Reflections from 2022’s Fashion Scholarship Fund Gala with Executive Director Peter Arnold
What images come to mind when you think of a fundraising gala? Windowless ballrooms? Rubber-chicken dinners? Cash bars? Yeah, we’ve all been to events like that. But no one is going to put up with boring and self-congratulatory fundraisers in a post-Covid world. Especially not in the fashion industry. Peter Arnold, Executive Director at the Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF), said it best, “Galas are necessary for fundraising and generating awareness, but guests need to know the why.”
For 123 motivated fashion and retail career-minded college students from around the country, the why was clear. On Monday evening, FSF showed its donors what their contributions help to achieve, celebrating the 123 scholars in this year’s FSF class, including 23 Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund winners, during FSF LIVE at NYC’s new Glasshouse.
XP Land had the chance to catch up with Peter after Monday’s festivities to reflect on the planning and execution of this year’s gala, the importance of evenings such as this for nonprofits and all the tears in the room celebrating both the scholars and one deeply missed board member.
Full disclosure: Liberty & Co., the creative geniuses behind XP Land, produced Monday night’s FSF Gala and worked with Peter directly.
Samantha Stallard: Tell us a little bit about your professional background and how you came to the Fashion Scholarship Fund.
PA: I haven’t really had a linear path, professionally. I began as a lawyer on Wall Street, but I always had a passion for the fashion industry. Although I was a corporate transactional partner, I was quietly advising friends and their businesses in the industry. Through a combination of serendipity, connections and a fierce determination to leave Wall Street — and somehow find a point of entry into fashion — I landed as executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
I was there for five years, during which I’d like to think we rebranded the organization and made it more meaningful to and supportive of American designers. One of my proudest achievements was launching the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund — identifying and supporting young talent. As the executive director of a nonprofit, I still hadn’t really immersed myself in the for-profit business of fashion. That opportunity came when I was recruited by John Varvatos, a CFDA Board member, to become his company’s president. After my tenure there, I became the CEO of Cynthia Rowley, then of Cushnie et Ochs.
When I was asked to join the FSF, it came at a point in my professional journey when I would be able to combine my nonprofit experience, my years in the for-profit industry and my passion for young talent. According to the Board and search firm they engaged, I was that “unicorn“ candidate!
SS: What were your goals in evolving the format and presentation of this year’s FSF Live Gala?
PA: This is my third year at FSF. I arrived in November 2018 — two months before the annual gala. I was constrained in terms of what I could do for the event, since the plans were well underway. Nevertheless, my long-term aim was to reimagine the gala to reflect the revitalized organization. I’d like to think we are now a more elevated, inclusive organization that attracts talent from an even greater breadth of sources.
FSF also provides that talent with support from corporate partners like LVMH brands and numerous DTC brands and platforms. My goal for this year, following a virtual gala last year, was to present an event that spoke to the “new” FSF: a new venue and format, a true reflection of who we are and what we do, and, above all, a celebration of our students.
SS: The 2022 Gala just took place on Monday night in NYC. What was it like celebrating with the scholars, your board, and the industry in person again?
PA: After a year of very hard work with Liberty & Co., Monday night was the culmination — a LIVE gathering of all of our constituents. To have 700 of our corporate partners, board members, educators and, most importantly, our students, all in the same room together was very emotional for me. And for so many of the attendees, too. The energy and enthusiasm was palpable. FSF is all about connecting talent to the industry and Monday night was the perfect embodiment of that mission.
SS: Tell us about the four Fashion Scholarship Fund finalists. They each took to the stage to share a moment of personal storytelling — how was this new element received? How might you expand on this in other events?
PA: All four of our “finalists” — the highest-scoring scholars this year — were remarkable. Two weeks prior to the event, each finalist had to pitch their case studies virtually to a panel of industry experts, which they did masterfully. And then, on Monday, in the center of the room, each finalist spoke, extemporaneously, not about their case study, but about deeply personal aspects of the journey that brought them there.
They were so self-assured and articulate and affecting. Definitely a highlight of the evening for me and so many other guests. They underscored the importance of the work we do and were emblematic of the caliber of talent we find. These four students were so impressive! Yes, galas are necessary for fundraising and generating awareness, but guests need to know the why. Our mission is to find and support rising talent. Highlighting the four in the middle of the room was genius!
SS: What surprised you most about Monday night? Why?
Peter Arnold: I was more than pleasantly surprised that Liberty & Co. transformed the venue, Glasshouse, into a dynamic, immersive environment. Everywhere a guest turned, there was a compelling panel about one of our scholars. So many scholars engaged with guests! The flow was really comfortable, the positive and affirming mood created by the seating arrangements further enhanced the gathering. Younger attendees from corporate partners commented that what we did on Monday night felt like the new paradigm for galas. I’ve gone to many galas in my day, so Monday felt like the future.
SS: While Monday was, first and foremost, a celebration, Virgil Abloh’s absence was notable. Tell us about what he, and his legacy, mean to Fashion Scholarship Fund.
PA: Monday was a celebration of young talent. We honored the CEO of Neiman Marcus, Geoffroy van Raemdonck, and commemorated Virgil and his legacy. I knew it would be profoundly sad and powerful, and indeed it was. The introduction of the video tribute by one of Virgil’s scholars, whom he had very clearly touched and impacted, was moving. Although I’ve seen it many times, I was — and the room was — in tears.
Yet, there was such a positive, forward-looking aspect to the work Virgil did — despite his absence — that led us to a night to celebrate young talent and their futures, and build on the work that he started. There was no better speaker to this mood and intent than Virgil’s wife, Shannon, who spoke so eloquently about his legacy and our responsibility now.
Then, we announced the winner — Naecia Dixon — who is the embodiment of everything Virgil stood for. She is a young, Jamaican-born Black woman who, she told me, felt utterly alone in her pursuit of a place in our industry until Monday night. And on that night, she felt loved, celebrated and honored. I couldn’t think of a more fitting and uplifting conclusion to the evening.
I’m so grateful to the Liberty & Co. team for the work we are doing together. It is important, as the executive director of a nonprofit, to make sure all of your partners believe in your mission, understand it and support it. Liberty & Co. is clearly inspired by the work we do and by our student talent. Their level of enthusiasm, conviction and passion is what engenders an event like Monday’s.