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Meet the Class of 2023 graduate shaking up C-Suite’s retail strategies

By Jackie Mallon


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Clay Lute wins top award at FSF. Image: Fashion Scholarship Fund

You’ve heard of the C-Suite, the CEOs, COOs and CFOs who occupy the boardrooms of our favorite brands, now get ready for the Z-Suite, a Gen Z cohort invited into those same boardrooms to advise the senior executives and vice presidents. Z-level students and influencers now hold a unique power as brands and retailers position themselves to meet the challenges of contemporary retailing. Born between the mid-90s and the early 2010s, Gen Z are digital natives, purpose-driven, highly-informed and cynical of traditional marketing methods.

One such insider is 21-year-old Clay Lute, class of 2023 graduate of LIM College, who, as a member of the Z-Suite, founded by Berns Communications Group, has recently advised, among other brands, Saks on the topic of sustainability. His exclusive network of Gen Zers influencing retail’s thought leaders tackle topics that matter to the discerning younger consumer such as messaging around gender, identity, activism, inclusivity or calling out the presence of greenwashing or tokenism.

Clay Lute presents his case study at FSF Gala. Image: Fashion Scholarship Fund

Gen Z holds major influence over retail strategy

While still a student Lute interned for J Crew, Calvin Klein and Todd Snyder (where he now works). Even before graduation, as a senior majoring in Fashion Merchandising and minoring in International Business, Lute attracted attention, having been both a Fashion Scholarship Fund recipient of the Virgil Abloh™ “Post-Modern” Scholarship and then won the top scholarship prize, the Chairman's Award worth 25,000 dollars, at the FSF gala on April 3rd. He presented a business case study centered around clothing for those on the autism spectrum, inspired by the experiences of a family member.

Shannon Abloh, wife of the late fashion designer who sponsored the award that was named after him, was quoted as saying, “I was there when he was pitching and his idea was so dynamic, and he’s such a dynamic person. He was a standout for all of us.”

His accomplishments had been building steadily during his LIM career. Some months earlier, Lute was a finalist for the National Retail Federation Foundation's Next Generation Scholarship. In 2021, he won a Handcraft-sponsored scholarship from the Licensing International Foundation, and a scholarship from the Underfashion Club, the premier non-profit supporting the intimate apparel industry.

Inspired by Black creatives who have paved the way for him, Lute gave particular mention in his FSF speech to the late Andre Leon Talley, Ann Lowe, as well as Abloh. “There's a beauty in fashion's ability to impact the confidence, opportunity, and expression of the wearer,” he said. “Fashion can be used to uplift people and communities…and to build a more inclusive and innovative future."

Addressing a room full of such fashion luminaries such as Vogue Global Editorial Director, Anna Wintour; Emma Grede, co-founder of Skims and Good American; designers Tommy Hilfiger and Todd Snyder; and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, the charismatic senior from Fayetteville, Georgia, spoke of growing up in a conservative town and not feeling like he fit in: “Younger me felt trapped. I often felt caught up in the convictions of being Black in white spaces.”

He relocated to NYC right out of high school. He said he was “hungry—hungry for a chance to be in rooms just like this one.” With a charismatic smile he knew he had the audience in his thrall as he concluded, “And that hunger paid off.”

Fashion graduates
LIM College