If rooting out unconscious bias is already on fashion’s to-do list as it strives for greater inclusion, expelling unconscious snobbery — the kind that snubs its nose at nonprestigious backgrounds — should likely be there, too.
In a talk Tuesday at Harlem’s Fashion Row’s 4th Annual Digital Summit, American artist and co-chair of Prada Group’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council, Theaster Gates, spoke about the topic and the necessities for a change in thinking.
“One of the things that became really clear as my career started to advance was that so many of the successes that I had, they weren’t successes because I was necessarily the best artist. They were successes because I had the relationship with institutions of power and they were fond of the work that I did and then they helped to amplify my projects and practice,” he told moderator and HFR founder and chief executive officer Brandice Daniel. “And I feel like the same is true of other Black and Brown people, people of color, is that the problem is not talent. The challenge is that we don’t have access to the modes of possibility, the big modes of amplification that others have access to. And if we could connect talent to those amplification projects, those places where amplification is happening, more people would excel.”
That’s one thing the Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab — a project born of a partnership between Theaster Gates Studio and its artist-led manufacturing platform Dorchester Industries, Gates’ Rebuild Foundation and Prada Group — is working to provide. The three-year incubator for emerging talent across fashion, design and industrial arts is set to surface new talent from little-tapped backgrounds.
“The Experimental Design Lab was first an attempt to demonstrate there’s a lot of talent around,” Gates said. “And once we started to aggregate all this talent, then we’d say to all of these people who are looking for talent, ‘Look at all the talent that’s around.’ So it’s really like we’re conduits that connect, in this case, a fashion house like Prada to the ‘hood.”
Acknowledging Prada’s past flubs related to race, as well as his own friendship with Miuccia Prada, Gates said he helped stress to the house and its co-designer the need for change to be systemic and structural.
“Something’s going to have to change within the organization so that diversity and inclusion is taken seriously, not just by you, but by the security staff, by other workers, by your executive team so that power actually understands, throughout the entire organization, how important people of color are and how important diversity is to the mission,” Gates said he told Miuccia Prada, who, along with the company, took heed. “The Experimental Design Lab was one of several initiatives that came out to kind of help make some of those connections happen.”
Fashion, for all of its progress in bringing the topic of diversity and representation to the table since George Floyd’s murder in 2020 shed a harsh light on the realities of ongoing racism in America, still has within its blood the sense of exclusivity it has had within it for so long. And it’s that remaining this-is-for-us-not-them mentality that often continues to hinder recognition of talent.
Instead, many companies have still rested on the laurels of that familiar trope: “I can’t find enough talented people of color.”
And, as Daniel pointed out, they can’t only only be found at prestigious fashion schools. Some companies in the industry have already acknowledged that, turning to fashion programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, and schools with more of a diverse mix. But sometimes it’s going to take looking even beyond school programs and recognizing that raw talent can be found anywhere.
“I’m also a nonconventional artist — I did not get an MFA, I did not have a BFA. Art, in a way, was tertiary to my education. But because I had this background in urbanism and sculpture and my dad was a builder and my mom was a thinker, I had all the raw material necessary to think about art,” Gates said. “What’s become very evident to me is that Black people, people of color, we’ve always been solving problems of design because we’ve always had the challenge of not having the resources that we need.”
That extends to art, too. Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, didn’t have a formal art education, but relied on the resources he had and the opportunities he created for himself and still rose to more prominence than most. Going even further back, Louis Armstrong did not attend the Manhattan School of Music to become Louis Armstrong.
A lesson for fashion? In this modern era, it doesn’t work for non-people of color to enjoy fashion created by Black people, as they did jazz created by Black people, but leave those very jazz musicians to use a separate entrance from their nondiverse audience as was often the reality decades ago. That separate entrance isn’t dissimilar from an unlevel playing field or a lack of seats at decision-making tables.
What’s more, as evidenced both by history and Gates, creative talent often doesn’t require prestigious cultivation. Which is why fashion could stand to benefit by broadening its horizons even beyond the work some may believe themselves to have already done.
“Innovation is part of the gift of the undercommons. Part of the gift of poverty is that you’re constantly having to solve real problems — not imaginary problems — so imagine when you give a person who’s been solving life problems all their lives, when you give them a platform and an amplified situation and then they’re solving design problems? It’s an easy thing,” Gates said. “So many people that I’ve fallen in love with in the field of design are people who I was just kind of on Instagram one day watching them be creative and genius and innovative, and maybe they only have 50 followers. But I’ve been so impressed by so many people.”
As American model and activist Bethann Hardison said in a previous interview with WWD, Black people, in particular, have been designing fashion since well before being recognized as designers.
“Your grandmother, my grandmother, we dressed our behinds off, we didn’t need designers, we did well,” she said.
Now it’s not only about fashion making more space in their minds to see talent where they might not have looked, but to cultivate that talent accordingly—whether it’s design talent or other creative or business talent across the reaches of the industry.
In a separate session at HRF’s Summit Tuesday, Christiane Pendarvis, co-president and chief merchandising and design officer Savage x Fenty, said cultivation and belonging is “mission critical” at the company.
“I think part of it is the environment and culture and ethos of this brand, obviously being founded by Rihanna, a Black woman, a Black woman who has built her business empire on inclusivity and diversity, on celebrating and recognizing those of us who have not been acknowledged, recognized, celebrated within the context of this industry, it’s mission critical for us. It’s just part of who we are. So I’d say we tend to attract people who believe in that mission, which helps you create the culture that you want to create and the environment where all people can be heard and celebrated,” she said. “But then that’s not enough, right. That’s the foundation but that’s not enough to ensure you’re creating an environment where everyone feels valued and heard and so there are very specific things that we do.”
One of those things is ensuring that when hiring for roles — beyond seeing that the talent pool includes people of color as more companies are now doing — that those interviewing them include people of color, too, “whether it’s in the same function or not,” Pendarvis said. “We want to make sure that our candidates see representation within the organization as well.”
What’s more, Savage x Fenty also works to retain that representation.
“Having the mechanisms in place, the institutional mechanisms, [is] really important to be able to do that. And so we talk very specifically at our leadership team level around employee composition. What does it look like? What does our hiring look like? What does our attrition look like? Are we losing more people of color than not?” she said, acknowledging something fewer companies are focused on. “Those are hard metrics that we’re constantly looking at.”
In Gates’ closing advice to designers listening Tuesday, he offered a sermon that could speak to corporate players, too.
“Art is not the end all, be all. Design is not the end all, be all. It starts and ends with the people who you love with the communities that you’re a part of. And if you can’t get that part right and you just disregard the people who are in your life [or, in your business] and — business is hard — but if you disregard the people who mean a lot to you, it means then that the work, it just remains little in another way,” he said. “You might make all the money in the world, but your humanity remains little.”