Shawn Grain Carter set out to become a journalist. Then fate intervened.
Photo by Leslye Smith.
Shawn Grain Carter had every intention of becoming a journalist when she graduated from U.Va. in 1982. Some of her fondest undergraduate memories involved her work as a reporter on the Cavalier Daily, and she planned to return home to New York and go to journalism school at Columbia University. “What I did,” she says now, laughing, “was take a buying position at Bergdorf Goodman.”
The African-American Studies/Women’s Studies/English triple major found herself in the world of fashion, and much to her surprise, she was very at home there. “I became a buyer and that was how I started,” she remembers. “I had zero interest in fashion. I took it because I needed a job, and that’s the truth of the matter.”
Before long she was helping Bergdorf’s launch a new line of home furnishings. From there she moved on to Ann Taylor (the vice president of the company was one of her best customers at Bergdorf’s) and became a buyer and product brand manager for everything from clothing to jewelry to accessories. Along the way, she realized fashion, not journalism, was her passion.
Even so, she didn’t limit herself purely to the business side of the industry. New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) approached her about teaching an adjunct class in fashion marketing, and she found that the experience not only dovetailed perfectly with her own interests but was very gratifying as well. “I didn’t realize how much fun it would be to teach fashion as opposed to developing the products and running a business,” she says. “Fashion is a business. People think you just sit and look at color swatches and things like that, but we’re looking at how we’re going to deliver the best sales and earnings and gross margin profit. That’s the bottom line if you’re a buyer.”
The dean of FIT thought his students needed to know what Carter had learned by working her way up the business side, and she was more than happy to tell them. “I loved it. The students were engaged and it was a wake-up call for me.” When the luxury goods firm she was working for in the mid-nineties, MCM, decided to move all of its operations back to Germany, Carter, who had a young daughter, decided to take a chance on applying for a full-time teaching position rather than simply moving to another fashion company. She got the job, and a whole new chapter of her life began.
The changes were numerous and immediate. “The big challenge was that I had sustained a 50 percent drop in salary. I had to really come to terms with that,” she remembers. And there were other issues to grapple with as well. “Education is very different because you are assessed based on scholarship, research and publishing as opposed to managing a profit-driven business sector in retailing, delivering the bottom line,” she explains. “I had to reinvent myself and then understand that you’re delivering a different kind of product in education. Your client is the student.”
Not surprisingly, she rose to the occasion and is now a full-time assistant professor of fashion merchandising management. Her excitement about the world of fashion is contagious, especially when she delves into the fickle minds of American shoppers. “They’ll shop at Neiman Marcus, then they’ll go to Costco to get a great deal, then they’ll go to Wal-Mart to get some appliances like a plasma TV, and then they’ll also go to Macy’s to get their kids clothes for college,” she says, explaining the shifts behind what she calls “mass and class” designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Oscar de La Renta who are reaching markets on both ends of the spectrum. “They no longer are store loyal and brand loyal.”
When Carter isn’t busy teaching, she’s looking out for her students in other ways. She’s written a book called “Life Lessons in College: What Your Parents Never Told You,” which addresses everything from dating to eating disorders and which she hopes to publish soon. “We’re finding that they have to be mature in a different way because they’re growing up a lot faster. They’re also used to technology. They’re used to immediate gratification and not necessarily to making decisions for themselves.”
If the book is written with even a fraction of the passion Carter exudes when talking about fashion and teaching, it will no doubt be as lively and full of wisdom as its author.