Fashion Alumni Excel as Entrepreneurs
“Conforming is the easiest way to fail,” she says. “Originality is what makes businesses successful.”
Even in the throes of the pandemic, alumni from Jefferson’s two business-focused fashion programs—global fashion enterprise and the BS in fashion merchandising and management (FMM)—have excelled in their careers. Using their creativity, drive and lessons learned at the University, grads like Raye have launched companies and become entrepreneurs.
Raye slowly moved away from her work as a blogger and digital influencer after graduation to develop Jo-Anne Vernay, a line of luxury vegan shoes. Named for her mother and fashion inspiration, Jo-Anne, and her late Aunt Vernay, who supported her childhood shoe designs, Raye’s company seeks to merge sustainability with style.
She went vegan three years ago and wanted to create a versatile, lightweight, durable shoe that, importantly, supports her beliefs.
“Vegan leather is often made from polyurethane,” Raye explains. “It’s so harmful to the planet, and it takes away from it being vegan.”
She discovered Piñatex, a natural textile made from waste pineapple leaf fiber. The plant-based alternative feels like leather, and designers have mainly used it for casualwear and accessories—and up to this point, not luxury apparel.
“I knew we had something special,” Raye says. “I saw the need for it, and I’m looking to fill a hole in the market.”
She spent two years working on the Jo-Anne Vernay brand, fine-tuning the design and working with international suppliers and manufacturers. The pandemic slowed down the production process, but the shoes just shipped out to her first customers last month.
Conforming is the easiest way to fail. Originality is what makes businesses successful.
–Alumna Dyandra Raye
“Seeing it from sketch to sample is so exhilarating,” says Raye, who recently received a $10,000 grant and mentorship support from Harlem’s Fashion Row.
She attributes much of her business acumen to earning her master’s at Jefferson. The global fashion enterprise degree helped her learn the operational side of running a company—including a study-away trip to China for a behind-the-scenes look at Victoria’s Secret’s manufacturing—and gave her the strength to weather a sometimes-rocky entrepreneurial life.
“The first couple of years may be trial and error. You may not make revenue, but don’t let that discourage you from growing,” Raye advises. “You’re learning your customer base and what they want. If you feel passionate about it and see a market there, keep pushing.”
Entrepreneurship is a foundational element of Jefferson’s business-focused fashion programs, says FMM Director Nioka Wyatt. For example, the students learn about company formation through a sole proprietorship, LLC or corporation; the process of buying wholesale and applying markup to sell at a retail price; and the ins-and-outs of selling products at the popular holiday pop-up shop.
“They apply what we teach them in class to be successful,” she says.
FMM alumna Jamye Kagel says she not only benefited from the coursework and small class size, but the hands-on experience at Jefferson proved invaluable as she moved ahead in her career. The 2019 grad spent four years with the University’s Fashion Industry Association (FIA), serving as vice president as a senior. FIA produces Jefferson’s annual fashion show and members plan every aspect of the program, including the model fittings, run of show and backstage dressings.
After graduation, Kagel opened Zelda Boutique with her mom, Pamela. The New Hope, Pa., store named after author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife sells a range of casual to elegant attire.
Having an open and honest relationship with her mom has allowed them to easily bounce ideas off each other and strengthen their bond—and business—in the process, she says. At the start of the pandemic, they debated carrying reusable masks, but after some discussion, they went for it. They ordered two runs of high-quality masks and instantly sold out, helping to keep the boutique humming along during uncertain times.
Kagel says she enjoyed the internships she had at Jefferson, but the entrepreneur-at-heart thrives on the daily interaction with customers.
“I felt out of place in the corporate world,” she says. “This is where I’m meant to be.”
Fellow FMM alumna Stacia Simons also sought to build her own business after several internships during school and full-time positions immediately following graduation.
“I was passionate about creating a fashion brand that consumers would feel good about,” says the 2017 grad. “Aside from that, the idea of calling the shots and having a flexible—though demanding—schedule was appealing.”
She launched the online boutique 5 South in fall 2019. Giving back to the community played a crucial role in her mission from the start with 5 percent of all sales going toward charitable causes.
“As much as I love fashion, critics could call the industry vain and even wasteful,” Simons says. “I’m committed to feel-good fashion and empowering women to feel confident in how they look and feel proud of their outfits because of the story behind them.”
In the beginning, Simons supplemented online sales by selling items at area craft vendor fairs. Unfortunately, COVID-19 squashed most in-person events and left her with an abundance of unsold merchandise.
I’m committed to feel-good fashion and empowering women to feel confident in how they look and feel proud of their outfits because of the story behind them.
–Alumna Stacia Simons
To work her way out, she opened a pop-up shop at a vacant spot on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J., where she had a successful two-month run over the summer.
“That’s where things really started to catapult,” says Simons of her first storefront experience. “I learned so much about what the customer is looking for and what they respond to.”
Empowered by the Jersey Shore experience, she joined the new Mercantile in Doylestown, Pa., in November, where customers can shop 5 South along with 85 other small businesses and artists. So far, the biggest sellers include comfy lounge outfits to adapt to the times.
Simons will be there through at least January, and if sales continue to do well, she will stay in the space for the foreseeable future. She plans to expand product categories and add more sustainable and small-business offerings to support independent designers.
“It’s a great spot for 5 South to grow before opening my own standalone boutique,” says Simons, noting Jefferson helped give her the confidence to take a leap of faith and follow her fashion dreams. “There’s no reason why you should have a job you don’t enjoy doing every day.”