By Ray A. Smith
Fashion designers, labels and schools are ramping up efforts to strengthen the pipeline of Black talent as the industry, pressed by a national reckoning over race, scrambles to respond to criticism of its lack of diversity in studios and executive offices.
The goal is to lay the groundwork for professional opportunities earlier by targeting Black high-school and college students who aspire to work in fashion, and build a deep bench of talent to help ensure more-diverse workplaces.
Virgil Abloh, one of fashion's most successful Black designers, plans to announce Thursday a scholarship fund for Black fashion students. Founder of the popular label Off-White and artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, Mr. Abloh raised $1 million to benefit scholarships for Black students through the fund, which will be managed in partnership with the Fashion Scholarship Fund, an education and workforce-development nonprofit.
"With the awakening that has happened in the last month, it's time to turn the volume up with solutions," Mr. Abloh said. The fund will help "change the fashion industry to give more opportunity to young Black kids that are like myself."
The fund marks the latest initiative focused on future generations of Blacks pursuing fashion careers. Gucci last month announced the first class of its North America Changemakers Scholars, a scholarship program. The 20 students -- all people of color -- will receive up to $20,000 as well as mentorship and internship opportunities at Gucci America. The Council of Fashion Designers of America said it would create mentorship and internship programs for Black students and recent graduates.
Fashion schools, which have long had low rates of Black student enrollment, also are introducing or beefing up scholarship and mentorship programs for Black students.
In June, the Fashion Institute of Technology said it was working to develop a scholarship in the name of George Floyd to help it recruit and support more minority students. The Savannah College of Art and Design, where Blacks represented 10.17% of undergraduates and 8.22% of graduate students in the 2019-2020 academic year, recently added 15 endowed scholarships for Black students. All have been awarded in the past two weeks.
Parsons School of Design in New York last month announced plans for funding, mentorship and professional opportunities to support the creative work and talents of Black students and alumni. "We can't simply wait to see who applies as seniors in high school to our fashion design program, we have to do our part of helping high-school students, junior high-school students, grade-school students see these careers and futures for themselves," said executive dean Rachel Schreiber. The school has had diversity initiatives for years but recent events prompted a focus on Blacks specifically. The school wasn't able to release demographics of its students, a spokesman said.
Some experts say the diversity problem is bigger than a lacking pipeline. "We've been talking about a talent bench of people for 50 years and counting, so people could be excused a little skepticism if that is the reason why the fashion industry is claiming it has been unable to diversify its ranks," said Pamela Newkirk, author of the 2019 book "Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business." "It's not because there haven't been enough scholarships. It's because there hasn't been the will to diversify" when making hiring decisions.
When Louis Vuitton menswear tapped Mr. Abloh as its artistic director in 2018, it marked the second time in recent years, after Olivier Rousteing's appointment at Balmain in 2011, that a Black person helmed design duties at a luxury fashion house. Rihanna, now at her own LVMH-backed brand, makes three. Throughout his career, Mr. Abloh has used his influence to hire and promote other young Black talents while sending messages about Black culture in his shows. In January, his Off-White runway show included a shirt that read "I Support Young Black Businesses."
The fund is a "conscious decision to slowly start turning up the volume on my advocacy that I've started early in my career," he said. The designer received criticism for appearing to be dismissive on social media about the Black Lives Matter movement. He subsequently apologized for his posts and attempted to clarify his intentions. He said the fund isn't a knee-jerk response to critics and that his long advocacy record should speak for itself.
The Virgil Abloh(TM) "Post-Modern" Scholarship Fund offers support to a range of schools, including historically Black colleges and universities and fashion schools. The name signifies that students will receive not only funds, but also access to career-support services and mentoring.
In addition to his own donation, Mr. Abloh raised funds from companies he has partnered with, including Louis Vuitton, Evian, online fashion retailer Farfetch, and New Guards Group, a holding company that backs Off-White. Farfetch acquired New Guards Group last year.
Write to Ray A. Smith at email@example.com