2019 set up a need-based scholarship program specifically for students with diverse backgrounds, and the Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF), which has a long history of supporting students from underserved communities who want to study fashion by partnering with corporate sponsors on scholarships and internships. The late Virgil Abloh is one of its most famous partners; the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, which targets Black students, lives on, having recently raised $25.3 million from a posthumous sneaker auction.
This movement has gained a lot more momentum in the wake of fashion’s racial reckoning following George Floyd’s death in June 2020, with companies and designers like Burberry, Capri Holdings, American Eagle, Brandon Maxwell, Net-a-Porter, Pacsun, Coach, Macy’s and more — in addition to fashion schools themselves — finding ways to racially diversify fashion’s talent pipeline through financial and professional support.
In June 2021, Gap Inc., Harlem’s Fashion Row and ICON360, a nonprofit subsidiary of HFR, announced the winners of the Closing the Gap scholarships, which awarded $510,000 across 10 fashion departments at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The initiative aims to strengthen educational opportunities for the next generation of Black fashion leaders. Gap Inc. and ICON360 also partnered to provide mentorship and internship opportunities to students currently enrolled in each of the winning HBCU programs.
Devona L. Dixon, associate professor of fashion merchandising and design at North Carolina A&T State University, one of the awarded HBCU programs, says that, at the academic level, the increased availability of scholarships and funds to HBCU fashion programs is helping students of color be more prepared for classes, focus on education and push their creativity because supplies and resources are more readily available.
“Students can purchase desired supplies that support their creative ideas whereby providing more creative freedom instead of settling for what they can afford,” says Dixon. “The department has also been able to purchase dress forms to support learning the draping method of pattern making.”
Additionally, the funds from the Closing the Gap Initiative paid for updates to the department’s computer lab, which supports courses and software related to visual merchandising, product development, CAD, patternmaking and retail buying. The funds also provided two $5,000 scholarships and a New York City fashion study tour for those two scholarship winners, 10 other Fashion Merchandising and Design (FMD) students and two FMD faculty. The group met with various industry leaders and tastemakers working across all areas of fashion, from design to production to media.
“This opportunity alone can lead to so many networking opportunities and internships and/or job placement upon graduation,” says Dixon. “The FMD program has received internship and design opportunities for our students from HFR and Gap Inc., all allowing greater access to the fashion industry early, which is key.”
Jewel Moser, a junior FMD student at North Carolina A&T State University, found that in her experience of applying to and researching opportunities within the industry, many positions were prematurely filled by non-BIPOC students through an internal review. Without connections and resources, it seems virtually impossible to break in.
“The rise in diversity-led scholarships and industry initiatives such as ICON360 has been a blessing to students like myself wanting to pursue [a career in] the fashion industry without financial strain,” says Moser, adding that the success of such programs can be measured by three key metrics: the number of BIPOC students gaining permanent employment within the industry post-graduation, their upward mobility within the company and/or their ability to start a successful and lasting fashion brand from the support extended from these programs. “To me, success is simply seeing faces like my own at every level of the fashion industry.”
Fashion schools, plagued by (valid) accusations of systemic racism, have also spent the last couple of years working on ways to diversify their student bodies and provide more equitable experiences to those students once enrolled, through devoted scholarships and other career-focused programs. At FIT, the newly launched Social Justice Center (SJC) offers opportunities for corporations to join FIT in helping to develop a pipeline for BIPOC youth “poised to fill the ranks of talented, educated, creative employees,” explains Joyce F. Brown, President of FIT.
The SJC has support from industry leaders including PVH, Capri Holdings, Tapestry, G-III, Prada, Carolina Herrera, Saks Fifth Avenue and Ralph Lauren, among others. According to Brown, there are two prongs to the program: One is to identify and prepare a pipeline of talented BIPOC youth to compete on an equal footing for a place in the creative industries, and the other is to work with corporate partners to create professional development opportunities within their corporations for current BIPOC employees so they can have a realistic expectation of advancement.
“Our goal in developing the Social Justice Center at FIT is to foster actionable and measurable strategies to ensure that industries recognize that cultural competence is an important element for change,” Brown says. “That diversity, equity and inclusion enrich product development and market appeal; that responsible practices are good for business, the environment and human rights; and that diverse voices in leadership roles enhance productivity and expand customer loyalty.”
The Need to Disrupt
Scholarships are only one piece of the puzzle, and in hopes of creating a more holistic support system for their communities, many BIPOC fashion execs are taking matters into their own hands. Launched in 2020, the non-profit Creatives Want Change aims to cultivate Black creative talent interested in the fashion industry, beginning at the high school level and continuing into early professional development.
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The organization was founded by Randy Cousin, SVP of product concept and the People’s Place Program for Tommy Hilfiger; Joe Medved, founder of Joe’s Blackbook; and Matthew Kane, design director at Club Monaco. As part of the inaugural year, CWC announced 25 scholarships to Black American design students who went through pre-college summer fashion design programs during summer 2021. Program pillars included pre-educational opportunities, mentorship with industry professionals, college scholarships, internships and apprenticeships, and community exposure.
“The role brands can play in leveling the playing field for BIPOC students who want to work in fashion is to invest in an educational pipeline that disrupts the current college system,” says Cousin. Tuition cost is not the only roadblock. “Most BIPOC students can’t afford to do pre-college programs, unpaid internships and SAT prep classes, all of which help most students get into college and land their first job. In addition, BIPOC students often go into tremendous debt to stay in college, and if they are lucky enough to finish their degree, find themselves in jobs that don’t pay enough to survive and pay their debts.”
If corporations really want to meet their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals, Cousin posits, they must create paid internships and apprenticeship models “that circumvent the current college system,” and train people with the skills they actually need, and then hire them directly. Companies can also help students through mentorships that give them the confidence and support they need to know what is possible in fashion and to eventually reach leadership roles beyond design positions.
“Most fashion students don’t know all the career options available to them,” notes Kane. “What about the VPs, COOs and CEOs of companies in fashion?”
While the CWC founders agree that a rise in diversity-led scholarships has been a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to fundamentally shift the industry at large.
“I hope this trend continues. However, sending a few of the best students to college will not solve the broken system,” says Cousin. “It’s simply treating the symptom, not the illness. You can’t give a student $20,000 and think you have done them an immense favor, if every year of their degree costs $50,000.”
That’s why, he explains, CWC is focusing on pre-college scholarships. The organization can fully cover the cost of the program: tuition, fees, room and board, travel, computers, sewing machines and other supplies. While CWC would like to eventually cover full-ride scholarships for undergraduate degrees in fashion design, Kane says that will require large multi-year commitments from companies to fund.
“Making significant change requires a dynamic response,” says Kane. “It requires significant financial capital to account for income disparity that reduces opportunity, as well as human capital to foster the next generation and share a wealth of experience and expertise. Both of these investments require a long-term commitment because addressing systemic inequality can’t happen overnight.”