When Laura Edwards launched Mentoring Matters, a UK-based global mentoring scheme, this time last year, the aim was to offer support to aspiring young professionals from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds hoping to break into the creative industry. “We started the scheme very quietly without any expectations,” said Edwards.
Fast forward one year, and Mentoring Matters has teamed up with some of the fashion world’s most celebrated individuals, including fast-rising fashion designer Supriya Lele, photographer Nadine Ijewere and stylist Fran Burns, to help 125 people from over a dozen countries including India, Nigeria, New Zealand, Japan, Ghana and the UK get their break. The scheme has also introduced MM Alumni, a networking platform to help former mentees connect and collaborate with their peers.
“This isn’t a short-term rotating door scenario but a sustained support system,” said Edwards. “I think we have created a cross-generational, multi-disciplinary community for change.”
Mentoring Matters is just one example of the necessary change taking place within an industry that has repeatedly been called out for its failure to address allegations of systemic racism and classism across the board. Although data on fashion’s demographic make-up is hard to come by, the figures that do exist paint a bleak picture. Over 90 per cent of jobs in the creative industries in 2018 were held by people from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, according to a British government survey. And a report by McKinsey & Company from 2019 found that employees of colour make up just 32 per cent of entry-level positions in fashion, a number that’s halved to 16 per cent in C-suite roles.
Mentoring Matters is not alone in the fight for a more equitable fashion system. Over the course of the last year, a growing number of companies and nonprofits have launched mentorship schemes of their own in a bid to lower fashion’s barriers to entry.
RAISEFashion, a grassroots nonprofit organisation that connects Black-owned brands and individuals to fashion industry professionals for pro bono mentorship services, made its debut alongside Mentoring Matters last summer in response to the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. A couple of months later, Slow Factory Foundation announced partnerships with Adidas and Stella McCartney to provide free online educational resources taught by and for people of colour. Meanwhile, Pyer Moss partnered with Kering on Your Friends In New York, an incubator-like programme to support up-and-coming designers.
Others, like ROOM Mentoring, a grassroots support network founded by Grazia deputy editor Kenya Hunt with the aim of uplifting and amplifying marginalised voices within fashion, has been doing the work for years.
AnOther takes a look at the urgent work mentoring schemes are doing to offer access and advice to aspiring fashion professionals – and why there’s still a long way to go.
Demystifying the Industry
For budding fashion writer Safia Nazir, who was partnered with Net-a-Porter content director Alice Casely-Hayford via Mentoring Matters, mentoring has radically reframed her outlook on the fashion industry by shedding light on the full range of jobs and application routes available to her.
“I had absolutely no confidence I could pursue something in the creative industries,” said Nazir. “There wasn’t clarity in regards to what steps you needed to take to end up where you wanted to end up. It seemed like you needed to know someone to get in.” Even so, weekly video chats and telephone calls with her mentor over the course of six months helped Nazir refine her writing skills and improved her overall understanding of the fashion world by equipping her with insider knowledge on timely topics like TikTok marketing strategies.
“[Mentoring] can help them believe [in their ideas] and, in this way, bring more people in” – Nell Kalonji
That the industry has an accessibility problem is a sentiment that’s echoed by aspiring fashion editor Sulyka Abukar, who was partnered with British Vogue fashion editor-at-large Julia Sarr-Jamois as part of Mentoring Matters. “I wanted to be a fashion editor, but I had no idea what it meant,” Abukar told AnOther. “Unless you’re actively doing it, you have no way of knowing what [the job actually entails].” The lack of a standardised recruitment criteria is an issue particularly prominent in an industry as opaque as fashion where a stroke of luck can springboard a career.
Successful mentoring can lower such barriers to entry. Not only do mentoring networks allow seasoned professionals to pass creative and technical know-how on to the next generation of stylists and designers, they can also empower new talent with confidence and determination. “Sometimes people just need a bit of encouragement to feel like they [are moving in the right direction],” said AnOther senior fashion editor-at-large Nell Kalonji, who last year helped co-found Rubric Initiative to support emerging creatives of colour. “Mentoring can do that for people; it can help them believe [in their ideas] and, in this way, bring more people in.”
Mentoring Is Amplified by Money
The fashion industry has long been riddled with problems like low wages, late payments, precarious internships and unstable entry-level contracts. Moreover, securing jobs in the creative industries can be expensive. Often, designers, photographers and stylists are required to invest in their work with little guarantee of making it back. And so while weekly check-ins with senior industry figures can help young professionals get a foot through the door, regular financial support will increase the chances of long-term success.
It is for this reason that Mentoring Matters is partnering with the likes of Thomas de Kluyver, Bleach, Art Partner, Stine Goya and Molly Goddard to provide paid opportunities and months-long placements for its network for mentees. “We are already seeing the impact of this and have placed people into some amazing experiences,” said Mentoring Matters’ Edwards. “Candidates have been on sets for incredible campaigns and covers, have assisted and met with an impressive range of talents and had their work showcased in galleries and by some of the industries most exciting publications.” Indeed, on an individual level, a regular paycheck that covers the necessary costs of living can give young professionals the freedom to invest undivided time and energy into their careers from the beginning. And on a business level, entrepreneurs must be given access to financial resources and funding before they can be expected to execute their plans.
“Having access to mentors, as well as funding opportunities like grants or scholarships, help knock down barriers and allow emerging designers and brands to have the resources necessary to nurture and develop their growing businesses” – Roopal Patel
“Lots of people are either stuck at home or they’re working four jobs,” said Tamara Cincik, founder of advocacy group Fashion Roundtable. “Mentoring has to go hand in hand with systems [of financial support] because if there’s no system, what are you mentoring them into?”
Supplying aspiring fashion professionals of colour with the necessary support to succeed is core to the mission of RAISEFashion, which has partnered with another non-profit, The Anti-Racism Fund, to launch a paid internship program for 21 students from historically Black colleges and universities; participating companies for the Summer 2021 cohort include Cartier, Saks Fifth Avenue, Pyer Moss, Richemont, Bloomingdale’s, and Tory Burch. As part of the program, students are receiving a $4,000 stipend for living and transportation expenses, as well as a dedicated professional mentor from within the RAISE network.
“Access, funding and opportunities for development are the largest barriers to entry. So many aspiring fashion professionals do not have the access to ask questions, share their thoughts, or receive direction and feedback at the start of their career,” said Roopal Patel, SVP, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Having access to mentors, as well as funding opportunities like grants or scholarships, help knock down barriers and allow emerging designers and brands to have the resources necessary to nurture and develop their growing businesses.”