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Mentoring scheme aims to give black fashion students equal footing

Date 26.10.2020

Black fashion students are being equipped to overcome the systemic barriers that cause the underrepresentation of leading black designers within the UK fashion industry.

The University of Northampton’s fashion department has teamed up with the Africa Fashion Week London organisation to offer undergraduates personal coaching and masterclasses from some of the UK’s leading fashion industry professionals of colour.

The aim is to prepare the students for the barriers they may face in their careers, and how to overcome them.

‘Enough of the talk, let’s take action’

“Black designers in the UK have to work twice as hard to get on in the industry,” is the blunt message from Michael Burgess, who is Africa Fashion Week’s Global Strategic Partnership and Sponsorship Manager.

To make sure black designers can hit the ground running, with the tools and attitude they need to overcome the industry’s ingrained obstacles, Michael says it’s crucial they receive the necessary support to understand overcome these barriers while learning the ropes at college or university. Having this support, he feels, should also help to bridge the attainment gap between black and white students while they’re still in education.

Michael points to a 2019 report from Universities UK and the National Union of Students which found just 57 per cent of black students who graduated in 2017 achieved a first or a 2:1 compared to 81 per cent of white students.

“I found this to be horrific, but I also wasn’t surprised,” he said. “For some reason there’s a disconnection and that really motivated us to do something about it, and the University of Northampton was incredibly receptive to our ideas. We thought, ‘enough of the talk, let’s take action’.”

Photo of the mentors

The mentors, clockwise from top left: Samson Soboye, Jatin Patel, Terence ‘Tee’ Eben, Adebayo Jones, Leigh Odimah, Yemi Osunkoya and Elfreda Fakoya.

As well as the mentoring, and the networking opportunities it brings, the partnership with Africa Fashion Week has given the students other chances to open doors they might otherwise have struggled to open. This includes exhibiting their work, virtually, at Sustainability Fashion Week New York, which, in turn provides them with visibility and access to the market. The students are also granted access to photoshoots, enjoy field trips, and masterclasses.

Michael added: “The fashion industry is still mainly seen from a white European perspective. This has to be dismantled, so no matter what ethnicity you are, your work gets the same amount of visibility and you get the same resources as everybody else. Whether that happens in the next generation, or the next 10 years, I don’t know, but there will be progress. We are doing everything to level the playing field for these students.”

‘People will still judge, but we are stronger thanks to being part of this group’

Dashanae Waysom is one of the second year Fashion students taking part in the mentoring scheme. The 21 year old from Tottenham, who is of Jamaican descent, has regular virtual meetings with esteemed London-based fashion designer and style consultant, Adebayo Jones.

“Adebayo has been amazing,” said Dashanae. “I doubt myself all the time and he’s looked at my work and been really encouraging about it, which has helped. He has answers and solutions for everything I ask about. Having this access to him is really making a difference for me.

“There are barriers to black designers, but Adebayo has been clear that shouldn’t stop me, that I have something different to offer, and I should have confidence in my work.”

Headshots of Dashanae-Waysom-and-adebayo-jones

Dashanae Waysom and her mentor, Adebayo Jones

Dashanae added: “The mentorship programme means a lot to all of us taking part in it. It gives us our own space and platform and we are embracing our skin colour. People will still judge, but we are stronger thanks to being part of this group.”

‘I am proof that you can make it in fashion’

For Adebayo, being a mentor resonates deeply with him. When he moved from Nigeria to London in the 1980s, to study fashion, his daily route to college took him past a boutique on New Bond Street.

“It was owned by a Nigerian princess, and in the end, I was popping in every day to try and speak to her,” said Adebayo.

“After a few visits, she was in the store and I told her I loved fashion and wanted to work for her and learn from her.

“She saw my enthusiasm and gave me a part-time job. I was dazzled by the sequins and stones she used with traditional cloth, I was in heaven. I learnt so much from her, I asked so many questions and was exposed to international labels. It opened my eyes to the opportunities out there, and that yes, I could follow my dream.

“Being a mentor to the students at Northampton is a similar relationship. I am here to pass on everything I know, to inspire and encourage them.

“I see so much potential in Dashanae, but to fulfil it, she needs to work hard and focus – and by giving her the right support, she will have every chance of being a success.”

Adebayo added: “I am proof that you can make it in fashion – you have to have the same determination I had when I wanted to break into the industry. I explain to the students that they have to work hard and make themselves visible. Become a problem solver, become the go-to person, become so recognisable to people in the industry that there’s no chance you’ll not get the work. It won’t come to you, you have to make it happen and keep believing that when you get a knock back.

“It was all about relationships when I was starting out, and getting yourself known. Now they have social media, so in some ways it can be easier to get noticed, but you still need to build relationships with people in the industry, and if you do, you’ll go further than most.”

Students must see themselves in the curriculum

Senior Lecturer in Fashion, Gavin Douglas, has been thrilled to see the effect the mentoring has had on his students.

He said: “In 2019, 57 per cent of the University’s newly enrolled students were from students of colour. So, it was essential that we liberate our resources to reflect our student cohort and enable our students to see themselves in the curriculum.

“Our partnership with AFWL is a fantastic opportunity that enhances the educational and career aspirations of not only our students of colour, but is also an opportunity for ALL Fashion students to learn more about the African diaspora.”

Six of the fashion students taking part in the mentoring programme. Clockwise from top left: Kwame Anderson, Dashanae Waysom, Fatoumata Jarra, Monica Copeland, Emma Dodd and Lia Amare.

Six of the fashion students taking part in the mentoring programme. Clockwise from top left: Kwame Anderson, Dashanae Waysom, Fatoumata Jarra, Monica Copeland, Emma Dodd and Lia Amare.

Adebayo Jones is one of seven mentors, with the others being Elfreda Fakoya, Jatin Patel, Leigh Odimah, Samson Soboye, Terence ‘Tee’ Eben and Yemi Osunkoya.