NEW YORK — At the Black Fashion Designers Symposium, which was held Monday at the Fashion Institute of Technology in conjunction with its Black Fashion Designers exhibit, speakers consistently mentioned the one percent. But they weren’t referring to the wealthiest people in America.
They were alluding to the percentage of black designers who are reviewed on Vogue.com, a stat the co-curators Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way found while putting together the exhibit. Ironically enough, Vogue editor in chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour hosted a diversity and inclusion in fashion event at Condé Nast Monday night following the symposium — the gatherings weren’t officially connected.
The daylong symposium brought context to the exhibit and attempted to address what it means to be a black designer, why this one percent exists and what needs to be done to increase that number. There weren’t any hard and fast solutions, but the forum did allow for designers and fashion industry veterans to speak freely about race and how it has impacted their careers.
“You are the one percent,” said June Ambrose, the stylist who is best known for her work with Jay Z, Missy Elliott and Puff Daddy. (She is responsible for the shiny suits Diddy wore in the early Aughts and Elliott’s memorable trash bag outfit.)
Ambrose was addressing Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs of Cushnie et Ochs, a women’s wear line that’s been in business for nine years.
“My hope is that the industry gives more room for new talent and different talent,” said Cushnie, who is Jamaican and who recalled a surprising moment when she realized she and Tracy Reese were the only black women at meetings held by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “In the beginning it was very hard to get certain editors to come to our shows and that’s important. My hope is just that there are more opportunities and more avenues for younger designers to get their work shown.”
Cushnie didn’t attribute these challenges to being black, but she and Ochs agreed that being female designers has created its own set of impediments.
“It makes a difference having a male chief executive officer in the office now,” said Cushnie. “I think some people didn’t take us as seriously in terms of business because we are women.”
Designers Grace Wales Bonner and Mimi Plange, who spoke in a different talk with Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, also sit in the one percent and both use their ethnicities as a primary source of inspiration for their work. Bonner, a men’s wear designer who won the LVMH Prize last year, is English and Jamaican and explores what it means to sit between those two spaces each season with her line. She calls many of her concepts hybrids. Plange, who is from Ghana, looks to traditional African designs for her women’s collection but interprets them in a new way.
As much as her culture influences what she creates, Plange said she would prefer not to be categorized as a black designer.
“I would love for people to view me as just a designer,” Plange said. “My strategy is to not focus on race too much because it can dampen your spirit. I just want people to relate to my work.”
Being put into a racial box was also an issue for Patrick Kelly, a popular women’s wear designer from the Eighties who embraced his black identity and subverted black stereotypes — he used a blackface logo. But Monica Miller, an associate professor of English at Barnard, believes that Kelly’s design choices were an attempt to avoid questions about race.
“When one feels the burden of representing a race, there are different ways to address it,” said Miller, who conducted the discussion on Kelly with Eric Darnell Pritchard, an assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “One way is to go straight into it and try to destigmatize it by using it. The other way is to side step the questions and bring out the elephant in the room in such an exaggerated way that you don’t have to talk about it.”
Hip-hop has had a history of turning racially offensive messages, phrases and images on their heads, and Dapper Dan, the Harlem designer who gained popularity during the Eighties for creating ostentatious outfits covered in reprinted luxury logos for rappers including LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane, reiterated the importance of black designers not only embracing their culture but profiting from it.
“Fashion is the vehicle and culture is the wheels on the vehicle. If we allow them to put us in the backseat and they do the driving and haven’t embraced the culture, they are going to take us where they want to go. We have to make sure we are in the driver’s seat,” Dan said. “We can’t let the industry use us as window dressing to make us think we have penetrated the industry, but our numbers are still tiny.”
Bethann Hardison, who spoke with Veronica Webb for a talk about modeling and diversity, has made it her mission to increase minority model representation on catwalks and within magazines, which is something she thinks is improving but will never be where it should be.
Hardison worked directly with the late Franca Sozzani, the former editor of Italian Vogue, on the magazine’s 2008 black issue, which Hardison said was reprinted three times. But even with its popularity and the launch of a web site dedicated to the concept, Hardison said Sozzani still had a hard time finding advertisers to support it.
“She was magical. Or is magical. She gave me the opportunity to promote so much wonderful talent,” Hardison said. “Diversity helps us educate those who think we are not needed. That’s important to young people and it makes our society better.”