Climbing From the Plains to the Ivory Tower: Professor Nioka Wyatt Conquers the Business of Fashion
Georges Plain is one of those unknown gems in Jamaica. It doesn’t boast any local tourist attractions, nor can it claim much esteem based on famous people born there. This humble town in Westmoreland, however, is the birthplace of Professor Nioka Biggs-Wyatt, whose work somewhat parallels her little known town. You see, unlike many other little girls who fell in love with fashion, she opted out of designing and looked towards building a career on learning and teaching the business of fashion. She is an Associate Professor of Fashion Merchandising and Management at Philadelphia University in Pennsylvania, and her life and work are an inspiration to fledgling fashionistas around the globe.
So you work in fashion but you’re not a designer? Explain to us what you do.
As a professor of Fashion Merchandizing and Management, I educate students about the way in which products are designed, developed, produced, and distributed. For example, I recently did a project with my sophomores for Isaac Mizrahi where we identified product extensions for his brand. We studied the Home Improvement market and determined what areas would be good for him to explore. We came up with yarn, paper, wall décor, kitchen, bathroom, and outdoor products for his line. Through this project, my students were able to see the broader spectrum of the fashion industry. You see, a fashion design company may only have 3-4 designers but they will need more people on the business side. Fashion design is a competitive field but because we educate students on the business side of fashion, PhilaU is able to have a 90% career placement rate in the field. We encourage students to become a part of a global team, rather than just focusing on design. I teach them the ins and outs of the industry, from the business end to the mechanical and technical end. I can’t emphasize how much people need to diversify in the fashion industry. Business supply chain management is always in demand and while many people want to be designers, it would probably be quite effective to learn and participate in the business of fashion rather than just focusing on designing. My foundation is in Fashion Apparel Management, but then I went on to do an MBA, focusing on small business and product development.
Tell me about your earliest memory with fashion. What were you wearing?
I remember watching my mom dress up in her stylish clothes. My grandma, though, was always fashionable—she still is! My aunts were too. Listen, the Grants were known for dressing well. My grandma was a seamstress and my very fashionable aunts used to take care of me when my mother immigrated to the States, so I always watched them get ready. I remember one particular yellow dress that I had. It was a yellow scoop neck dress with ruffles and a nice, big bow on it. It was cotton and my mother had sent it from America for me. I loved that dress.
When did your passion for fashion become apparent?
Fashion has always been my passion. I remember in high school, I used to watch a fashion-related show on Channel 29 (in Philadelphia). I was so fascinated with the clothes. One summer, during high school, I was home and I saw a program being advertised in my area. It was a program geared towards entrepreneurship and it was being held at Wharton business school. The thing about Wharton is that although it’s in West Philadelphia, and only 15 minutes from where I lived at the time, I had no idea what it was! I had never heard of that place before but I took an interest in the program and gave them a call. Soon after, I was called in for an interview. I was about 17, and while I didn’t know much, I knew I wanted to be a part of this interesting venture. I was selected for the Young Entrepreneurs Program, which was funded by Michael Milken. One of the requirements of the program was that we create and execute a business plan. I chose to do something dealing with fashion. So this program was like a boot camp where we had a mentor, who was studying at Wharton, and they helped us put our plans into action, which we then presented to venture capitalists to get seed money up to $500. Well, I designed a business plan for selling jewelry and t-shirts at the flea market that they had at Wharton. The Young Entrepreneurs Program gave us only $50 for supplies and I flipped it and made $500 that summer, selling jewelry and accessories. That’s when I learned that fashion can be a lucrative business if done correctly.
Who encouraged you to study fashion?
I had a good mentor in the Young Entrepreneurs Program. Her name is Julie Rainbow—I always joke and say I have always had a rainbow over my life. She knew I wanted to do fashion and she encouraged me to look into going to Philadelphia University once I graduated high school. So after I graduated high school and got into PhilaU, Julie allowed me to be a recruiter for the Young Entrepreneurs Program. She hired me as Program Director and while working there and going to school, I was able to also do internships with Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger. See, I was the first in my family to go to college, so I didn’t know much and even worse, didn’t have much, so I had to hold down three jobs. I have Jamaican parents who didn’t have the opportunity to pave the way by going to college, so I spent a lot of time learning the system by myself and figuring out financial aid and such. I am also the oldest of five siblings and so I knew I had to set the tone for the others to follow.
What was it like to grow up in Philly during the 80s and 90s?
During that time, drugs and violence infested southwest Philly. My parents wanted to save money, so they stayed and raised us there. But I always knew I wanted better, so I didn’t get caught up in the mix. I kept pursuing my passion for fashion. In high school, I was always on trend with fashion, but people who weren’t fashion savvy made fun of my eclectic style. I guess I would stick out as eccentric if I was following the cutting-edge fashion rather than doing what everyone else was doing. I would try new things with my looks. Instead of buying my stonewashed jeans, I learned to make them myself. I stole one of my grandmother’s buckets and got some stones off the street and figured out how to get the pattern in my old jeans. I made the old jeans new by manipulating the pattern with stones and voila! I had my homemade stone washed jeans. The culture of fashion just seemed innate for me. I was good in chemistry, so I applied that knowledge to fashion. That was different from the other kids in southwest but you know what? They eventually started asking me to make them some stonewashed jeans.
Did anyone ever discourage you from pursuing a career in fashion?
There are very few people who look like me in the “academy” of fashion. I am a woman. I am young. I am an immigrant. I am Black. When I decided to approach fashion from the academic end, I met many a cynic and critic. Still, the most pushback I encounter is from senior academicians who hold fast to traditional methods and thoughts. I like innovative things. I’d like to think my teaching is avant-garde. One memorable encounter I had, was with a senior faculty member who, with the best intentions, said, “You know, they don’t hire a lot of Black people in fashion, so don’t be too disappointed if you don’t make it.” But I knew that I had a knack and that I was talented in this area and it came naturally to me, so I wasn’t discouraged. I wasn’t a 4.0 student in college and I worked three jobs. There’s nothing “traditional” about me. I’ve come this far by talent and faith. I also have maintained a strong network of positive influencers. Whenever I finished a class in undergrad, I always kept in touch with my professors. That helped a great deal because it was the network that I built with one of my professors that helped me become a professor at PhilaU. He was retiring and at that time, I was a technical designer in the Home Textiles department at QVC and he urged me to apply for the position he was leaving open and here I am!
What drives you?
I want to provide opportunities for people. I didn’t always have all this knowledge of how things were done but I was mentored and trained. I want to do that for others. You know, my students and my passion for fashion drive me on a daily basis. So if I were to summarize all of the things that drive me, they would be God, passion, love, and inspiration.
So to what parts of the world has your career taken you?
I’ve gone to the Caribbean—Jamaica, to be exact, where I worked with the Jamaican Business Development Center to help small and medium-sized enterprises learn how to create Quality Assurance programs. I’ve also done extensive work in Asia. In China, I helped small companies who want to penetrate the US market come up with strategies and structures for doing so. I also did work in Vietnam and Cambodia. I recently ventured to European markets and did some work in Milan and Venice, and now I’m working on plans to collaborate with others in South Africa.
How can Jamaica present itself as a stronger contender in the business of fashion?
Years ago, Jamaica manufactured products. I remember clothing factories and plants being in Jamaica. Now, most of that business has been outsourced to China. In order for Jamaica to become competitive in the fashion industry again, I would say that governmental support must be backed by major capital support. The business of fashion can be revived if transportation and logistics are ironed out. The Chinese production companies are moving faster, doing the work cheaper, and turning it around quicker. Jamaica can easily join the market but first, there must be fiscal and governmental commitments to ensuring that quality products can get in and out of the island quickly.
To whom or what do you attribute your success?
My parents and family were instrumental in my development but my grandmother has always been my biggest inspiration and supporter. Grandma worked hard. She was a housekeeper for many years. She bore children but was never married, so she worked by herself to ensure that her family was secure. When she left Jamaica to come here, she had no qualms about cleaning other people’s homes for a living. She would go away during the week to clean people’s homes and then she would come back on weekends. But you know, she was passionate and proud about her work and she always had a remarkable spirit about the work she did. She always told me, growing up, that there’s always good, better, and best. Because of my grandmother’s encouragement and her unmatched ability to mind her business and just get the job done, I have developed a strong work ethic. I can work with anybody and I channel her spirit to bring people together to work as a team. She has always been accepting of others and she is not judgmental. She has never missed a birthday nor does she miss an opportunity to remind me that she is proud of me. When I started working at QVC, I handed her half of my very first paycheck and told her “there’s more to come.” Grandma taught me the meaning of hard work. She never cared about her role as a house cleaner. She did it with pride and with passion. So today, I am a hard worker, a good worker, a leader who can communicate, all because of my grandmother who cleaned homes for a living. Fashion is not that different, when you think of it. Cleaning homes requires different strategies in each room. You have to learn how to solve problems and how to strategize. You have to learn everybody’s work and move from one area to the next. Fashion is fluid and the workforce is diverse. Work ethic matters and passion, even more.
If you could talk to your 6-year-old self as she was boarding a plane to the US, what would you tell her?
I would say, “You are passionate. I see that you are both happy and confused.” Coming to America was a new experience not only because it was a new place, but also because I had not lived with my mother for a while because she was here and I was there with my dad’s family. So I was petrified but I would look at my 6-year-old self and say, “Stay passionate, have fun learning, and do whatever you set your mind to do.” I would also tell her to dream big but I have never liked small things. Remember that dress I talked about earlier? Part of what I loved about it was the big elaborate bow! I just always had big ideas and it’s funny that my maiden name is Biggs, but I always had big hair and loved big, lofty ideas. My 6-year-old self from a little town called Georges Plain, who loved that yellow dress would never imagine today that she would be a professor at a leading university in the field of fashion, who travels across the world wearing luxury designer items. The little girl from a humble town would not imagine the life I am able to live. I have accomplished so many unimaginable goals. God has blessed me with more than I could ever imagine and I have a wonderful family to share it with. I would say to her and all other little Jamaican immigrant girls like her, “With God, all things are possible to those who believe.” There’s good, there’s better, and there’s always best. Believe in yourself and always go for the best.
Professor Wyatt loves to mentor young people who are interested in fashion. Email her at [email protected]!
About Everyday People
“Everyday People” is a series created by senior writer, Dr. Kerri-Ann M. Smith to show you the widespread influence of Jamaicans around the world. Do you know some extraordinary everyday people? Email Dr. Kerri-Ann M. Smith ([email protected]) to see how they may be featured in this series.