Conversations around systemic racism within the fashion industry have been reignited in recent weeks, with many BIPOC professionals coming forward to share their experiences of racial inequality and discrimination at companies that expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter publicly without addressing their own complicity internally.
The consensus is that there's a lot of work to be done, and a lot of changes to be made. Companies need to diversify their staffs, from entry-level to C-suite positions, and they need to be authentically anti-racist. Fashion professionals need to feel comfortable in workplaces, be paid fairly and have upwardly-mobile career tracks.
Looking beyond corporate entities, U.S. fashion schools — a crucial first step for many careers in fashion — need to be a part of this equation.
Many of the country's most prestigious, household-name fashion institutions are facing accusations of racism by students and alumni, despite pledging support of Black Lives Matter on social media and in other public-facing communications.
Some of these were already brewing before protests against police brutality erupted across the globe. New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), part of the SUNY system, first came under fire in February when a student put racist accessories in a school fashion show (at the last-minute urging of two administrators, an internal investigation found). The following month, the New York Times reported that the incident had triggered an outpouring of students and faculty describing deep, systemic issues within the school, many of which came to light during a town hall hosted by FIT President Dr. Joyce Brown. (She herself is the first woman and first African-American to hold the position, but has been criticized for not doing enough to address racism at the school, according to the Times.)
Though Dr. Brown told the Times in March that she would be looking into every concern raised at the town hall, fast-forward to June and students have made it clear that they aren't satisfied with her or the school's response to these allegations.
On June 1, FIT posted a brief statement to Instagram addressing the "recent murders of African Americans." In the comments, many called for greater advocacy on behalf of Black students in its community and on the school to make donations to organizations fighting racism.
When it issued a follow-up on June 9, FIT committed to scheduling discussions with students, starting a scholarship in George Floyd's name and mounting a voter registration campaign. In response, some asked for Dr. Brown's resignation, the hiring of more Black professors and anti-racism training for all staff.
Meanwhile, the fashion department at Parsons School of Design — considered one of the best in the world — has been undergoing a similar reckoning ignited, again, by an Instagram post that, to many, fell short of addressing its own failures to support BIPOC members of its community.
In the comments of a statement posted on May 31, many alleged racist behavior they experienced as students. Former Black professors shared their thoughts as well.
Among them was Kimberly Jenkins, a noted fashion scholar, Gucci consultant and creator of a groundbreaking class that many Parsons students have praised. She wrote: "I created a class called 'Fashion and Race' that ran from 2016-2019. I loved being there and supporting our Black/POC students. However, as hard as I worked, I wasn't given the support and security I needed, so I took the class with me. The School of Fashion at Ryerson University saw my potential and understood how crucial this work is right now. They offered me a full time position (I started in January) along with copious funding so that I can take both the class and my platform @fashionandracedatabase (relaunching July 8) to the next level. I hear that @saintrecords is doing some partnership with Parsons SOF but have no idea how insightful that will be. In the meantime, I hope that Parsons SOF supports the efforts of @obsidianxparsons. They have been trying to organize (in the political sense) and find radical ways to support Black students, but they have been limited by funding and institutional support. Please do something. Black brilliance must be protected and cultivated."
Several days later, the Parsons Fashion account shared more commitments, prompting further demands for immediate concrete action.
One recent The New School graduate took to creating a private Instagram account (similar to those popping up at private high schools and other universities) where students could share their stories of discrimination in detail, without their names attached. A clear pattern among the posts is how economic disparity has given white, wealthy students an apparent advantage over those from lower-income communities, many of whom are people of color.
"Fashion schools often encourage nepotism and classism, which goes hand in hand with racism and discrimination," the founder of the account, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote me over email. "There was a list of demands that was recently sent to the fashion department. It was gathered by a former alumni who reached out and we worked together on collecting responses." They said they don't have high hopes for receiving a response.
A similar account was set up by students at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), to hold the school accountable for racially discriminatory actions. (One post on @blmbees tells the story of Matthew Ajibade, a Nigerian-born student with a mental illness who was killed by police in 2015 without any acknowledgement by SCAD; another details SCAD's business relationship with the police.) Many of the issues it shares echo those raised by members of the FIT and Parsons Fashion communities.
Johnathan Hayden, a New York-based designer and SCAD graduate, says he observed a pattern of Black students being dismissed during critiques, and not being included when the school would bring in high-profile fashion industry figures (which it often does) as mentors and jurors. He also described being berated by the then-Dean after raising questions about where his exorbitant graduate tuition was going.
"There is this effort that white people have — some people are not aware they do it — where they don't see the person across table from them as intellectual or even smart, so they go out of their way to belittle... and that stays with you," he tells me.
These are three of the country's top fashion schools, from which much of the industry scouts talent. So it stands to reason if that if BIPOC students — that is, the few who are accepted and able to afford expensive tuition and cost of living in cities like New York — aren't being set up for success there, their chances of "making it" after graduation are slimmer. Likewise, if white students observe discriminatory behavior perpetrated without consequence, that could influence their behavior as they start to work in the industry, to the detriment of their BIPOC peers.
As Paul Clement, a Black economics professor and chairman of the social sciences department at FIT put it in the aforementioned New York Times piece: "If the faculty in the 'feeder institutions' to the fashion industry are not diverse and continue to teach their students that racial and cultural insensitivity are acceptable, then the result will be a vicious cycle of racism in the fashion industry."
Interviewed by Vogue Business earlier this month, Jenkins said: "There are countless Black millennials and Gen Z creatives trying to study fashion, but academic deans and professors are making the experience difficult — dismissing their designs, blocking them out of internships that could transform their lives, denying them mentorships, empathy and support. So there's this whole generation of black students, graduating by the skin of their teeth or dropping out altogether. It's a small pool of Black survivors from the fashion education system who may not have the same resources or Rolodex as their white peers."
It's now on the administrators of these schools to acknowledge the ways in which they've failed BIPOC students, fairly investigate claims against professors, enact anti-racism training and diversify their teaching staffs, student body and curriculum.
In a statement provided to Fashionista, FIT's Dr. Brown says that the incident at its MFA show this winter "was the catalyst that brought to light issues and problems that exist on campus — and we are deeply committed to addressing them in a systemic and concerted way. Even in this remote environment we find ourselves in, we have continued our discussions and taken the initial steps to ensure our campus environment is inclusive and culturally sensitive, one that our students deserve. We are facing these issues head on." She also shared a letter that's published on the FIT website.
Jason Kass, Interim Dean of Fashion at The New School's Parsons School of Design, tells Fashionista that the school has reached out to those who spoke out on its social media channels to discuss their experiences in depth. The school also created an email account for people to share their stories privately.
"Our primary aim is to learn more about the particular incidents so that we can understand the details and follow up appropriately," he says.
He also acknowledges Parsons's role in the industry's cycle of racism. "Eliminating racism must be a shared task that calls upon contributions from all stakeholders including institutions of higher education. We must all hold ourselves and each other accountable by demanding that we do better across all facets of the industry." As far as the additional steps Parsons plans to take to address this, he says, "We plan to allocate internal funding to support the needs of our Black students as they progress through our programs, seek out partnerships with brands and businesses to provide awards, scholarships and job placements, as well as develop opportunities for mentoring and press coverage to help our Black students launch their careers. An important step includes ensuring that our classrooms and making spaces are more supportive of the work of our Black students, which will require training for current faculty as well as hiring of more Black and other non-white faculty."
Asked to address the economic disparity that, as many commenters shared, puts wealthier students at an advantage, Kass says, "We currently have a material distribution program that makes donated fabrics available to students in need but acknowledge that this does not go far enough. We will be conducting an internal review of costs of materials associated with all of our degree programs and revisiting our policies on outsourcing to determine what changes are needed or additional support can be offered." He also points to The New School's newly created Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice focused on "advancing the recommendations from our campus climate assessment, leading policy development and improvement and organizing and promoting programming and training to foster equity, inclusion, and social justice education and a more diverse and inclusive university."
While these changes are necessary, it's also important to recognize that these predominantly white institutions aren't the only options. Several larger universities, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), offer fashion programs. Most of them are comparatively new, young and limited to concentrations like design and/or merchandising. And while they may be more accessible to students from a wider variety of backgrounds, they aren't located in "fashion capital" cities and often lack the industry connections and partnerships, and recognition from major fashion companies, of their more "prestigious" counterparts. Of course, that could change.
Dr. Damayanthie Eluwawalage, professional historian and assistant professor at Delaware State University (an HBCU) supervising its fashion program, says that many of her students are gifted and hardworking, but are disadvantaged by location. She wants to narrow the gap between the school and the fashion industry at large.
"This program being relatively new, there are not a lot of connections in fashion industry," she explains. "I want to motivate them and give them the confidence that they’re good enough."
Fashion companies who are serious about inclusion also have an opportunity to change their hiring practices and widen their reach.
"What are brands doing to change they how they select and pull talent? I think that is where a lot of good change can happen," notes Hayden.
"Experience and connections with the industry are key components for creating significant student experiences," explains Howard University's Elka Stevens, Ph.D., associate professor and Fashion Program coordinator. Her suggestions to potential employers: "providing internships and other opportunities for work; mentorship – one on one and groups; scholarships – students need financial resources and supplies; travel opportunities; conference opportunities as participants and guests; extra-curricular opportunities, etc."
Devona Dixon, associate professor of fashion merchandising and design at North Carolina Agricultural and and Technical State University, adds: "Working with faculty to develop unique experiential learning opportunities such as case studies or industry-focused study tours and workshops are extremely valuable. Industry professionals are always welcome to serve as guest speakers in our classrooms."
Students are asking for this, too.
"The fashion community could equip students with scholarships that can go towards education or to fund their fashion collections," suggests Marquelle Bowden, a recent graduate of Virginia State University's Textiles, Apparel and Merchandising Management (TAMM) program. "Many HBCU students struggle to pay for college and struggle to pay for supplies. More scholarships for HBCU students would be tremendously helpful."
Aside from being at a financial disadvantage, Bowden and her classmates worry about not having the connections required to get their foot in the door, or being passed over simply based on the color of their skin.
"Networking is everything in fashion, and often Black graduates are overlooked if they don't have the right contacts in the industry. More internships focused on inclusion for minorities and more training opportunities are essential. These students don't want a hand out, they want to be given the chance to learn and to be trained and succeed," she says, noting how there was even a recent discussion in one of her classes about whether or not to include a photo on resumés and online profiles "lest someone judge them by their face and not their skills." To those who did, she said she's "proud of their optimism."
Fundamentally, administrators at HBCU fashion programs also hope that employers will be willing to expand their usual hiring channels.
"The fashion industry has long prioritized name and image, evident by the success and prestige often associated with certain brands and companies. This extends into brand awareness of fashion schools as well," adds Beth Newcomb Hopfer, Dixon's colleague at North Carolina Agricultural and and Technical State University. "It would be great for the fashion community to recognize and promote the people and programs that are 'undiscovered.' Our graduates — those who have their own collections and those with the ability to speak to the needs of underrepresented groups — are an asset to any employer as well as a positive reflection on the HBCU fashion education."
One example of a brand making an effort to diversify the industry starting at the school level is Gucci. On June 12, the luxury house announced its first "class" for its North America Changemakers program. Twenty students will each receive an academic scholarship for up to $20,000, in addition to mentorship and virtual internship opportunities through Gucci America. The initiative focused on students from diverse backgrounds with unmet financial needs, including those who plan to attend or currently attend a HBCU.
In a statement, Antoine Phillips, vice president of brand and culture engagement at Gucci, said of North America Changemakers: "As education is vital to implementing real change and ensuring diverse voices are in positions of power, it is more important than ever to foster the next generation of talent."
Hayden points out that the high-profile designers and brands (like Gucci) who have relationships with predominantly white schools, whether as mentors or lecturers or recruiters, have the power to change things, too.
"They have to fundamentally adjust who they're looking at and hold the schools accountable," he says. "The schools want their clout, their legitimacy. For the celebrity designers being involved in the school that draw a lot of students to the school to enroll — those people who are getting a check cut to them have to recognize they have a lot of power in dictating how [the schools] operate."
It would be unrealistic to expect schools like Parsons and FIT to reverse decades of systemic racism overnight — and they're still in the process of laying out their exact plans to enact fundamental change. Perhaps they were at fault for exposing their hypocrisy by speaking out too soon. But the silver lining has been an opening up of this conversation. Let's hope they're reading the comments.
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