Called out for their lack of diversity in the wake of George Floyd’s death, fashion companies are stepping up their efforts to recruit more Black employees by scouting talent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Many HBCUs have developed burgeoning fashion programs, including Howard University, Clark Atlanta University, and Bowie State University. When most people think of fashion design schools, they focus on the big-name schools in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London including Parsons, FIT, FIDM, and Central Saint Martins.
While these schools have produced some of the most notable fashion industry talents, they aren’t the only institutions out there. HBCUs have been fighting tooth and nail to ensure their students stand a chance of landing positions with notable fashion companies post-graduation.
Dr. Damayanthie Eluwawalage, an assistant professor and professional historian at Delaware State University’s fashion design department, has been teaching fashion design at the Dover, Delaware, institution for several semesters. She works to get students plugged into as many opportunities as possible via her own network, but the lack of fashion companies recruiting at Delaware State means that she’s seen many talented students fail to realise their potential.
“There are remarkable students, but they are static,” Dr. Eluwawalage said. “They don’t get the opportunities to move on to the next level, and they just disappear from the fashion industry. That is very sad to me. From time to time, you find these students who are diamonds in the rough, and it’s a crime to watch them disappear.”
Prior to working at Delaware State University (DESU), Dr. Eluwawalage worked for the State University of New York (SUNY) system. The SUNY system had the advantage of many major fashion companies having offices and locations in New York City, whereas with Delaware State, there is a challenge in getting students similar opportunities because the fashion industry isn’t immediately present.
While Delaware State University’s fashion department doesn’t have an established internship program. Dr. Eluwawalage has utilized her network to try and get her students’ feet in the door with any internships she hears about, because she feels internships are the most important thing for aspiring fashion-industry professionals.
“Every little thing I can do for my students, I try to do,” Dr. Eluwawalage said. “For my senior classes, we go through interview techniques, I help them with references, I review their CVs, and above all else I assist with their digital portfolios. DESU’s fashion department is a small department, but the good thing is I have so much time to spend with my students on a personal level and really get to know and help them.
“While we don’t have the career services and internship program formality that schools like FIT and Parsons do, the professors here work as hard as possible to prepare the students for the job market, and use our networks to plug our students in to any opportunities we hear of.”
Michael Lewis, a senior fashion designer student at Delaware State University, said that there were so many things he loved about getting to attend an HBCU, but not attending one of the big New York or Los Angeles colleges did pose its challenges.
“Attending Delaware State was affordable, and I got to work with people who were like minded and culturally similar to me,” Lewis said. “Delaware State is a very diverse and contemporary HBCU, and there were so many resources provided, and people understood the struggles of trying to maintain a degree. People understood the family dynamics and backgrounds we came from.”
Lewis added that, “[It was a disadvantage] not being not being in New York or Los Angeles because we didn’t have the same access to industry. The biggest thing that can happen for us in Delaware is working at a small boutique or independent kiosk. My skill set and my eyes are on bigger dreams than that.”
In the wake of the 2020 civil rights protests, a multitude of Black fashion industry professionals founded the Black in Fashion Council. Currently, one of the organization’s initiatives is career-recruiting and mentorship for the next generation of Black talent.
“This spring, we will be rolling out a job fair that will be partnering with HBCUs, charter schools and community organizations,” said Lindsay Peoples Wagner, co-founder of Black in Fashion Council and editor-in-chief of The Cut. “We also have 100 companies we have signed onto Black in Fashion Council to expose young BIPOC students to career opportunities, internships, and mentorship earlier on.”
Although further details are still under wraps, this is expected be one of the biggest pushes to get HBCU students noticed by fashion companies.
Earlier this year, Gap Inc. announced it would be signing Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge. While the Pledge was originally for multi-brand retailers to commit to stocking 15 percent Black-owned brands, it has since expanded to include fashion companies that want to diversify their workforce.
Gap Inc. has said it will be leveraging its relationships with colleges and universities to increase its number of Black interns.
Historically, most fashion companies tend to focus on a small selection of schools. A 2017 report by the Business of Fashion found that many top fashion companies from Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein parent company PVH Corp. to major luxury plays, like Louis Vuitton and Dior parent company LVMH, appear to have a feeder pattern of schools, the majority of which are predominantly white institutions, and this is across the globe.
Tommy Hilfiger’s Amsterdam headquarters recruits heavily from Kingston University. Menswear brand Brioni partners with London’s Royal College of Art each school year to recruit interns. Kering, the parent company of Gucci and Balenciaga, has a partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion.
At Parsons School of Design, Kering grants two BFA students’ internships or apprenticeships at one of their brands every year. LVMH is known to recruit heavily from Parsons, Central Saint Martins, and the Institut Français de la Mode. The luxury conglomerate also looks at Harvard Business School, INSEAD, and Paris’ HEC to hire MBAs.
Slowly but surely, fashion companies are starting to put more emphasis on prominent HBCUs. Angela Bacskocky, a program coordinator and assistant professor of textile and apparel merchandising and management at Virginia State University, said that on occasion fashion companies have reached out to the university for recruitment, but not as often as they would like.
Companies including Pensole, Business of Fashion, Fashionista, Gucci, and Saks Fifth Avenue have all reached out directly to Virginia State University about collaboration opportunities, and these have proved fruitful for students.
Bacskocky said that the career services department at her school doesn’t seem particularly focused on partnering with companies in the fashion and art fields, but she has worked hard as a program coordinator and made it her personal focus to reach out to companies to take her students into consideration for employment opportunities.
“HBCUs have a sense of community and camaraderie I have not experienced at other schools,” Bacskocky said. “Students help each other and support each other and form a tight network. They truly want to see each other succeed and there is a beautiful spirt of family, love, and compassion.”
Bacskocky has made it her mission in her current role at the university to try and build Virginia State University’s fashion program to be as competitive with the top fashion schools.
“As program coordinator, I want to develop partnerships with fashion brands and retailer from all over the world and broaden the opportunities and expectations of our students,” she said. “I want our students to travel abroad, experience other cultures, and see beyond their current limits. I want our students to partner with real companies and gain first-hand experience in fashion and retail while still in school. I realize there are companies out there now who are confused about how to be more inclusive in their hiring process, and I want them to realize that they can come to us at VSU, recruit directly from our program, and help train eager students to fulfill their specific needs.”