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FIDM Students Up in Arms Over Controversial SHEIN Scholarship

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Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) students are up in arms over a scholarship that awards $40,000 per beneficiary. At issue: the school’s chosen collaboration with fast-fashion giant SHEIN.

“Real funny how they [FIDM] gets students to go to their school by promising a devotion to sustainability,” Welch, a current student at the school, tells Los Angeles. “Then less than two years later they announce a collaboration with SHEIN, one of the leading brands in fast fashion and unsustainable fashion practices.”

The announcement came at the beginning of May, with the Downtown Los Angeles school stating in a press release that 12 students would receive $40,000 from the company. This came alongside an “opportunity” for them to create a five to ten collection that will later be sold on SHEIN’s platform.

“By providing scholarships and access to SHEIN’s resources and customer network, we hope to remove some of the barriers aspiring designers typically face and provide these talented young people with the tools and support they need to help them achieve their dreams,” wrote George Chiao, U.S. president of SHEIN.

However, it seems to many—the students included—that SHEIN is actually a barrier to aspiring designers. Just last year, the brand allegedly stole the work of a 51-year-old English oil painter and put it on a sweatshirt. As recently as April, a British nail artist claimed the Chinese-owned company had lifted her nail designs and blatantly used her own Instagram posts for advertisement. More than 30 independent designers and small businesses have accused SHEIN of theft.

“Design stealing only scratches the surface of how f—ng horrendous that company is,” says Callie, a former student at FIDM. “I’m shocked because SHEIN is—or at least was—everything FIDM stood against.”

Conditions of a garment factory that supplies SHEIN, a cross-border fast fashion e-commerce company in Guangzhou, in Chinas southern Guangdong province on July 18, 2022. (Photo by JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Synthetics Anonymous 2.0, a report on sustainability within the fashion industry, SHEIN uses oil in an amount that rivals 180 coal-fired power plants, and releasing the same amount of CO2:  6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

“At orientation, we literally got a whole required lecture on sustainability and it made me happy to know we [FIDM] cared about that stuff,” says Lo, another former student at FIDM. “But my friend and I talked about how weird it is that they put so much effort into that presentation and yet didn’t offer fabric recycling or anything similar at the school.”

The university has previously shown a dedication to the advancement of sustainability in the fashion industry, even housing an “Innovative Materials Collection” on campus. The room showcases technologies such as mycelium, recycled cassette tape, and other biosynthetics that could help reverse the harmful effects mass clothing manufacturing can have on the environment.

Furthermore, the school introduced an entire course about sustainability into its Merchandising and Marketing Program in 2021, titled “Sustainability and Social Responsibility.”

According to a post that announced the class, it “introduces students to the concept, history, and science of sustainability and its relationship to the business of ethical fashion.”

StyleZeitgeist Magazine, an online independent fashion and culture media platform, took to Instagram to express their concerns to FIDM, writing: “What you [FIDM] are doing by accepting money from SHEIN is legitimizing their abhorrent practices and elevating its reputation. As an educational institution you are charged with not just producing graduates who will go on to work in fashion, but instilling in them certain moral values. By letting SHEIN be a part of the educational process you are breaking your duty to your students. We urge you to remember your duty as an educational institution and to cancel the SHEIN scholarship and return their money.”

Within 24 hours of its posting, the message was removed by the platform. The publication wrote in a separate post that they were “mourning yesterday’s open letter that Instagram removed.”

Barbara Bundy, FIDM Vice President, addressed concerns over the partnership by reiterating its purpose.

“Through participation in SHEIN X Project Launchpad, 12 FIDM students were granted generous scholarships, allowing them to complete their chosen degrees,” Bundy said. “The students who elected to join this program will also gain real-world experience and a more robust understanding of mass-market production in the fashion industry.”

As it stands, FIDM’s future as one of the prominent innovators in fashion education looks shaky. The institution reportedly experienced recent financial troubles, closing its three satellite campuses in San Francisco, San Diego, and Orange County.

In addition, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission placed FIDM on probation in 2021, informing the school that it would lose accreditation over concerns about financial viability.

The school recently merged with Arizona State University to become ASU FIDM, in a clear attempt to alleviate some of the pressure. But layoffs seem to persist, as one former FIDM staff member told the Los Angeles Times that the school has been “going downhill since 2008” and “didn’t listen” to “numerous warnings from WASC.”

A May 31 filing states that the number of FIDM employees recently laid off sits at 107.

Editor’s Note: The staff writer, Julius Miller, who wrote this article attended FIDM from 2021-2022.

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