At RaiseFashion, Supporting a Global Mindset for Emerging Design Talent


RaiseFashion is a US-based non-profit that works with BIPOC designers and entrepreneurs with brands in fashion, accessories and jewellery. Its mission is to increase support for and representation of BIPOC talent in the wider fashion industry through educational programming, professional networks and financial support.

Founded in 2020, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, RaiseFashion launched its annual Brand Fellowship programme last year. The eight-week course allows participants to benefit from mentorship sessions, knowledge-sharing and a platform to showcase their designs to buyers, retailers and editors at New York Fashion Week.

“This year’s September Fashion Week aims to further dismantle barriers to space, granting our designers unprecedented opportunities to interact with key industry figures during this pivotal period,” RaiseFashion’s executive director, Felita Harris, told BoF. “Our goal is to unite creatives under a single roof, highlighting the vibrant network that thrives among our diverse community.”

The fellowship, now in its second year, also awards those selected with a $15,000 prize. This year, 10 participating founders and designers hail from the likes of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London — two of which will receive an additional $15,000 as finalists identified as part of a pitch competition at the end of the programme. Outside of the fellowship, RaiseFashion also offers support to a wider cohort of 20 designers, providing the opportunity to display their collections at a retail activation in New York. Last year’s activation was held at The Standard, High Line.

“We have observed remarkable progress among our masterclass designers, evident in both our inaugural and current cohorts. The access to advisory resources and education they receive has played a pivotal role in this growth,” added Harris.

Now, BoF sits down with five designers from the Brand Fellowship programme to learn more about where their focus lies to accelerate brand growth and how RaiseFashion is helping them achieve their strategies and aspirations.

Charles Harbison, Harbison Studio

Charles Harbison, founder and creative director of Harbison Studio. (RaiseFashion)

Having studied Architecture, Fibre Arts and Textile Design at North Carolina University, and with a postgraduate degree from the Parsons School of Design in New York, Charles Harbison went on to work for the likes of Michael Kors, Luca Luca and Billy Reid. He founded Harbison Studio in 2021 in LA — a luxury womenswear brand producing ready-to-wear and accessories, featured in the likes of Vogue and the CFDA.

What key challenges do you face as a designer today?

I adore New York, but I had worked myself to the edge of the cliff. So, instead of going over the cliff, I was able to come to LA and centre my mental health, centre my physical health and reconfigure a perspective. And being in LA, there are red carpets and celebrities, which allowed me to come onto the stage and to be seen again.

I think many people think that when you make that decision, that New York can forget about you, but platforms like Raise show that it is important for American talent and American fashion business to cast a wider net than one city. That’s how I get to be a part of this.

What does RaiseFashion’s programme offer you and your business?

Raise is able to expedite and increase and accelerate my engagement with New York, which I have missed and love. For example, during Black History Month, Moda Operandi, one of my favourite stockists, invited myself, Aisling Camps, also from the current RaiseFashion brand fellowship, and Rachel Scott of Diotima, from last year’s cohort, to do a beautiful roundtable.

It was an amazing way that three of us, from different perspectives, different product categories and aesthetics, navigating with a particular skin tone, were able to come together and talk about those complexities, but do so in an inclusive space and that is what Raise genuinely builds with partners like Moda.

I have also been designing since 2008 for different houses and different brands across New York, LA and even London. Raise appreciates that, so they put designers of my experience in front of comparable advisors. I’m not just engaging with buyers, but I’m engaging with divisional merchandise managers (DMMs) and VPs. They understand the significance of what we are all bringing to the table and helping us cut through.

What are your key learnings from starting a business in the fashion industry?

I think my key learning has been that expertise and quality really does cut through. That’s how I became a fashion entrepreneur — by caring about the work that I did for a long list of brands across the world. When I started Harbison Studio, my thinking was: I can take all this knowledge, love, expertise, craftsmanship, know-how and present it through a really personal filter.

Tolu Coker, Tolu Coker

Tolu Coker, founder and creative director of Tolu Coker, holds their palms to their face and faces the camera.
Tolu Coker, founder and creative director of Tolu Coker. (RaiseFashion)

Tolu Coker founded her namesake label in London in 2018, having graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2017 with a degree in Fashion and Textile Design. Integral to her brand and storytelling is Coker’s British-Nigerian identity, while Coker herself aims to use her designs as an agent for social change, with her unisex brand exploring diversity, fluidity and inclusivity.

What key challenges do you face as a designer today?

A big part of it is finance — but that is every designer’s biggest challenge: being able to afford what you do. Especially, if like me, you come from a working class background and are the first in your family to graduate university or enter certain spaces and learn properly about networking in that sense. So you’re figuring out so much as you go along. But at RaiseFashion, you are offered that grounding that says, “It’s OK to dream bigger.”

I can never really compete with other luxury brands, with most of the really big players. I can’t compete on finance or have the loudest marketing, but I can definitely hone in and own the space of who I am, who my community is and the stories I’m trying to tell — those will always be unique.

What does RaiseFashion’s programme offer you and your business?

Raise directly connects me to a community that I otherwise wouldn’t know as intimately. I’ve met people in LA and in Chicago. The US is a huge country, so there’s an even bigger market there. As a result, Raise encourages me to think more globally as well as to think about what it looks like to scale the business. It’s made me consider what I do not just as a craft, but as a business and how that has an impact.

One of the things I have recognised from Raise and working with brands in the US is that I think there is a level of maturity with businesses there when it comes to commerce. So when it comes to being a business person and trading, thinking about profits and financial sustainability, I think there is a big opportunity for designers here in the UK to bring that creative excellence to a real strategic business mindset.

What are your key learnings from starting a business in the fashion industry?

You have to carve out your own lane. I think that’s more important now than ever. I think you can definitely have success trying to follow particular models, but I don’t think you’ll necessarily have longevity that way. I have always thought about the long-term impact of what I do not just for myself, but for the wider communities around me, and I think that’s the nuance of being born in Britain to immigrant parents.

I also always think about that social responsibility — so, why am I creating clothes? It’s not just for people to look beautiful and feel good. I see my position as being able to have a voice in documenting what society is doing at this moment in time, as someone who comes from a culture where so many of those histories were erased.

Blake Van Putten, Cise

Blake Van Putten, founder and creative director of Cise, sits on ac ream sofa wearing a beige tailored suit and white tshirt.
Blake Van Putten, founder and creative director of Cise. (RaiseFashion )

Blake Van Putten is an LA-based fashion designer and owner of Cise, a clothing line with a social mission to empower and celebrate the Black community. Having studied supply chain management at Howard University in Washington DC, Van Putten founded Cise in 2010. The brand provides unisex apparel and accessories, while also donating to organisations that support minority ethnic and disadvantaged groups.

What key challenges do you face as a designer and entrepreneur?

Balancing the business side with the creative side is always a challenge. When you’re creating something you love, are you creating it for you, or are you creating it for those around you? You really have to think about what that expansion looks like for the business. Our first design — our first handbag — was also very popular. So how can you ensure that they keep getting restocked while also making new ones? You’re constantly taking risks and we grew so rapidly that if I had structured my business without following intuition, I don’t think it would have achieved the same level of success. I think it’s about making logical decisions based on the creative aspect and pushing your own creativity forwards first.

What does RaiseFashion’s programme offer you and your business?

RaiseFashion provides a lot of different resources as well as structure, which helps support the creative side of the business. We’re about to produce our most cohesive collection and mentors through RaiseFashion gave us some key insights on what changes we need to make to the product, be it overall prototyping, the launching of the new business or introducing it to retailers and consumers.

The wholesale relationship is difficult to navigate — different retailers purchase differently. So if you’re doing these cold outreaches, it’s difficult to have an entry point. RaiseFashion has been the introduction that starts the conversation, helping the development of our business while also transcending us to the next stage of growth for our products.

The business has developed so much — even the sample product range that we originally came out with has completely developed since starting to work with RaiseFashion. But at the same time, it hasn’t been invasive or taken away from our creativity.

What are your plans for Cise in the medium term?

Our goal this year is to get into a few brick-and-mortar stores while also staying true to the intention of our brand. I want you to see Cise products in Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Saks, but also truly see the business as a standalone brand. I want to be seen everywhere as a brand that integrates a range of products — from a super accessible market to maybe something at a higher price point.

The story and intention to bring an immersive experience of our brand is what I really want to have — where you can identify the intention of the company and the products are there as well. We have also taken a step back to slow things down, so we are able to run the business in a more strategic and intentional way.

Wilglory Tanjong, Anima Iris

Wilglory Tanjong, founder and creative director of Anima Iris, in a multicoloured shirt and pink eyeshadow.
Wilglory Tanjong, founder and creative director of Anima Iris. (RaiseFashion )

Wilglory Tanjong founded Anima Iris after coming across an artisanal village in Senegal, where she created bags with local craftspeople. She left her job at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic to found her accessories brand, Anima Iris — the aesthetic and ethos of which is inspired by African heritage.

What key challenges do you face as a designer and entrepreneur?

I always need support, but I haven’t won a lot of grants before because [people] probably assume I don’t need $15,000. But if I hadn’t needed that, I would not have applied. I actually need more than $15,000. I need, like, $3 million!

I think that’s why RaiseFashion has been so wonderful for me in the last couple of weeks, because they recognise that this is a company that is growing and doing well. They recognise I need the financial support, but I also really need knowledge and this network and these people that are going to take me to the next level, a whole lot faster.

What does RaiseFashion’s programme offer you and your business?

I’m here to learn how to be more intentional about wholesale, how to ensure that I’m choosing the right people and that I’m releasing a collection with a strong strategy in mind.For example, we had a masterclass with Net-a-Porter, where they talked about their EIPs, or extremely important people. Net-a-Porter has a small segment of customers that drive a lot of their business. For us, our top 50 percent of customers are driving 40 percent of our revenue, so I was able to ask them what they suggest I do: bring more people into the top 15 or continue to build customer loyalty.

Through Raise, we can have conversations with these amazing designers and business executives from all these different companies. Being able to add all these people on LinkedIn and follow up and have conversations — it is expanding my own network and it is allowing me to accelerate a lot quicker than I would have otherwise.

What are your plans for Anima Iris in the medium term?

I’m raising capital at the moment. We are moving into a bigger manufacturing facility as part of the Senegal economic zone, which is a manufacturing community in Senegal, sponsored and supported by the Senegal government. So we will be making our handbags alongside companies making bicycles or bottle caps. It’s really Senegal’s way of encouraging manufacturing and production in their country and it’s going to have amazing benefits.

For example, we’ll no longer have to pay import and income taxes because that’s really how they want to encourage businesses to come to their country. We are moving into a new facility in a couple of days, and this is all part of building the manufacturing ecosystem that I’m looking to create.

Catherine Sarr, Almasika

Catherine Sarr, founder and creative director of Almasika, sits cross-legged in a blue dress on a white sofa.
Catherine Sarr, founder and creative director of Almasika. (RaiseFashion)

Paris-born jeweller Catherine Sarr founded her fine jewellery brand, Almasika, in 2014, having garnered 15 years of global experience in the industry at the likes of DeBeers Group and Love Gold, the initiative from the World Gold Council. Based in Chicago, she explores symbolism across cultures and generations through her jewellery designs.

What key challenges do you face as a designer and entrepreneur?

My situation and the industry which I navigate is particular because it’s a capital-intensive industry, so I think one of the key challenges is having good financial health to be able to sustain the materials.

I’m lucky in the sense that I decided to venture into an industry where I had 15 years of experience, so I have used that in terms of supply and communications — I used to work in PR. That experience is also useful in terms of networking. So I think on that side, I’ve been fortunate — but something which is unmovable is the capital intensity of the industry.

What does RaiseFashion’s programme offer you and your business?

There was a big gap in my knowledge in terms of wholesale. The behind the scenes aspect — it’s not just about getting on the platform of that retailer. That’s not enough. It’s about understanding what can happen behind the scenes to make that relationship successful — so personal shoppers, getting on the floor and speaking with the sales team.

In my case, the wholesale aspect is very important to navigate as a jewellery brand. We do really well in direct-to-consumer so now it’s about understanding, with the wholesale side, how we can improve and how we can grow. Raise provides us with top tier advice on that front — wholesalers from Browns, Bergdorf Goodman, have helped me to understand how to maximise my existing wholesale relationships.

What are your key learnings from starting a business in the jewellery industry?

Being in Chicago, in the Midwest, represents that middle America consumer — and that untapped, third big city in the US. So in terms of wealth and capital, we have a market that I feel like is not answered to by other brands.

By being based here, I have been able to connect with my customer and it’s a test market for me whenever I have a new launch. I host a Trunk show and I test on my Chicago market because we have the customer in terms of location and then in terms of revenue to buy the jewellery.

I’m lucky that I had this international experience [living in London, Paris and now the US], because, while I’m in the Midwest, I’ve been able to tap into, my friend in London, my friend in Hong Kong, a photographer in Paris — to build my brand. But Chicago is really the home of the brand. For me, being in Chicago as someone who has international relationships has been beneficial.

This is a sponsored feature paid for by RaiseFashion as part of a BoF partnership.



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