A few weeks ago, a post made its rounds on social media hoping to assemble a demonstration in upper Manhattan over the police killing of George Floyd and encouraging participates to wear a suit, a shirt and tie — or “your best” — to honor Floyd’s life and death.
The idea was spearheaded by wardrobe stylist Gabriel M. Garmon, along with designer Brandon Murphy and art curator Harold James Alexander Waight. With more than 1,000 people marching, the trio’s June 4 protest sent a powerful message. Father’s brought their sons, many in suits, while the iconic New York neighborhood of Harlem — birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance in the Roaring Twenties, the Black intellectual, social and artistic movement that continues to influence culture today — looked on.
“It was just this amazing moment,“ Garman says. “I’ll never forget it because I know we’re doing this for the youth. Just so they — so their struggle isn’t that bad.”
For the three fashion industry veterans, the momentum continues with their next demonstration today, Juneteenth. The 19th of June, also called “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day,” marks the day the last enslaved people in the U.S. were told they were free in 1865, nearly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. And while it has been celebrated in Black communities since the 1800s, many Americans have only heard of it recently. This year, the holiday resonates more loudly with fresh eyes, given the widespread daily protests since Floyd’s tragic killing. Companies from Apple to Target have made it an official paid holiday, while there will be protest marches throughout the U.S. to continue the movement toward racial equality and to press the message that Black lives matter.
Here, the trio of Black creatives sits down with WWD to discuss their Juneteenth celebration, offer a critique of the fashion industry though their unique experience and speak to what systemic changes they, and countless others, are fighting for.
WWD: Your first protest was on June 4, which coincided with George Floyd’s funeral in Minneapolis. Why did you want to create your own protest?
Gabriel M. Garmon: I originally was inspired by another protest that was going on in Atlanta; I don’t know if they named it, but it was similar to ours. I saw how important this one would be, and I wanted New York to get a piece of that as well. We just really wanted to commemorate and honor George Floyd and our other brothers and sisters that we’ve lost.
Brandon Murphy: Why we wanted to do this was also to create a sense of unity within our community. And I guess that kind of goes back to the reason why we wore the suits, to show unity and also to create a different vision in the media against not only Black men, but, the men and women of color. I think that was just really important. It really boosted the morale in everybody, everybody felt spiritually uplifted because, not for nothing, these are very, very heavy times. And we wanted to bring people together to feel like, “Hey, we can do this if we work together and we can really make a difference in a very powerful and impactful way.”
WWD: Thinking about Sixties civil rights activists, they used dress as a tool of resistance, helping to shape how they were seen in the media. There were many images of impeccably dressed Black men and women being assaulted by white police. What does that history mean to you now and how has that influenced your recent protests?
B.M.: Back in the Civil Rights era, I think dressing up wasn’t as taboo as it is today. Men and women dressed up all the time. Men wore three-piece suits, top hats, good shoes. And I think just the fact that they were in suits, like today, it shows optics. And with the media, it creates a different vision of how Black people are perceived in America. So, we definitely wanted to expound upon that — that vision and create a sense. This is really, really about unity and making an impactful impression on America. So definitely we were inspired by the Sixties civil rights activists. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin and the list goes on and on. We wanted to show the way that we do it, for lack of a better term.
Harold James Alexander Waight: When it comes down to dressing up, I’ll be honest with you guys — I did get some feedback like, “We shouldn’t have to dress up,” “We shouldn’t have to put on suits,” “We shouldn’t have to be a certain way in order for us to get respect.” But it was just more so this is our way of honoring the lives that were lost. This is what we chose to do. And I think as individuals and creatives, we should all have the liberty to be able to express ourselves the way that we want to. And that for us is through fashion, through our suits, through what we decided to wear, because perception is everything. And in our minds, that’s who we want to be perceived as — the people in the suits. We want to be taken seriously. Not saying that other people won’t, but this is how we take ourselves seriously as well.
G.M.G.: I’ve received the feedback as well. We’re all artists. We’re visuals. Fashion is our first love. So that’s how I will express myself always. If we look back even prior to the Civil Rights Movement, we can look back to the Women’s Liberation Movement with the bras or even the Black Panthers, their uniform. It’s something about a uniform — that does unify, that shows more respect and gets my point across.
B.M.: Obviously you’re — anything that you do — you’re going to get feedback, positive or negative. But I think if you stick to your vision and you know that you know what you’re doing comes from the heart and it’s right within yourself, then there’s really not much anything anybody can say about it or what you’re doing. We’re out here trying to get our voices heard and we’re trying to make a difference. And if us putting on suits shows unity in a different vision in the media, I think that our point has been made. And we had kids coming out, older men, thousands of people. We had men that brought extra suits and ties for it, for people that didn’t have it, you know, and that was just incredible. Just seeing that gave me hope, that made me feel like, “We can do this. We can really make a change in our community if we work together and really stick to a unified vision and move forward.” And it really, really, really touched my heart. We’re all making a difference.
WWD: How you been mobilizing to organize for Friday’s Juneteenth celebration? Is there a similar dress suggestion for the event?
B.M.: So Juneteenth — that was the day that slavery was abolished, the ending of slavery in the United States. So Juneteenth is actually a very, very historical celebration and it’s worldwide. The thing that we wanted to do is just to continue that celebration, but also bringing light to what’s going on in this world right now. You know, we’re seeing a lot of reckless police brutality. It’s an abuse that has been happening to not only Black men and women, but our trans brothers and sisters and nonbinaries there — people are getting massacred out here just for being themselves and being different. We want to continue that sense of unity and have our voices amplified even more, and we’ve had some progress, which is great. But we’re not satisfied. We want to continue that fight and keep working. So Juneteenth is going to be a really, really big day.
H.J.A.W.: With Juneteenth, people are asking, are we going to be in suits? Are they allowed to come out and be dressed however they want to? And that answer is all are welcomed. You know, this is one question that was also proposed — the first march — when women saw the flyer and they wanted to be included. And we said, this is for everybody. We want to make sure that at the end of the day, what matters is that the message is getting across. How we choose to present ourselves is one way. But we want to make sure that the focus never, never deters anyone.
WWD: Over the past few weeks, there’s been a reckoning among fashion brands and media outlets. Some gestures are being called out for being performative such as social media posts from organizations that have little or no Black employees. What are some changes that you’d like to see in fashion or in other creative spaces in terms of the Black voice?
H.J.A.W.: I think a lot of times we forget to put the word equal in front of opportunities. In the fashion industry right now a lot of brands are taking a different approach. They’re saying, “OK, we’re going to hire more people of color,” “We’re gonna hire more Black employees,” “We’re going to offer those opportunities on corporate levels,” “We’re gonna open the doors.” Right? But what they’re forgetting is that we’re not just asking for opportunities, our communities are asking for equality with these opportunities as well. Same rate of pay, we want that because Black people still make way less than white people do, and that’s just statistics. You can have the same education, you can have the same experience, and statistics will show that, unfortunately, because of your skin color, you will still make less. Did they offer you an opportunity? Yes. But was it an equal opportunity? No. So I think, you know, a lot of different fashion brands and companies need to really take a look at that and really try to not just put on a show for the public and say, “OK, we’re going to put somebody who’s Black, who could represent that community so we could say, ‘You know, we’re all-inclusive.'” But no, really be about that. What are the changes that you’re actually implementing within your companies outside of just putting a picture up? No, we don’t just want a picture up. We want to have the same opportunities, the same equal opportunities. Be about that walk, not just that talk.
G.M.G.: We can see it with Pride Month. We’ve seen companies — they’ll throw a rainbow up just because. And July 1, it’s down. Like, no, the work continues. Don’t just show up now. We need that to continue. We need to keep it going. Become an ally with us.
B.M.: It’s like we’re experiencing like “the Great Awakening.” And that America is trying to erase its years of guilt. This dates back 400 years ago to slavery. But with our industry, it feels like the fashion industry is just realizing that we wanted to be a part of it. It just feels like they didn’t even realize that we were their assistant designers, their assistant editors or what have you. We’ve always worked in this industry and we want to be a part of it in a bigger way than just working in the stores or working assistant jobs. This is about building equity within the Black community and within Black creatives. We need to be able to have ownership of our own brands and our own businesses. This is a much bigger conversation than just putting up a post saying Black Lives Matter on your page and in the next post is “We’re having a 40 percent off sale.” It’s much deeper than that. And I hope that this time that we’re having right now is not just that: “a time.” I think this is a movement and a continuation of how we need to be moving forward. We need to make sure that businesses are held accountable. And we need to look at, you know, not just the creative level, but at the executive level, you know, how many Black people are on the executive board and on your executive teams? These executive teams need to look like how the world looks. It’s all about perspective and experience. So what I’m trying to say is the fashion industry is about experience and perspective. And if there’s no diversity in our industries, you know, in our government, our executive team that we’re only showing one perspective and that’s a preferential experience. We don’t want this to be like a marketing ploy that Black Lives Matter. This is for real people’s livelihoods, their lives.
H.J.A.W.: This isn’t new. And I feel it’s important to mention this — racism and race — that’s been going on in our country. It’s almost as if the society has had a moment where the curtain’s been peeled. And we’ve all said, “A-ha we caught you. So it is going on.” So now here’s the proof for you. You see it on video. It’s going on. But this is nothing that’s new. We don’t want this to trend. We want change to come and change for it to remain permanent. We don’t just want it to be advertised like it’s another sale because they want business. No, we want change to come because the people that are working within these companies are the Black people and people of different colors that are working in this company. We all have so much more to offer than just fetching coffee. Then just being in the background. And in fashion, you’ll see that. The fashion community, the industry, has adopted so much of our language, so much of our culture but why are we not being represented as much if everything that’s being sold is part of our culture?
B.M. I can give an example, too. There was a brand that I was working for, it was like a tailoring brand. And on the floor were predominantly Black associates. But their office was right upstairs on the third floor and you go up to that office and it’s nothing but white people. So I’m like, what does that show? You know, in any kind of promotions, you’d have to really jump through hoops to get to the next level in that business or in that company. So it was one of those things where if you’re not a part of this culture or you’re not a part of this visual standard, you’re not going to progress within that company. I think those are the kind of things that really, really discouraged me in fashion. And I feel like do I even belong in this industry, you know? An industry that was not even built for me. For us.
WWD: By its nature, protest and activism, those are massive political statements and November is coming. What are you hoping this movement can shape as far as the presidential election?
B.M.: People need to vote more than anything. We’ve been coming out in extremely large numbers. And just even this past — what was it? — Saturday or Sunday, we had that Black Trans Lives Matter march. What was it, 15,000 people?
H.J.A.W.: They estimated it at over 30,000.
B.M.: Huge, huge. In numbers and, you know, people protesting in L.A. and just thousands of people. But my prayer is that all of that translates to the polls. All of that translates to people signing petitions. All of that translates to people staying informed and making sure that they are aware of what’s going on in this community and what’s going on in the government. And staying vigilant and knowing that, if we work together and if we stay focused, we can make real changes. And that starts at the polls. So we need to vote. And vote like our lives depend on it. Because it does.
G.M.G.: Because it does.
H.J.A.W.: Yes, Black Lives Matter is like the main topic that’s trending right now. Right? But then there are other reasons we need to vote as well. Like the whole health-care rule that was just passed on Friday where, you know, health care can be denied to people — LGBTQ community, trans and nonbinary — that’s another issue. There’s several other issues that are going on that are just blatantly wrong. Against humanity and equality within this government. There’s so many reasons that we have right now that we shouldn’t have an excuse to not go out and vote, you know, and it affects all of us. So that’s the most important thing we have to remember: The goal is to vote and get this change to happen. And we can only do that if we all stay united.
WWD: We touched on the recent Black Trans Lives Matter demonstration in Brooklyn. Thinking on the intersection of Black queer and trans voices into the Black Lives Matter movement — it’s not always the voice that we hear about in the media coverage.
B.M.: Yeah, I think it’s all about people’s fear for something different. And people’s fear of change. You know, we just did a press conference yesterday with the New York State Attorney General, Letitia James. And we were speaking on the effects of the health-care ruling that Trump made on this past Friday and how it’s going to affect that community. And we had a number of people from the trans and nonbinary community speak on their experiences and how it affects them. Because it’s not just about that they can’t go to the doctor. This creates a mental fear in them. And it creates mental health issues within them and we need to address that immediately. They’re being treated as if they’re not human beings. It’s all about visibility. So having been on that press conference and speaking, gives their voices a face. It gives them, a chance to say, “Hey, I’m human, I may be different from you, but I’m just like you.” You know, these are our neighbors. These are our friends. These are family members. These are people within our community. And we need to treat them with the respect they deserve. I think I’ve had it with this conversation of the exclusivity factor of it all. We are all on this earth to make a difference and we are all on this earth to support each other and love each other. And if you’re not on that, that wave, then, you know what — you need to sit back and question what is your role in this country? And how are you working to the betterment of the Black community and just our country? What is your role in making this life better? And if you don’t have an answer to that, then I think you need to reevaluate your stance in life and the actions that you make.
H.J.A.W.: I want to make something very clear, because a lot of people are under the wrong impression of all the marches and protests and demonstrations. The fight isn’t against the race. The fight is against racism and the act of racism. So, you know, LGBTQ community — that’s right underneath Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter didn’t signify that not all Black lives matter. And it didn’t signify that not other races matter. It just means that if you have melanin in your skin, any type of melanin in your skin — and you can be shot at before you could even speak or say what your résumé is — you’re at risk. I’m a mixed man. So, you know, I’m Black first, but I’m also mixed. Nobody’s asking you what is your education before they shoot you. They’re not asking you, “Do you speak Spanish?” They’re not asking you, “Oh, who are you related to?” No. If you have melanin in your skin, that is our fight. That is what we’re fighting right now. We’re fighting against racism.
We’re not fighting other races. And I think that’s what people need to understand is also when it comes down to the LGBTQ community. They’re not going to ask, “Oh, you’re gay, OK? Then you’re excluded.” No. You’re a part of this as well. And we need everybody to understand because I think that message is getting lost. Now, you have people saying, “We don’t feel like Black Lives Matter is representing us?” And I say, how can you not feel like that represents you when it actually is that’s one of our battles. Yes. We [queer and black] have double the battle to fight. We could be in a so much better place right now in this world if we could just put our differences aside and focus on getting to those goals and focus on, you know, human progress.
We as a human race are stuck on things that shouldn’t determine somebody’s worth. A community’s worth. That shouldn’t determine if we’re good enough for something. What should determine that is our experience, our education, and we matter simply because we exist first. And that’s the point I wanted to get across when I’m being asked, “You know, what is this march for?” “”What is this demonstration for?” I say it’s the fight against racism, not for race. We have several white allies, Latin, Asian. It doesn’t matter. We’re all in this together.
WWD: What in this moment is giving you hope?
G.M.G.: The youth. It’s the youth for me. Even at our demonstration. And we had a child getting a tutorial on how to tie a tie. We’ve seen them march alongside of us. I’ll never forget it because I know we’re doing this for them. I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but just that little bit of hope there, just looking at them, it’s just very moving.
B.M.: Just seeing how the Black creatives have just come together to support each other. And we’re talking about taking care of each other and also just self-care and checking up on one another. And I think we’re relearning the meaning of boundaries. And understanding that we are fighting more than one fight. And this is extremely overwhelming. What also gives me hope is the continuing of this conversation and that although we’re still questioning, how genuine the support is that comes from the big businesses. But at least, they’re saying something, and that’s creating a conversation. And that conversation creates another conversation. I see a lot of just Black people coming together to support one another. And I think that gives me hope.
H.J.A.W.: Where I get hope from right now is the future. We have to acknowledge that yesterday happened and we have to live in today. But our actions today are going to be what determines our future for tomorrow. And being that we’re all taking action. Some people can’t be out in protest, rather some people are making paintings, some are writing poetry, some people are singing songs. I think that action that everyone’s taking right now is where I’m getting my hope for the future. And even right now, I decided to put together like a little small book. I call it “CAR: creators against racism.” Where many people are contributing different materials to put together from the protest, the marches. And these are people who are artists. They’ve been asking, “How can my paintings help?” To spread the word about what’s going on. “How can my photographs spread the word about what’s going on?” Not everybody can be out there on the frontlines. It’s not for everybody. But the action that’s being taken, that action that’s allowing people to say, “OK, I’m going to create something that’s going to be impactful, you know, that gives us all hope for the future.”
B.M.: Now, I do love that. I love that people are using different avenues as a form of protest. Like I’ve a friend that is creating — not necessarily a picnic in the park — but more so a lounge kind of thing in the park. They are just being around their friends and relaxing and taking a moment to clear their minds and just sitting out and meditating and praying together, laughing together. And I think that’s a great way of protesting. You know, self care is a form of protest. You know, taking care of each other is a form of protest.
Video: Watch the complete roundtable here