A Black-owned luxury brand that’s on fire. A staid fashion retailer.
Merchandising student Shanita Hunt (B.S. ’22) figured the two needed to get acquainted. It was a good hunch. Her case study proposing their collaboration won Hunt a 2022 Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholar Award from the Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF). Founded by late fashion designer Abloh to foster equity and inclusion within the industry, the award offers a $7,500 prize along with mentorship and networking opportunities to students of academic promise of Black, African American, or African descent.
Seven Eskenazi students in all win FSF scholarships
The Abloh Awards recognizing 23 college students from around the country were among 123 scholarships totaling $1 million presented April 11 at the FSF’s 85th Annual Gala in New York City. Along with Hunt’s Abloh Award, six other Eskenazi School students were named FSF Scholars, including merchandising students Brette Fawcett, Olivia Maple, Gabriella Purpora, Paige Raymond and Lauren Schmahl, and Ken Yankel in fashion design.
“It was just surreal to me”
A first-generation college student from South Bend, Abloh Award winner Hunt had never been to New York before this occasion. The festivities began at the venerable Bergdorf Goodman department store, where a panel of fashion industry executives offered advice to the scholarship winners. The gala ensued that evening at The Glasshouse, a venue on 12th Avenue overlooking the Hudson River, where the students’ case studies were exhibited on floor-to-ceiling displays.
“I remember sitting down at the event and thinking to myself, ‘I’m really here right now’,” Hunt recalled. “And I couldn’t believe it. As I was sitting there in that moment, it was just surreal to me because I of all people was sitting in this room with so many powerful industry professionals. I was nervous, but when I got there I realized how much I wanted to be in this industry.”
The winning proposal
Hunt’s winning case study proposed that Nordstrom carry the Telfar line to amplify the emerging Black-owned luxury brand, diversify Nordstrom’s stable of vendors, and increase the customer base of both. Founded in 2005, Telfar had had its best year during what Hunt referred to as the “Buy Black Boom” in 2020, when the company’s vegan leather shopping bag – favored by Oprah, Issa Rae and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – ranked as the third most wanted item of the year, according to the global search platform Lyst. Hunt developed the case study for submission to the FSF with the guidance of the Eskenazi School’s Janis Shaffer, senior lecturer in Merchandising and co-director of the Center for Innovative Merchandising.
“Shanita worked very hard to create an innovative and strategic case supporting Telfar’s integration into the Nordstrom stores,” said Shaffer. “We were thrilled to have seven students be winners in this national case competition, and especially to have Shanita be recognized as a Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholar. She has not only the enthusiasm to make this a pivotal point in her career but the drive and determination to pay it forward.”
Finding her place in fashion
Hunt hadn’t started her college career envisioning a future in fashion. A criminal justice major during her freshman year at IU, Hunt spent the following summer teaching herself to sew by watching Youtube videos so that she could upcycle old garments. By the time she returned to Bloomington for her sophomore year, she knew she wanted to pursue fashion design and merchandising, so that she could eventually start her own luxury brand.
“Making [the fashion industry] more diverse is everything to me, especially as I’m a mixed girl,” said Hunt, who identifies as Black and Hispanic. “So, with my luxury brand, I ultimately want it to embody luxury without a color behind it. I want to integrate [the concept] that Black people can be luxury and Black people can have luxury. I want the depiction of luxury not to look like one thing.”
Growing up in a predominantly Black community in South Bend, Hunt said, “I could see myself all around me.” Upon arriving at IU-Bloomington, Hunt would sometimes find that she was the only Black student in a class. “It can be discouraging,” Hunt said, “but I try to use my background. I want other cultures to understand, to have exposure to our culture as well, in any way possible, and if that’s me inserting myself into the fashion industry, then that’s what I want to do.”
Paying it forward
Leveraging fashion to foster inclusion is a mission that connects Hunt to her award’s namesake. Abloh (1980-2021) founded the luxury streetwear brand Off-White and served as artistic director of Louis Vuitton Men’s. “What spoke to me the most is that Virgil took his platform and chose to help other people from his background and his culture succeed and find different paths in his industry,” Hunt said. “It really was an inspiration that he took time out for the younger generation that he doesn’t even know just to give us a chance. I am very grateful that I can be a part of his legacy.”
Hunt availed herself of the networking opportunities FSF presented to land a position as an assistant buyer with Neiman Marcus after graduation. And, in the spirit of Virgil Abloh, she’s also paying it forward. She likes to go back to her high school, where she was a straight-A student and cheerleader, to “serve as an inspiration for people younger than me,” she said.
“I just do whatever I can to let them know that they can do anything and not to hold themselves back, because I was that person to think ‘How would I get this opportunity?’ So now that I’m actually living it and things are happening for me that I would have never imagined, I want to show that to the younger people who come from where I come from.”