Five students at the University of Arizona's Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences have been named 2011 Scholars of the Fashion Scholarship Fund, or FSF, one of the largest and most influential grant organizations in the fashion and apparel industry.
Schools can nominate up to five students for the annual award, but it's unusual for all nominees to be selected as winners, said Melinda Burke, PetSmart Professor of Practice in the Norton School's Retailing and Consumer Sciences Program. Burke also directs the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing and is the designated FSF coordinator for the UA.
"I think our success this year is a reflection on our program," Burke said. "Students often bring their love of fashion to the program, but it's not enough to know what you think looks good. In addition to building creative thinking, we teach them strategy and what really goes into making a brand a success."
Those lessons play a critical role in the rigorous FSF Scholarship application, as evidenced by the work of Lauren Schmidt, one of the 2011 winners from the Norton School. Challenged, like all applicants, to develop a product concept and business plan aligned with the theme "Finding the White Space in Private Brands," Schmidt drew on her internship experience in home furnishings to pitch a line of modern nursery furniture.
"I started with research and realized that no major department store offers a line of nursery furniture, so that was my gap in the marketplace," Schmidt said.
From there, she refined the concept one strategic point at a time: identifying a chain that could accommodate the line in gallery floor space; defining designs that would grow with a child to appeal to price-conscious parents; zeroing in on a fresh, modern look for today's parents who don't necessarily want their personal aesthetic to end at the nursery door.
Though Schmidt didn't have access to focus groups, she instead gleaned reams of opinions and insights from parenting chatrooms and blogs to provide all the data she needed. The six weeks' of building the concept and business plan paid off, even if it did mean balancing the application with regular class projects and travel for interviews for post-graduation jobs.
Soyeon Shim, director of the Norton School, cites that kind of dedication – from students as well as faculty members – with helping to establish the Norton School in recent years as a premiere destination for retailing studies and a program with strong ties to New York's fashion stronghold.
"We have created a very challenging and demanding program that's designed not only to attract exceptional students like these five scholars but also truly prepare them to succeed after they graduate," Shim said.
That preparation pays dividends after graduation, Burke added, noting that winning the FSF scholarship doesn't end with the $5,000 award.
"This award is a door-opener for internships, jobs, advancement. These students are now part of a group that's viewed as the future leaders in this industry," she said.
The five Norton School students selected as 2011 winners were Neha Chandna, Jill Moore, Stephanie Olinski, Brittany Riopelle and Schmidt. All five developed independent product concepts and business plans for their applications following an initial screening interview with Peter Sachse, chairman and CEO of Macys.com and were honored at a gala dinner in New York City in January.
Students from the Norton School have been named FSF Scholars each of the prior two years the school has competed for the awards. This is the first year that all five nominees were named scholarship winners.
The YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund is committed to advancing the fashion industry by encouraging talented and enterprising young people to pursue careers in design, merchandising, retailing and business disciplines. Rooted in an organization formed more than 70 years ago, FSF has granted scholarships since 1971 and has awarded more than $6 million to nearly 1,000 students.