Nicole Bidwell ’21, Jessica Gayo ’19, Aurola Wedman Alfaro ’20 and Caila Parks ’21 stepped into the 83rd annual Fashion Scholarship Fund Awards Gala in New York City last Tuesday, and paused for a moment to take it all in.

Everywhere they looked, there were giants of the fashion industry — designers and company leaders they had studied and even dreamed of becoming.

Brandon Maxwell hosted the 2020 Fashion Scholarship Fund Awards Gala

That evening, each student would receive a $5,000 scholarship and hear from gala honorees Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway, Minka Kelly of fashionABLE and Jason Rabin of Centric Brands.

The Stephens women reconnected with gala host Brandon Maxwell, the 2019 Womenswear Designer of the Year who visited campus in October as part of the Jeannene Booher Fashion Lecture Series. During his opening remarks for the gala, Maxwell described the spirit of the Fashion Scholarship Fund and of the evening:

“FSF says to young people who want a life in fashion: you are not alone, you are not invisible, you have allies and you will have help along the way. That standard of kindness and decency and caring sets the tone for their careers and the industry as a whole,” Maxwell said, according to Women’s Wear Daily.


The FSF Scholarship

From left to right: Caila Parks '21, Nicole Bidwell '21, Aurola Wedman Alfaro '20 and Jessica Gayo '19

The Fashion Scholarship Fund awards $1.2 million in student scholarships every year. According to FSF executive director Peter Arnold, the organization’s mission is to recognize and reward fashion talent wherever it is found.

Stephens was one of 62 colleges invited to compete. Bidwell, Gayo, Wedman Alfaro and Parks were among 211 winners chosen from 648 entrants on the strength of their entries to the Case Study competition. To be eligible, applicants must be full-time students of sophomore, junior or senior standing with a minimum 3.0 GPA. For 2021 applicants, the GPA requirement will rise to 3.2, with categories in marketing, design and merchandising. 


Over the past four years, 13 Stephens students — at least two per year — have won FSF scholarships for a total of $65,000 in support.

“This is the second time I’ve competed for the scholarship and the first time I won,” Wedman Alfaro said. “Both times, I’ve spent countless hours researching and working on my designs.”

She encouraged other students who are applying to persevere, rethink and reframe their ideas. “It was so encouraging to see my hard work pay off and have the opportunity to network with fashion leaders,” she said.


The Case Study Challenge

The FSF Case Study competition is an in-depth student challenge that focuses on real issues facing the fashion industry. Scholarships are awarded by a panel of industry professionals in several categories. The organization sets the case study topic each year with input from fashion educators, professionals, students and past scholarship winners.

This year’s topic — Fashion Collaborations — inspired Stephens students to think deeply about cultural, health and social justice concerns that are close to home.

Wedman Alfaro proposed a collection based on a collaboration between Nike and Rebel Girls, whose mission is to empower girls through true stories about trailblazing women in diverse fields. She argued that the partnership would give Rebel Girls access to a global platform and allow Nike to improve its reputation with women consumers.

Gayo, who graduated in December, presented a partnership between Glossier, a digitally native makeup and skincare company, and Yara Shahidi, an activist, model and actress known for her roles in “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish,” to create a set of beauty products for women of color.

Nicole Bidwell's designs for a line of compression gear for women living with lymphedema

Bidwell created a plan for CW-X, an activewear brand with patented compression technology, to collaborate with the National Lymphedema Network on compression gear for lymphedema patients. In designing her collection, Bidwell researched the specific needs of women living with lymphedema, and considered style and functionality as well as medical benefits.  Parks offered a collaboration between Justice, a clothing brand for 6-12-year-old girls, and Roblox, an online gaming platform and game creation system that is popular with a similar age group. Her collection would allow players and their avatars to dress alike.

“My work captured the attention of panelist Eleanor Turner, the founder and chief executive officer of The Big Favorite. She was very interested in my goal of working internationally with Japanese street style brands.”

- Caila Parks ’21

When the two ran into each other later, Turner told Parks, “You’re the reason we love fashion,” encouraging her to move to Japan and pursue her dreams.  

Jessica Gayo's illustrations and technical flats for a collaboration between Glossier and Yara Shahidi

The scholarship applications took the form of pitch decks, the standard format for business proposals. Each design and product development case study included an executive summary, inspiration board, fabric/color/print/pattern board, design illustrations, technical sketches, a plan for communicating the collection’s story and selling products, and evidence for success based on existing fashion collaborations.

“The application process itself is a valuable learning experience for students,” said Maggie Holper, assistant professor of fashion at Stephens. She supports students through that process by offering a seven-week, pass/fail course in which the students research, design, write and refine their case studies.

“FSF encourages applicants to get feedback on their case studies before submitting them, and the class provides that,” Holper said. “But the work is entirely the students’ own.”

“I’m so proud of what these students have accomplished, and excited for all of the opportunities in front of them,” Holper said. “FSF’s goal to help students break into a fashion-focused field. This award — this experience — it’s a lot more than a $5,000 scholarship.”


The FSF Industry Network

Holper accompanied her students to the Talent Acquisition Event earlier on Tuesday, a job and internship fair exclusively for FSF scholarship winners.


Stephens students showed their portfolios and gave their resumes to multiple high-profile companies. Highlights for Parks included Ascena, Aeropostale and Weissman Dance, while Gayo spoke with Urban, Centric Brands and Tapestry, and Wedman Alfaro presented her Kate Spade line development project to a Kate Spade representative.

“My time at the FSF events was more than I could ever imagine,” Bidwell said. “I was able to meet and listen to multiple design directors of Kohl’s, and get my name and resume to some companies that I could have only have dreamed of before, including G-III Apparel Group, Peerless Clothing International, Kenneth Cole and more.”

Bidwell landed a second interview with the design director of retail markets at Greg Norman, an activewear company that focuses on golf apparel.

“I went in prepared to give her my pitch and sell who I am as a designer, and why I would make a great intern. I was proud of how my professors prepared me through the last three years.”

- Nicole Bidwell ’21

FSF estimates that 60% of attendees acquire internships or jobs through the fair each year. As scholarship alumni, these students will continue to reap benefits, including access to job boards and start-up grants, mentorship pairings, a summer series in New York City, and most of all, connections to a powerful fashion industry network.

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