Not everyone who works in fashion went to fashion school, but colleges with fashion-related concentrations remain the clearest pipeline into the industry — which is why it's no surprise that schools and members of the industry have long been in bed with one another. In the world of fashion programs, a school's relationships with prominent designers and brands can make it all the more attractive to applicants.
Fashion schools and fashion companies collaborate on projects of all shapes and sizes that run the gamut from scholarships, mentorships and internships (really all the 'ships) to competitions, incubators, branded courses and training programs. You'll find these partnerships within fashion programs around the world, big and small. But, historically, the most impressive and abundant ones have been between luxury companies (think LVMH, Kering and the individual brands within them) and the most prestigious, highly ranked design schools, like Central Saint Martins (CSM), London College of Fashion (LCF), Polimoda and Parsons School of Design.
CSM, known for its long list of successful alumni (Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, John Galliano, Christopher Kane, Riccardo Tisci, to name a few), has no shortage of ties to the industry. Its latest splashy partnership actually launches Friday, as a kick-off to London Fashion Week. Last summer, CSM worked with Tod's to debut a new program called Tod's Legacy, where 35 student designers were chosen to receive scholarships and be paired with an industry mentor like Hamish Bowles, Sarah Mower or Simone Rocha. Then, they were tasked with interpreting one or more of the brand's house codes for a final project, which will be unveiled (digitally) at LFW.
Also at CSM, LVMH sponsored a LVMH Lecture Theatre, a space for "thought provoking events and lectures," and collaborated with the school on a Sustainability and Innovation in Luxury program in 2017 that included a career fair of sorts. LVMH also sponsors multiple scholarships for students to attend CSM; Self-Portrait, Bottega Veneta and Farfetch are also among the many fashion companies that back namesake scholarships at the school.
Meanwhile, at Polimoda in Italy, students can take a leather-goods course devised in collaboration with LVMH's professional training program, Institut des Métiers d'Excellence. Or, they can pursue a masters degree in fashion retail management devised in partnership with Kering-owned Gucci, through which students are lectured by Gucci managers and select graduates are chosen for internships and jobs within the the conglomerate's network.
At LCF, you can take an online sustainability and luxury fashion course co-developed by Kering's sustainability experts. Or, in Parsons's BFA Fashion Design Program, you could compete to win the Kering-sponsored "Empowering Imagination" award and get to tour the company's production factories and brand facilities in Italy. Laurent Claquin, president of Kering Americas, even sits on the school's board.
"We have relationships with the best schools that are close to where our headquarters are," he tells me when asked how Kering chooses which colleges to work with. "It's easier to engage relationships and involve the staff and employees." With Parsons, for instance, "we have developed relationship really based on a pragmatic approach. It's: Okay, what do you need? What do you want? How can we support? And vice versa."
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Often, a major draw of these partnerships is giving students real-world professional experience while they're still in school. At Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), for instance, there's a program called SCADpro, where a company comes in with an actual creative or business-related challenge, and students are tasked with solving it collaboratively, as part of a course. Past brand partners have included Hermès and Kendra Scott.
At the beginning of this year, PacSun announced a project with the Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF), an organization that partners with 66 top U.S. fashion schools and raises money from individual and corporate sponsors to support fashion students and alumni with everything from scholarships and mentoring to career opportunities and networking events — sort of like a middle man between schools and brands. With its PacSun collab, FSF alumni will collaborate with the teen retailer's creative team on a limited-edition "gender-free" capsule collection that will be sold in stores and online.
Fashion schools have a lot of reasons for wanting to partner up with brands — and for wanting to publicize those partnerships. It makes them more visible and attractive to applicants, for one. Michael Fink, SCAD's dean of fashion, tells me that as it's developed relationships with bigger and bigger names in the industry over the years, the school's profile has risen (especially crucial for a school that's not located in a fashion capital like New York or London). These schools can boast of their vast professional networks that will purportedly help students land internships and jobs, of the prominent figures who come in for lectures and of cool projects where students are exposed to the real-world applications of the theory and skills they learn in class.
But why do brands want to partner up with fashion schools? According to people like Fink and Peter Arnold, executive director of the FSF, there's no shortage of incoming interest from brands and designers eager to support students and their academic endeavors, whether it's financial, career-related or more creative in nature. One simple answer is recruiting talent, which is likely how the tradition of companies working with schools began: They can look at these programs as a talent funnel, and by partnering with the best ones, they can forge relationships with the the best talent early on.
There's also this idea of a symbiotic relationship between brands and schools — an exchange of ideas where the companies are learning from the students as well. Students may be thinking more creatively or working on something more innovative than what a designer or executive at a brand is typically exposed to. According to Claquin, working with the next generation of talent is important to Kering because, as he puts it, the group is "highly dependent on creativity."
"The way Kering define its ambition, it's really to be the most influential luxury group in the world combining creativity, sustainability and business performance," he says. "We don't want to be the biggest or the largest, but the most influential, and we start with creativity."
Claquin gives the example of Lucy Jones, a Parsons alumna who won the "Empowering Imagination" competition back in 2015 for her designs that took into consideration the needs of wheelchair-bound individuals. "How great is that, for us to open our eyes around this? There's so much to learn and so much to give as well," he notes.
Similarly, the Tod's Legacy project is the first under what the brand has dubbed Tod's Academy, through which the luxury brand plans to bring students and artisans together to collaborate and share ideas. "This is a beautiful project that supports students and at the same time brings unusual and innovative points of view to Tod's," Tod's Group President Diego Della Valle said, in a statement.
For PacSun, by working with the FSF, the brand can tap into a group that may already be passionate about unisex design — something it knew its customers were interested in — and is eager to enter the space. Working with young people also helps these companies keep their finger on the pulse and better understand the zeitgeist.
There's also the marketing opportunity: At the risk of sounding cynical, I can't help but notice that many of these projects give PR teams something to write press releases about. In an era when brands are all but required to stand for a cause or engage in some sort of philanthropic endeavor, giving back to the next generation is a good look. In many cases, partnering with schools to nurture young talent may simply be part of a company's corporate social responsibility strategy.
Having worked in the space for many years, FSF's Arnold has certainly seen examples of that. "It's a little like talking about sustainability and brands that are greenwashing and they're just doing it gratuitously because it's the flavor and so they hope that becomes part of the value proposition [of the brand]," he explains. "I think for the most part, everybody that we're working with, they're quite committed to this in a very genuine way, [but] you can't deny there are going to be some opportunities when you do something to kind of market the fact that you're doing it."
However, he's noticed that, recently — and especially post-pandemic — brands' efforts have felt increasingly genuine. It seems that during this challenging time for the industry, they've only become more interested in "giving back" by uplifting those next in line. "I do think, for the most part, this feels like shift in people's attention and commitment," he says.
As brands' objective are starting to evolve, so too are the ways in which they engage with schools and students. And in addition to the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the industry's ensuing realization that it needs to reassess its hiring practices has had an impact. It's no longer enough to just support the next generation of talent and funnel them into your company when you can also have an impact on the kinds of people who get the opportunity to become the next generation of talent. And that involves looking beyond those famous design schools within fashion capitals.
"I think it's great to talk about the talent funnel, but you really have to make sure that you have everybody that rightly should be in that funnel, and then that the playing field is leveled so some of these kids who are underrepresented — and consequently maybe not as able to be as successful — get the support that they need," says Arnold. Because the FSF already works with students who are underrepresented and/or financially needy, it's garnered more interest from brands in recent months. "There's more attention on talent; there's definitely more attention on talent of color," he notes.
One of the organization's biggest recent partnerships has been with Virgil Abloh, who raised over $1 million last summer to fund scholarships for Black students. He also serves on the FSF board, has visited FSF's HBCU partners and served as a judge for scholarship recipients. Arnold points to Abloh as an example of a member of the industry who want to "do more" than just be a corporate sponsor.
There are also individuals like Brandon Maxwell, who in June 2020 established the Brandon Maxwell Studio Scholarship for BIPOC FSF Scholars, for which 10% of net proceeds from sales on his website will be committed. He also supports the organization as a mentor.
Of course, a conversation about brands working with schools to diversify the industry's talent pipeline wouldn't be complete without mentioning Gucci. Through Gucci Changemakers — which notably was set up in 2019, before the reckoning of summer 2020 — the Italian fashion house set up an impact fund for nonprofit organizations that benefit communities of color as well as a need-based scholarship program specifically for high school seniors and undergraduate college students with diverse backgrounds looking to pursue fashion-related careers. Also notably, the initiative makes it a point to engage with schools that other companies weren't, like HBCUs and community colleges.
Lately, it seems other fashion companies are following in Gucci's footsteps. Last September, Burberry announced it would fund scholarship specifically for students from "historically underrepresented communities" at schools including Parsons, Institut Français de la Mode and Central Saint Martins. "In order to truly diversify the talent we bring into this industry, we have to meaningfully commit to diversifying our talent pipeline," Erica Bourne, Burberry's chief people officer, said in a statement at the time. "This starts before the workplace, in education."
This February, Capri Holdings (owner of Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo and Versace) formed the The Capri Holdings Foundation for the Advancement of Diversity in Fashion, which "will work collaboratively with colleges and high schools to create meaningful opportunities in fashion," according to a press release.
Whether or not these companies are motivated by marketing, these are steps in the right direction for an industry notoriously resistant to change. As Antoine Phillips, Gucci's vice president of brand and culture engagement, put it to me in a recent interview, "If we step out of our precious boxes sometimes, and realize and look a bit deeper, that's where the magic can happen."