Ciano Clerjuste is a secret weapon that know no-one sees coming. A very approachable handsome fellow, his day job is in financial services. However, he’s creating the next wave of fashion designers, pattern cutters, and everything in between. The Haitian native is the founder of United Colours of Fashion in Manhattan. His vision is to empower and break down the glass walls that seem to guard the elite world of the fashion industry.
What made you start your business – though it’ s a not for profit, it’s still a business as bills must be paid.
Growing up, my mother taught me and my siblings to always share everything we had, and be nice to everyone because you never know where you’ll end up in life. I have carried that legacy with me. I made a promise to myself during my teenage years to help those less fortunate and in need – the same way I was raised by my mother.
At age 17, my mother had a tragic car accident in New Jersey, which left her paralyzed. During my mother’s tragedy, a lot of people helped my sister and I, and during that period it was clear to me that doing charity work was my calling. Little did l know it would end up being what it is today – United Colors Of Fashion (UCOF).
Why did you create United Colors of Fashion?
We created United Colors Of Fashion to empower youth through fashion education. Even though my own journey in fashion has been marred by the harshness of the reality – that it can be a tough industry to break into – I’m pleased to say I’ve managed to turn any past bitterness into benevolence on those who are where I once was. UCOF invests in dreams and now in its fifth year the returns have been wholly fulfilling – a vision that I aim to expand in the coming seasons.
How did you get UCOF off the ground?
In 2010 while doing a fashion event in NY, Veronica Rovegno and I realized the struggle that emerging designers go through on a daily basis – most of them go out of business after their first collection due to funding. We decided to create an organization unlike no other, focusing on amazing talents and social issues. Hence, UCOF was created, and today, it’s a one-of-a-kind 501(c)(3) Fashion Philanthropic organization with such a great mission of empower youth through fashion education. We had to follow the legal formalities of registering this organization with the State and Internal Revenue Services (IRS) and those that were responsible in the initial registration phase were the founding board members; Juan Torres, Veronica Rovegno, and I. The rest is history.
Tell us a bit about your background?
My educational background spans a wide range of facets – dance, business, film, fashion and arts. I have nineteen years of valid experience in these fields. I have received extensive training garnered from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Newark School of the Arts, and New York Conservatory of Dance.
I hold a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration and Management from Bloomfield College and have been a Senior Account Executive for Principal Financial Group, a Retirement & Global Asset company for the past ten years. Nevertheless, being the President and Chairman of United Colors Of Fashion is my most rewarding job.
Which entrepreneur or business has given you inspiration?
I have two role models: Ms. Oprah Winfrey and Alvin Ailey. I can relate to their stories. As you read the history of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, you can see when he first started the business, it was hard for him. Nonetheless, he never gave up. Today, the company is a global brand.
Running an organization is tough – what do you do when you aren’t working, and how do you manage the life/work balance?
I take vacations often and also travel to have that much-needed balance. As a former professional dancer, I also go and watch some dance productions and Broadway shows. I enjoy theater immensely.
Also, I like to spend time with my family. A lot of things in life may change, but your family does not change. So I make time to remind them of how important they are to me.
How big is your team?
UCOF is supported by 20 or more international team of philanthropically-minded, skilled professionals with backgrounds in fashion, the arts and business, united by the mission to empower youth through fashion.
While many of our staff members are based in the New York tri-state area, a significant number are scattered across the country and around the world. Each staff member commits about seven hours per week to help run our programs through emails, conference calls, and in-person meetings only as needed. Our staff has the flexibility to work for UCOF according to their own schedules.
How do you find the balance of creative ideas vs. commercial viability?
For a not-for-profit, it is a challenge to effectively balance creative ideas vs. commercial viability. It comes down to funding- when you have limited funding, it is really difficult to do everything and accomplish your goals timely.
What has been your most successful form of marketing and promotion for your business?
Probably Word of Mouth. People talk when there is something good happening. But some of our most successful forms of marketing which have helped us were being featured on major networks such as Fox News, NBC News, Fashion One TV and a lot of stories written by successful bloggers all over the world. Our UCOF Facebook page also plays a role in our marketing strategy.
What’s the best thing about running your organization?
Empowering youth through fashion education is the best thing about our organizational model.
How do you select those who want to join the program?
- The applicant must come from the NYC area. (Exceptions can be made for parts of NJ)
- Must have a financial need.
- Demonstrate an interest in the fashion field
- Aged between 15 to 20 and currently enrolled in school. (We will consider applications from College graduates or people who are considering a career change to fashion. Based on interest we are considering offering in depth seminars too.)
- Once accepted, students must attend the entire seven-week seminar program to earn a Certificate of Completion.
What advice would you give to any budding entrepreneurs?
It is imperative to do something you love and do it with passion. What you do today is extremely important because you are giving a day of your life for it. Your life is truly your life. It is your story to write day-by-day, line-by-line; be sure to write your story well.
What is your vision?
In ten years, I see myself working full-time only for United Colors of Fashion, leading the organization to huge success with the help of our awesomely talented team to provide fashion education to youth in New York, and assisting emerging designers in more than five countries. We are currently working on a plan to open the first Center for Fashion in New York. The center will be a state-of-the-art building in midtown Manhattan.
Why do you want a center with that kind of overhead? – no pun intended.
As fashion students leave school, their IDs expire, and they forfeit access to school facilities such as sewing machines, steamers or just well-equipped work spaces in which to create. Due to the repayment of student loans and their inability to find jobs after graduation, many cannot afford to purchase items such as sewing machines on their own, and their dream of becoming a designer gives way to a harsh reality. If only there were a place where they could go to continue what they learned in school and begin building their own fashion brands. This is where UCOF comes in. UCOF aims to provide a space for young, aspiring fashion designers.
Got it. Okay tell us more?
It will feature:
- Event space to hold runway shows, presentations, mannequin installations and fashion exhibitions
- Showrooms from which to sell their products
- Well-equipped office space with all types of industrial machines and fashion tools
- Stylish studio space for casting calls/auditions, photo shoots, fittings, filming
- Fashion styling, hair and makeup workshops
- Free sewing classes for under-resourced youth
- Chic boutique offering custom-made clothes by young designers who are former interns of the UCOF Fashion Education program
Our building will be the first space in New York solely dedicated to fashion, open to under-resourced youth, the general public, and giving emerging designers a State-of- the-art and well-equipped space to hold fashion shows without breaking the bank. Most designers currently go out of business after their first show due to the high cost associated with putting such events together. There are programs to help young artists and musicians, why not for the under-resourced youth who want a career in fashion?
What impact do you hope to make?
To educate, empower and assist our youth to have a successful career in fashion.
What’s the best thing that’s come out of creating UCOF?
Based on the thank you letters I get from students annually, it is mesmerizing and rejuvenating to be able to provide fashion education to under-resourced youth. The best thing is to connect our students with leading fashion professionals to help them achieve their goals.
What makes a good designer or fashion brand in your opinion?
Many creative people can be a seamstress, but not everyone can be a great designer. There is a huge difference between the two. I think to be a great fashion designer, you need an enormous amount of combined talents, with excellent business skills and the ability to create wearable collections that can be sold season after season, and be able to market the brand well, which brings revenue to keep the business running.
Now, music. What’s on your work playlist?
I listen to Donnie McClurkin, Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli at work. Other times, it all depends on my mood. I listen to Stromae. My two favorite artists in the world are Stromae and Donnie McClurkin.
Last words from Ciano:
If you’re committed to making a difference in the lives of young people through fashion, there’s a team for you at UCOF in the following fields:
- Executive Board
- Board of Advisors
- Event Planning
- Legal/Corporate Law
- Grants Writing
- Fashion Design Instructors
- Graphic Design
- Steering Committee
- Host Committee
For more experienced professionals unable to commit seven hours each week, UCOF invites you to apply to join our Board of Advisors where you will be able to use your unique expertise to provide advice and counsel to our staff.
With regards to the creation of the New York space, it will help UCOF become self-sufficient and not have to rely on donations and sponsors in the future. We have a very clear vision of what we want to accomplish and are determined to make this a place for the fashion community. The three-story building would look something like this:
The first floor will have a gallery of students’ work, which will rotate each month with a new exhibit. It will also house the boutique where patrons can purchase designs made by our former students. Finally, there will be a hall for fashion shows. During the non-fashion season, the hall will be rented to corporations to do corporate events, which in turn provides more jobs for the youth and revenue for our programs.
The second floor will house classrooms that will teach students all about the fashion industry.
The third floor will contain office and studio rental space. Here established as well as up-and-coming designers can rent space at a reasonable fee to conduct business, hold fashion shows, model castings, etc.
Every day is a struggle for most people in fashion, so we must learn to be kind to one another and help each other. UCOF’s vision for the future is to help support emerging designers not only in training and funding but also in learning how to deal with the pressures that come from a business standpoint.
This is our “call to action”, for you to help us turn this dream into reality. United Colors of Fashion is looking for investors who wish to help with the center. If you are interested, please drop me an email.