‘BRAG’ aims to give black youth a foothold in fashion

theGRIO REPORT - Organizations like BRAG give opportunities to minorities who dream to work in retail and help create a reality that puts them at the forefront of fashion...

There is more to fashion than couture runway shows and designer apparel: It can represent a lifestyle, colorful personalities and has a relevance that surely surpasses a week-long series of shows and presentations.

As New York Fashion Week kicked off Thursday, it welcomed the crisp air of Fall and the playful Spring collections from designers both established and new.

It also sparked a reminder of the significance and power of a multimillion-dollar industry made up of individuals with creative minds and hands skilled with precise execution.

As is the case with many fashion hopefuls, breaking into any facet of the industry can be difficult. This is particularly true among African-Americans who hope to work in a field heavily dominated by whites and criticized for its lack of diversity.

But with organizations like BRAG, the opportunities afforded to minorities who dream to work in retail and related industries can help create a reality that puts them at the forefront of some of fashion’s biggest brands.

BRAG: ‘Diversity from a retail point of view’ 

Since it was founded over 40 years ago, BRAG has helped to fill a void with the recruitment of minorities in retail and proven their advocacy for diversity in the field.

Through their countless opportunities – which include a summer-long internship, scholarships and mentoring – students who participate are gifted with valuable experiences that often times catapults them into long-term careers in fashion.

Alain LaFontant has proven the power of the resources provided to him through BRAG and the value of the organization.

LaFontant was accepted into BRAG’s 1996 Summer internship where he was placed at Bloomingdale’s and fulfilled responsibilities as an assistant manager. He gained experience on both the selling floor and in the buying office — all the while becoming familiar with many of the moving parts involved in maintaining a high-brand department store.

“It was a dream internship. For me it was equally important to have the time at Bloomingdale’s and the time that was spent on our personal development,” LaFontant told theGrio. “BRAG taught me how to present myself and they focused and honed in on my weakness and made them stronger.”

LaFontant was hired full-time at Bloomingdales immediately following his college graduation. Now, he is the vice president of brand development for Sean John.

After working in retail for over a decade, LaFontant tactfully maneuvered his way across different positions at various fashion brands before landing the executive position he holds now.

Through it all, he says many of the lessons he learned through BRAG still stick with him and he will reflect on these experiences when he is honored at the organization’s annual gala in October  – a prestigious event gathering 800 of the industry’s top professionals and interns.

Model Iman and Terry Lundgren, Chairman, President and CEO of Macy’s Inc. will also be honored alongside LaFontant – whose years of experience in the business also include working for some of the top names in urban retail including Rocawear.

“Working with Puff and working with Jay, working with visionaries has been a big part of my drive and making that vision a reality is always inspiring,” he said.

Aspirations turn into achievements 

A similar vision has also been made a reality for a member of BRAG’s most recent group of interns.

Devan Thomas is a 21-year-old sophomore at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology where she studies fashion merchandising.

This past summer, she was accepted into BRAG’s summer internship program and worked at Old Navy at the franchise’s flagship and highest-earning store.

“I learned everything from the basics of retail and selling on floor to HR and visual merchandising,” Thomas told theGrio.

She said she truly valued her time at BRAG and that the organization helped to transform her into a more polished and focused worker. So much so that she made a strong enough impression to be offered a full-time position with the company following her internship.

“I got an amazing experience,” she said. “BRAG taught me to act like a sponge and to never turn down an opportunity.”

Building your brand 

Aside from the career-driven experiences the interns are exposed to, BRAG also teaches students how to establish and expand both their personal and business brands.

Through assigned summer-long case studies, lectures and networking events, the organization focuses heavily on transforming young minority hopefuls into strong candidates for some of fashion’s highly sought-after and competitive positions.

Students who have worked with BRAG have gone on to launch careers at elite brands like Calvin Klein, Saks Fifth Avenue and more.

For LaFontant and Thomas, they sing their praises for a program that they say has contributed both to their personal and professional development – an aspect they value, along with the hundreds of other minority interns.

“Fashion is a creative endeavor, it revolves around people who think outside the box don’t allow to be categorized as one thing,” LaFontant said. “As a former BRAG intern, I hope I can be a testament for the importance of the organization and what they can do to inspire.”

Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works