Fashion has a problem: Black people are under-indexed in the industry compared to their white counterparts. In part to address this issue, Levi Strauss & Co. partnered with Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR) to support the development of next generation Black fashion professionals through a three-year partnership with Clark Atlanta University’s art and fashion program.
We couldn’t ask for better partners in this effort. Founded in 2007 by Brandice Daniel, HFR is dedicated to creating opportunities for designers of color and nurturing the growth of emerging fashion professionals. And Clark Atlanta University is one of the nation’s leading and more storied HBCUs. The program began over the past academic year with a new design curriculum designed and taught by LS&Co. staff that counseled students and provided aspiring fashion designers at Clark Atlanta the opportunity to work under the mentorship of industry leaders.
“More than providing internships and direct financial support, we wanted to work together with Clark Atlanta University to build something that could last,” says Paul Dillinger, LS&Co. vice president of global product innovation. “Our program is designed to do two things: Enable greater access for young BIPOC talent to LS&Co.’s creative talent pipeline, and to contribute to the education of young Black designers.”
Fashion is a huge, sprawling industry, and the curriculum introduced Clark Atlanta art and fashion students to the broad range of creative career opportunities they can pursue after school. Over the course of the recently concluded spring semester, the art and fashion program hosted 19 guest instructors from different departments at LS&Co. who collectively mapped out the fashion industry landscape for students, broadening their understanding of their field.
“Having interactions with professionals who are incredible in their fields was life changing for these students,” says BJ Arnett, chair of Clark Atlanta University’s art and fashion program. “These students spent two years with no connectivity to their professors or classmates—all because of something they didn’t do.”
Beyond the practical lessons, the interactions within the program helped students in other ways as well, says Professor Arnett. She noted that during the pandemic, faculty could sense students beginning to lose hope as their college experiences and professional prospects were altered and seemingly constricted. “But everyone from LS&Co. who spoke had a defeat-to-triumph story,” she says. “They had a tenacity to not stop. Our students needed to hear that.”
Most students, Professor Arnett explains, look at professionals’ success without considering the journey that came before. “When speakers began to tell their backstories, students thought, ‘I can do this. And maybe I can do this with Levi’s®.’”
In April, LS&Co. closed out the semester on campus with the students for Clark Atlanta University’s annual Art & Fashion Week. The program’s 38 seniors had the opportunity to receive in-person coaching and mentorship from LS&Co. employees and HFR executives. LS&Co. and HFR also provided portfolio reviews, speed interviews and fireside chats. The week concluded with the 7th annual spring fashion show, where students showcased their collections.
Going forward, LS&Co. plans to build on last semester’s foundation. The company will add more tools and content, investing not only in the students, but also in the faculty and the entire arts and fashion department.
“By Year 3, we’d like to hire at a high scale,” says Brandon Stephens, LS&Co.’s global head of talent acquisition. “If I wanted to set a target, we’d like to see at least 15-20% of Clark Atlanta art and fashion students come through our doors after graduating.”
What’s more, he adds, “Ideally, we’d like to replicate this model at other HBCUs. That’s our north star.”
LS&Co. will welcome three Clark Atlanta students into their 2022 Summer Internship Program. Harlem’s Fashion Row and LS&Co. look forward to taking the partnership to the next level in the 2022-2023 academic school year.