Cotton Inc. grant provides career-launching opportunities for fashion students

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Sophia Li graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University less than two years ago, yet she’s already a photo producer for How did someone so young land at such a renowned publication so early in her career?

She owes it all to cotton.

Li can trace the launch of her career trajectory to a 15-page paper she wrote during her sophomore year as a fashion merchandising student in the VCU School of the Arts. In “Globalization and its Direct Correlation and Impact on the Cotton Industry,” Li addressed cotton’s versatility.

More than just a class assignment, the paper earned Li $2,000.

The class was one of many sponsored by Cotton Inc., the nonprofit entity that represents cotton growers and importers and encourages people to wear cotton. The company awards grants to around 20 or 25 universities each year through a highly competitive process, said Jenna Oschwald, manager of Global Supply Chain Marketing at North Carolina-based Cotton Inc.

“We have a select committee from our board of directors and Cotton Inc. staff who review all grants,” she said. “This group then makes a recommendation to our entire board of directors for approval.”

Since 2007, Cotton Inc. has awarded the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising a grant of varying amounts each year that funds scholarships to students such as Li, among other efforts.

Because of the generous awards, the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising can offer cotton-specific classes — its only fabric-specific course, said professor Karen Videtic.  

“They’re the only ones that are this generous,” she said. “This is a coveted scholarship. Most people don’t understand there are hundreds of fashion schools across the Unites States. We’re so lucky, but we compete with the biggest and the best people for this money.”

The grant is a win-win situation for both cotton promoters and students.

“These students are the next fiber and fabric decision-makers in the industry,” Oschwald said. “Cotton Inc. has a comprehensive educational outreach and this kind of project is specifically designed to have a positive, long-term influence on cotton demand.  If we educate students on the versatility of cotton, they will continue to choose cotton fabric in their designs and products throughout their careers.  We have continually been impressed by the students and faculty at VCU and hope they remember cotton and Cotton Inc. when they enter industry.

The savvy strategy works.

After the lengthy research that went into her paper, Li is sold on cotton for life.

"We had to integrate cotton somehow into our paper," she said, "and I was talking about cotton and globalization and how cotton is like, not just something you think of in fashion, it’s really integrated into everyday life. I actually loved researching that and seeing how it affects us in our everyday lives.

"After I won the award, it completely changed my college experience." Li used the funds to study abroad her junior year.

“It's a crazy thought that I'm on the masthead of Vogue almost two years out of college, but my journey here can substantially be credited to first winning that award,” Li said. “Then ultimately acting as the foundation that led me on this path to my current career. I'm beyond thankful for Cotton Inc., my fashion professors and VCU arts.”

The atypical student-driven grant program allows the students to choose how they will use the award. Like Li, awardee Krystal Vaquerano, who graduated VCU in May 2013, knew she wanted to use the fund to advance her career in fashion.

“I decided to use that money to live in New York City while interning for three months at Oscar de la Renta and Kaufman Franco,” said Vaquerano, who today works as a design assistant at Macy's corporate offices in New York City. “This was such an amazing opportunity that taught me so much about the industry as a student. Interning at such influential companies gave me an advantage that many of my peers did not have, which may not have happened if I had not won this award.”

Cotton is an ideal material because of its softness and breathability, said Vaquerano, who won the Cotton Inc. $1,000 award her sophomore year for a tree-skirt design.

“The natural fiber can be used to create beautiful and innovative garments,” she said.

Current Cotton Inc. awardee Rene Velasquez, a senior, earned a $1,000 last year for work from his menswear class. His collection for “It’s Raining Men” included a color-block jacket with a vent and flap in the back, a small-capped sleeve and a long sleeve. Much of the design had various amounts of topstitching. The award helped fund sample garments such as trimmings, muslin and patternmaking materials for his senior collection, as well as a daytrip to New York for sourcing.

"If you walk outside, the first thing you are bound to see is someone wearing a pair of jeans, which is made from cotton," he said. “Cotton is just such a universal textile. It does exactly what you need it to do. It’s comfortable, it’s soft to handle, it’s long-lasting and it’s not a hard textile to maintain. In this fast-paced world we live in, cotton is just a reliable fabric and it could be worn year round.”

In applying for the grant each year, Videtic and fellow fashion faculty decide how they will use the funds. While the scholarships provide invaluable experiences for students, the Cotton Inc. grant does so much more. It also provides money for trips and supplies. This academic year the award paid for all of the fabric used by juniors in Kim Guthrie's cotton dress class.

In February, Henry Swartz's cotton menswear class visited the Cone Mills plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, to see how denim is woven, dyed and finished before touring the VF Wrangler facilities where the "Lumbersexual” jeans are made. Wrangler donated all the denim used in Swartz’s class this year.

Students from Guthrie and Swartz’s classes who make it into the annual juried fashion show — which will be held Sunday, May 3 — could win up to $3,000 from the cotton grant challenge.

The fashion show, now in its fourth decade, has grown so much since its inception that it would not be doable without Cotton Inc.’s support.

“We could not afford to do the show today without that huge grant of money that pays for so much,” Videtic said. “If we just counted on fees to come into it, we couldn’t do our show.”

Being able to show your work to more than a select few is the goal of any artist or creative individual, said junior Briana Hicks.

Hicks — among the first class to work with the VCU Tartan — made an oversize gray cotton twill vest with black cotton sateen accents at the pocket, collar and lapel with yellow/gold topstitching in a randomized grid pattern to be worn over a white, long-sleeve T-shirt with stripes in the VCU plaid.

“I used cotton because it is such a beautifully diverse fiber, so I was able to work with fabrics in a variety of finishes and textures — stiff and strong, soft and stretchy, slick and shimmering — that were still relatively easy to work with. Cotton presses well, sews well, can be crisp or fluid, and I wanted my designs to have a certain duality. Cotton was the logical choice.”

Another hopeful for this year’s fashion show, junior Carlos Ramirez, implemented the VCU plaid into his motorcycle jacket design. Made with the plaid provided by VCU, his jacket is reversible and fitting of this year’s theme, “Runway 2015: EVOLVE.”

“With this jacket, I think it has the most clear vision that I have with the most that can relate to the theme of ‘Evolve,’” he said. “I get inspired by sci-fi and cartoons. With this one, part of why I put the zippers in, it almost looks like you unzipped it and it expanded so it keeps evolving. And then, if you reverse it, it’s completely different. Evolution is about changing so, this one, it keeps evolving from something fairly simple.”

Each student in junior Shelby Rider’s cut-and-sew knits class received two yards of cotton fleece and two yards of cotton interlock. A zero-waste fashion class, they had to use every bit of the fabric.

“If you have any scraps, you have to work them back into the fabric,” she said. “I'm making a knit tank dress that is reverse appliquéd and then there are large knit balls overlaid on top to look like a big 3-D polka dot pattern. … The scraps are all going to be the stuffing for the balls that I am making.”

For Swartz’s menswear class, Rider designed a yellow cotton eyelet raglan sleeve shirt and a graey jacketing fabric jacket and vest, both lined in the VCU cotton printed tartan.

Cotton Inc. representatives will choose this year’s award recipients during the juried fashion show May 3.  

“The winners are typically chosen by Cotton Inc. staff based on trends we see in the market and students who have vision to understand where cotton is going in the future,” Oschwald said.


Feature image at top: A design from student fashion designer Rene Velasquez, a senior. Photograph by Sara Clarken. Model is Camila Davis.


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