For many, higher education for creative careers is the golden ticket to escape conservative childhood towns and find your creative voice. You're placed in classrooms amongst like-minded peers all hungry to manifest their imagination. You learn the language of your discipline and develop your craft. Along the way, the words and the work harmonize, and you see your voice manifest in your medium, be it in paint, film or, in my case, fashion.
The 2007 September issue of American Vogue was my first glimpse into a world outside my "Friday Night Lights" town. The editorial of Sienna Miller in feathered dresses traipsing around Rome on holiday were compelling images to inspire a gay, Black, mixed-race kid from Copperas Cove, Texas into a transplant fashion designer in New York City over a decade later. Before then, my concept of fashion — let alone the idea that people made clothing — was a completely unexplored realm of my creativity.
When asked, "What do you want to go to college for?" in high school, my desire to study fashion was met with the scoffing chuckle and a dismissive, "Good luck with that" from my white World History teacher. A decade later I would hear Jeffrey Banks on the first day of fashion week at Phillip Lim's store in Soho sharing a similar story: a Black teacher skeptical of his aspiration, exclaiming, "Who ever heard of a Black fashion designer?"
I earned my Master of Fine Arts in Fashion Design from The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 2016. I was naïve to believe life in Savannah, Georgia — and an acceptance into this echelon of "Ivy League" design education — would be like growing up in Texas.
Savannah is a port city with a waterfront in the Historic District along its river. It's every bit as visually idyllic as it's depicted in John Berendt's 1994 novel, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil": Spanish moss hangs from trees illustrating every lazy breeze in its balmy climate during the day and a spooky, spidery setting as seedy as its history at night.
But when you are a Black student in Savannah, your lived experience is at odds with your education.
On your way to the campus library on Broughton Street, you walk through square after square, each one a reminder of the town's Atlantic Slave Trade history. You're reminded daily of the privilege and significance of your opportunity to access resources that are tough to find outside NYC's Parsons and FIT or London's College of Fashion as you walk by Confederate statues and places still named Runaway Negro Creek.
The weight of my golden ticket became heavier when I took elective courses outside the Historic District — on "the other side of the tracks" — at the Gulfstream Center for Industrial Design and Montgomery (Monty) Hall for Animation. There, I was confronted with Savannah's economic segregation, where Black people make up more than half of the residents but only around 11% of its marquee design school's student body. Of about 45 available spots in SCAD's MFA program for Fashion Design, I was one of three Black students during my three years.
As is required of most fashion education programs, I completed an internship on NYC's Seventh Avenue, inside the same building that houses brands like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Badgley Mischka. Unique to my internship, I was included in the Christmas costume party where the employees were placed into teams of different music genres. The "hip-hop" team printed out faces of Black rappers and attached them to sticks held up to their faces, completing their costumes donning oversized tracksuits and gold chains.
These problematic stories continue in anecdotes I collected from dozens of former classmates and current colleagues: first interviews greeted with, "Oh, you're Black," portfolios suspected of plagiarism, being confused for the assistant, being thrown under the bus as an affirmative-action scapegoat. Some attended department meetings where their presence would go unacknowledged despite being required, their input ignored even when it would directly affect their work. It's a repertoire of disrespect both intentional and ignorant, but always absentmindedly taking place.
In an internal diversity and inclusion panel I attended with Fashion For All Foundation at a major fashion brand's headquarters last year, I asked the HR moderator what companies can do to affect internal change if they are hiring candidates from a biased education system. She told me, as a matter of fact, the disparity "is part of the journey."
As I wrapped up my college internship in 2015, Matthew Ajibade, a student, was brutally murdered by Savannah police. During a bipolar episode and without medication, entreated by his girlfriend to be taken when he was arrested, the police restrained him to a jail cell chair and beat him to death and tasered his genitals. Upon investigation, nine officers were fired in connection to Ajibade's death.
Despite campus security's relationship with local law enforcement (which I became familiar with as an employed Graduate Mentor), SCAD didn't do enough to assure students they need not be fearful for their safety. Though design schools attract international enrollment and provide inclusive holiday recognition and budgeted celebrations for their diverse student bodies, to my knowledge, there are no initiatives that tackle America's history of oppression, or that seek to support the physical and mental safety of Black students as it relates to their ultimate success and quality of life.
Being Black in the fashion industry, you find yourself living in two worlds: One is life as a Black American, its sobering reality playing out in the media; the other is at school and work, where the social currency of labels and pedigree are king, and acknowledging mental health is inappropriate and unprofessional.
Kimberly Jenkins, who became the country's only Fashion and Race educator while at Parsons (she's now at Canada's Ryerson University), says "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" who weather the torrential ocean of fashion.
With three times the number of graduates than jobs available, career prospects — especially in the wake of Covid-19 — are scarce. The prerequisite to work in fashion is the financial handicap to swim in competitive, nepotistic waters that leave many risking it all without a life preserver. Entrepreneurship is inevitable.
I have enrolled in, attended, tutored and taught in classrooms at SCAD, at a nonprofit headquartered at Parsons and at The Art Institute of Dallas. I have participated in, presented at and witnessed the critique, the critical moment where every student's tuition is tested. These dialogues about design are defined in syllabi as "constructive": You stand before your peers alone, voicing your thinking behind the work and gauge its reception. In those moments, fashion educators have a duty to mine all potential and motivate design maturation. But sometimes, the exchange becomes an impasse for the student.
I was told my thesis, which featured hand-embroidered and beaded map-like grids inspired by gentrification and gerrymandering, was "too angry." I was told because faculty was "not sure what will come out of [my] mouth," I wouldn't be placed in front of powerfully-connected industry guests like other students who won international competitions.
Fashion education should not temper the Black life experiences that inspire its depiction in student work and then seek to control the narrative. These clothes hold our secrets, heal our pain and tell our stories in our voices — a form of catharsis on the path to self-actualization. And isn't self-actualization higher education's core value in a student's life?
We are told "no" inside and outside school. We are ignored, while we see our white counterparts take, make and dispose of aspects of our culture, sometimes with shameless, offensive imagery. What is it about Black creativity that prompts critical scrutiny by faculty and excludes it from the robust archive of European and Asian imagination in fashion programs?
How Can Racism Be Addressed in Fashion Schools?
Kimberly Jenkins Wants to Help Decolonize Our Understanding of Fashion
Tanya Taylor Has a Message for Small Business Owners: Do, Don't Think
American fashion has a unique past, unlike any other, that is a legitimate gauge of the equality promised in this country. The dialogue about what we wear and what it says about who we are is always more exciting and rewarding the more voices we involve. In this way, fashion parallels other conversations in society.
When we talk about privilege in fashion, we are really talking about opportunity. While it might exist for all, the frequency of that opportunity is where disparity lies. The absence of diversity is evidence of that.
Fashion education has the power to set the agenda for the industry as it educates its future leaders. And that effort should go beyond job placements and mentorship for Black students. We don't want to reinforce the validation of a chosen few that are then paraded around by the industry — that would only continue to malign worthy depictions of fashion careers inclusive of pattern making, textile development, design for disability, fiber science, and other realms of growing academic research in identity, sustainability and technology.
This fall, higher education is tasked with continuing to prepare its students for the future. That includes the future of Black talent, despite the challenges the pandemic has created. We will find ourselves six feet apart, but it will require even more effort to reach across that chasm.
There's still time to affect serious course correction before classes begin. It's not enough to curate Black art for the campus, hire adjunct Black professors, and bring in Black industry guests to review work. These are temporary, fleeting and noncommittal efforts that keep systemic change finite. One thing was clear from collecting student stories: Schools must hire Black, tenure-eligible professors and administrators to affect meaningful, lasting change and build the most wholly developed curriculum. They owe it to their students.
Having shown in Nice during his undergraduate studies at The Art Institute of Dallas, Johnathan Hayden officially began his brand while finishing his graduate studies at The Savannah College of Art and Design in 2015. His work has contributed to exploring meaningful applications of technology in fashion including augmented reality showcased at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fashion Week in Tokyo. In addition to the creative direction of his womenswear brand housed in the New York City Garment District, Johnathan illustrates textbooks and assists in the creative direction of brands and presentations. This work has included award winning Inclusive Design solutions for disability at Open Style Lab and runway production for The Narativ at the NY NOW international Javits trade show.