Voices of Fashion’s Black Creatives on the Work to Be Done

D-I-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y.

The industry has been proclaiming its need to be more diverse for at least a decade, and proudly patting itself on the back for the steps it has taken. Companies issue press releases about the efforts they are making internally; they give donations; they buy tables at charity events supporting black causes; they might even sponsor scholarships. Only last year, numerous fashion groups publicized how they had hired chief diversity officers, established internal panels and hired outside experts to help them become more diverse and understand racial differences.

Is that enough?

The protesters who have filled the streets of cities across America, and of many others around the world, over the killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, have made it clear the answer is a firm, loudly proclaimed: NO!

All one has to do is to look at our list to see how pitiful the representation of black people at senior levels in the fashion and retail industries is in the 21st century. How many chief executive officers are there at leading firms? Three — and one of those, Virgil Abloh, founded his own company.

The percentage of black designers in the membership of the Council of Fashion Designers of America? Four percent.

The protests over the Floyd killing have shaken society to the core more than any other in a tragic string of past killings at the hands of police officers, or white citizens. And it isn’t the unfortunate violence that has in some cases accompanied those demonstrations. It is that these marches have caused us to reexamine — or perhaps for the first time, truly examine — whether the steps, beliefs and behaviors we have long thought were absolutely fine are truly enough to make a difference.

Racism — or even unconscious bias — has festered for centuries, and will not be cauterized overnight. What the protesters continue to make clear is that things need to get much better, and much faster, than they have been. There are no easy answers to how, but in the first of two parts, WWD asked black creatives to share their experiences of discrimination, how companies can do better, and more.

 

Tracy Reese

Tracy Reese  Diane Bondareff/AP/Shutterstock

Tracy Reese

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

That’s such a huge question. Maintaining a strong sense of self-worth when you have been spit on, called the “N” word, stalked by security in stores and other public spaces, denied leases, loans, attention, opportunities and been the only person of color at camp, in classrooms, meetings and boardrooms has been challenging. My parents always made sure I knew my value and I’ve been determined to push through and succeed in spite of these experiences.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

Our industry must stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, the NAACP and other organizations fighting for justice and equality. We can use our sizable voice to collectively lobby for legislation to change how police forces are trained and correct mass incarceration policies.

The fashion industry must also respond by examining its own practices. We are not employing black people in management and executive positions in production, wholesale, retail and media in proportions that reflect the population. Black people have historically been shut out of these opportunities.

Recognize and celebrate the contributions black people have made to fashion and culture

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

Recognize the oppressive consequences of centuries of systemic racism. Institute apprenticeship and fellowship programs that lead to managerial opportunities. Have honest conversations about race and equity with all employees on a regular basis. Ask black employees what support they feel they need to level the playing field and implement action.  

What role can the media play?

Media must reflect the world we really live in and keep asking the difficult questions long after the current fury has receded. Black people must be represented as humans who laugh, cry, live, love, nurture, create, rejoice and contribute to the fabric of this society in infinite ways.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

The fact that we are even having these conversations.

Andre Leon Talley

André Leon Talley  Stephane Feugere/WWD

André Leon Talley

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

The biggest challenge is to get up everyday and to go forward and to fight the battle.…As a black man, I could have been in a situation like George Floyd — put in handcuffs and thrown to the ground. A black man must think about racism every single day.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

Have more awareness and discussions. People need to listen — not just have summits and things. It’s not just about having a town hall. It’s got to be something for the industry to practice where people are included — not just the big brands but the unsung hero designer as well, and not only black designers, but brown designers and Asian designers. It’s got to focus on the humanity of the fashion world, not just the megawatt brands, each individual.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

The brands first of all should be more aware and conscious of the times we live in, which are difficult because of the pandemic and the whole thing about social justice and equality for black people. Brands need to focus on inclusivity and diversity of black people in ways that they have not done before. Gucci has done it brilliantly. Gucci had a luncheon last year with 300 of the most influential African Americans in the industry. They have an advisory committee for diversity. People have got to be included more. It’s not just a selfish thing any more. Fashion turned in on itself and became this very narcissistic endeavor, with brands outdoing brands and shows outdoing shows.

 

Instagram posts from Diandra Forrest, Kerby Jean-Raymond and Nikki Ogunnaike.

Instagram posts from Diandra Forrest, Kerby Jean-Raymond and Nikki Ogunnaike. 

What role can the media play?

Each individual has to find a way in this pandemic to be more resourceful and to create something that is exciting. When Essence wanted to photograph Naomi Campbell for their 50th anniversary cover, she photographed herself on her cell phone. That sent a very strong message. The industry has to come up with ways to be resourceful. They have to think about what this virus of racism and the virus of COVID-19 means for the future. They have to reach out to future generations. This whole Zoom effect is phenomenal. You can teach 130 students from 130 countries on Zoom, which means you can have webinars, too. You can use social media to make change. Change comes in very different ways. The powerful have got to listen to the powerless.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

What makes me hopeful is a sense of who I am and that there can be progress. People have to come together — individuals within the fashion world and outside the fashion world — to continue to work, to struggle and you don’t give up. You don’t give up the dream. The dream has not been achieved. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated April 12, 1968 and here we are on June 4, 2020 having to memorialize a man whose life was stamped out of him…and it was photographed in real time.

 

Brett Johnson  Courtesy

Brett Johnson

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

I believe there’s a plethora of initiatives the fashion industry can implement. 

First, the treatment of people of color in their stores. From first-hand experience you get one of two reactions, either being followed or completely ignored. I should be treated the same as the clients that are not people of color. 

Second, the inclusion of people of color in fashion shows and events. Diversity in casting, your front row and guests, open your doors to fashion students of color.

Third, I think that one of the most powerful images that I saw was both in NY and Flint, Mich., when the police chiefs took a knee and hugged to express unity between them and the people. 

Major fashion houses can express this by collaborations with designers of color. Implementing apprenticeships with people of color because I’m a firm believer in a “hands on approach”. 

Fourth, I think fashion schools should also follow Aurora James’ recommendation and require a minimum of 15 people of their student body to be students of color. 

Lastly, major fashion brands need to be conscious of products they design and be more culturally sensitive to people of color’s past history — including appropriation of black culture and black iconography.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

I unequivocally believe that the aforementioned 15 percent rule be applied to executive boards, staff and management. Presently two-thirds of my executive team are women of color. I also think women in general are undervalued and their voices need to be represented in all three phases. 

What role can the media play?

I believe this truly circles back around to major fashion houses being more inclusive. When more people of color are included then this creates opportunities to put themselves around media and in the position to create relationships they will need farther down the road. Providing a platform that they would otherwise not have access to. 

The media could do a much better job of covering designers of color who have no attachments to global celebrities. 

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

Receiving uplifting messages from our global retailers and their willingness to continue to support a luxury designer of color even through an international pandemic. 

Dapper Dan

Dapper Dan  Courtesy

Dapper Dan, fashion innovator

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

There are two. One is renting commercial and/or residential spaces to use for my business. The other is being able to buy luxury brands wholesale.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

They should sponsor a legal team and cover all costs for the legal team to represent those who are affected by racist policies and police brutality.

Instagram posts from Iman, Telfar Clemens, and Jason Rembert.

Instagram posts from Iman, Telfar Clemens, and Jason Rembert. 

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

I feel that Gucci’s Changemakers plan is the right direction to go in. We need more of this.

What role can the media play?

The media should implore that all the other luxury brands follow Gucci’s lead.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

I grew up in a very different time in America. So, to now see so many white people supporting protests of issues that have been affecting black people, it gives me hope for America. It wasn’t like this at all when I was growing up.

 

Frederick Anderson

Frederick Anderson  Courtesy

Frederick Anderson

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

I so believe there is still a bias in specifically the American fashion industry toward understanding that black “luxury” designers can and do sell to women of all races and colors. I’ve heard for years this theory that white luxury clients would not buy off of black models. Keeping the black models relegated to one in a show. “Now,” well, thank God that has been proven wrong. Showing a broader view of the American woman.

Now the next barrier is to show that black American designers can sell “luxury,” not just athleticwear and urban-inspired fashion. I think this comes from the assumption that all black people grew up in the ghetto.  

It’s strange as I thought the point of progress is so we can view people by their own accomplishments and not by a stereotype…the stereotype still exists.   

Black designers, as designers from all other races, design from their personal history and experiences and not every black person is from an impoverished past or divided family and yes some even had very successful and educated mothers and fathers.  

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

Raise up black designer role models. Create a conversation about understanding how the racist idea that black people are lesser in one way ends up in the police devaluing the life of a black person by having the same racist assumption.

There is a connection!

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

Self-evaluate and see how you are part of the problem or the solution. False support when it’s trendy will not help. It’s actively working to change our own minds first and then those of the people we employ and influence.

What role can the media play?

Tell the truth. Never stop.  

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

The racial mix in the crowds in every march I have seen. I am proud of the new generation. They already have made a change in attitudes by showing it’s not enough to feel sad. It affects everyone in one way or another.

Change hurts. It’s not an easy process nor is it pretty to watch. Maybe it’s a lesson we can learn in this time of COVID-19 when we actually have time to watch and absorb this moment.   

I’m changed forever.

 

Nasrin Jean-Baptiste

Nasrin Jean-Baptiste  Courtesy

Nasrin Jean-Baptiste, Petit Kouraj

What are the unique challenges you feel have faced in fashion due to being black?

I think one of the more insidious challenges facing black people and POC-owned fashion business is not only are women undervalued within the industry but as a woman of color, we are all too frequently placed in a position of invisibility and inequality. With this imposed separateness, the responsibility has unfairly fallen on us to resist the societal messaging and conditioning we experience daily. This teaches us that our contribution and mere existence is somehow inferior. We are burdened with the call to displace that thinking and find within us the strength to operate from a place of complete abundance and worthiness. This is a daily practice for black people in general, we do it during our morning coffee before we check our to-do lists or open our laptops. It has become so normalized that we often forget that we are carrying this burden until we are reminded in subtle and not-so-subtle ways how we are perceived, upon which we repeat this inner work.   

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

First and foremost, the fashion industry has a responsibility to actively participate in the fight against injustice, whether the industry likes it or not. People of color, specifically, black people have had a long history of radically impacting our fashion industry without recognition and participation is just one way the industry can preserve and acknowledge our contribution.

There are many ways the fashion industry can get involved and information on this has never been so readily available. Supporting organizations that have long been doing the groundwork in their local and greater communities is a great place to start, donate to these causes. Make your support visible so we can all be encouraged and educated on these platforms is also vital. 

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

I think brands need to think holistically, this moment requires us all to practice extreme humility and unashamedly ask ourselves the difficult and painful questions. We must objectively examine our personal basis, work culture, and practices within the business we are creating and make sure we are making ourselves accountable for the issues facing the world. When this work is done, inclusion within the workforce and boardrooms comes naturally. This is not a time for silence or passive alliance. I want to see larger brands support small POC-owned businesses, by investing in our brands on your social media, on your e-commerce web sites, and on the retail floors. 

Instagram posts from Imaan Hammam and Alton Mason.

Instagram posts from Imaan Hammam and Alton Mason. 

What role can the media play?

The media can help to amplify the voices, stories and businesses of POC. We need balanced and factual reporting. The media can and should help by contextualizing what is happening in America as not just a black issue but as a human issue. We are in the midst of social change and this is a perfect time to examine America’s dark history and how human behavior individually and collectively is impacting us all now. 

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

Though we are all experiencing a very conflicting and emotional time, I am overwhelmed with the hope that a shift in our collective consciousness is taking place. To see people coming together on a national level in various forms of protest, to listen, to engage and to see the call to response globally is extremely motivating. 

Any additional thoughts? 

I started my bag line as a daily reminder to find the courage to create the life and world of my dreams. It is my hope that in this moment, we are all encouraged to find within us a little courage daily to create the sustained change needed for a better way of living.

Tia Adeola  Courtesy

Tia Adeola

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

I think the fact that I’m not just black, but also a woman means that I have to be extra polite and sometimes even hold back on how I truly feel or on things I want to say so I’m not labeled as “the angry black woman.” From the second I walk into a room everyone is judging me or jumping to negative assumptions based on how I look and I have to be conscious of my every move. 

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

I think the fashion industry should be restructuring their teams and putting more black people in positions of real power, donating to fundraisers and using their vast platforms on social media to support Black Lives Matter. And by this, I don’t mean only supporting the movement after they’ve felt the pressure due to their silence, but in an ongoing and meaningful way where they contribute to changing a system they’re culpable in. 

Instagram posts from Corianna + Brianna Dotson and Duckie Thot.

Instagram posts from Corianna + Brianna Dotson and Duckie Thot. 

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

I think one of the most important things would be to start hiring more black people and when I say this, I don’t mean hiring people to work in the storefront or in the stock room. I mean hiring black people on an executive level. Let us be decision-makers, once this is enforced, everything else will fall into place as far as imagery goes. 

What role can the media play?

Just like the policemen have their walkie-talkies and radio systems to communicate, social media is what we as a community are using to find people who are being abducted at protests, share organizations that are accepting donations for the black community, and educate people who don’t fully grasp the magnitude or complexities of what’s going on. 

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

A black man was shot in Brooklyn just yesterday, another in Louisville the day before, I’m sure there are several more because these stories aren’t being reported. I don’t feel hopeful.

 

Larissa Muehleder

Larissa Muehleder  Courtesy

Larissa Muehleder, Muehleder

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

It’s uncomfortable to discuss this because I’m very grateful for all that I did have growing up, but when you start to meet really successful people you realize how much you lacked and the reason for your struggles. White people don’t realize the magnitude of assistance they have by simply inheriting financial literacy and resources. It would have been helpful to have had parents or relatives who knew about business and raising capital so you can minimize your mistakes and increase your chances of success but most minority-owned businesses, like my own, are bootstrapped when the reality is a lot of companies raise money before they go into business. Having someone else invest in me didn’t even occur to me when I started Muehleder and managing our finances was a journey on its own. That’s why my best advice to black business owners is to seek out mentorship and organizations like FITDE for guidance, create a business plan, and never stop reviewing it. Work smarter, not harder. 

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

I think at the basic level, making sure that the conversations keep going is key. Unlike the news outlets, the fashion industry does not have to be censored. They can push bold agendas through imagery that keep the conversation going and create the narrative you want to be seen. For example, [President] Trump referred to black protesters as “thugs.” How can we change that narrative and show the police as the real thugs? It’s not an easy topic, but if you really want a change you have to do what isn’t easy or comfortable.

In addition, not only hiring black creators but making sure their voices and opinions are heard and that they are comfortable enough to even share them. When you ask yourself, have I created a space where people feel equal? What is your answer? If you are not sure then you know you have more work to do. 

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

Change from within starts at the top. The right leadership means everything and it’s not just what you have to say, but the actions you continue to implement long after the riots and the noise subsides. Meaning, don’t post about it, be about it, and open the platform to different races for fresh “woke” ideas with a purpose to flow. 

What role can the media play?

I find that too often the media doesn’t appear to be genuine. They are all simply posting the same viral video. They need to be more creative by diving deep into the different layers of an issue in order to have a unique voice. In return, they will not only get their audience to pay attention but inspire their audience to take action.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

I’m hopeful because I myself have become more aware than I have ever been in my life. I’ve been doing nothing but research these past eight days and following all the progressive people and organizations that I feel are on top of issues I care about. My friends and I are all sharing resources and this has sparked a conversation within our group and with white people on Instagram who I don’t even know. People who were unaware are now aware and want to know how they can help. It is amazing to see everyone around the world join in our fight because racism is a global issue. We may be divided amongst some groups but the united front has never been stronger. White people are listening and trying their best to understand and that is the start, continuing the conversation is the journey ahead, and voting is our greatest weapon. We are about to vote like our lives depend on it, because for once, everyone can see that lives do depend on it.

Theresa Ebagua

Theresa Ebagua  Courtesy

Theresa Ebagua, Chelsea Paris

What are the unique challenges you feel have faced in fashion due to being black? 

Finding and maintaining space in any industry can be challenging.  While there is more diversity within the fashion industry today, there are times when I feel limitations on my creative expression. The fear is always appearing “too black.” Is that print too much? Is this collection too bold? With each launch, I feel more grounded in my identity as an African designer and I find moments to celebrate that heritage. 

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

Every action counts, from informative posts to conscious designs. I would embolden all of us in the fashion industry to use our collective voice, influence and creativity to challenge racist policies and maintain awareness of incidents of police brutality. 

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

As a brand, awareness is imperative. We have to acknowledge that we are in a constant battle against systemic racism. Afterwards, we can engage in inclusive reform within our respective teams and collections. 

Instagram posts from Elaine Welteroth, Hannah Bronfman, and Campbell Addy.

Instagram posts from Elaine Welteroth, Hannah Bronfman, and Campbell Addy. 

What role can the media play?

The media is responsible for keeping the public informed and should focus on a holistic and accurate portrayal of current events. An increase in positive representation of black faces is needed. While there have been improvements, the media still falls short of uplifting the black community.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

Witnessing the mobilization of younger generations, seeing their passion and strength as they fight for justice and equality makes me expectant for the future. 

Any additional thoughts?

There are no right words to describe what is happening. We are experiencing waves of irreconcilable emotions: outrage, exhaustion, pain, fear. This is a time to lean on one another; together, we can and we must end racial injustice. 

 

Fe Noel

Fe Noel  Courtesy

Fe Noel

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

I’d say being constantly pigeon holed. We are a proud black brand; however, being constantly grouped does not highlight our core individual strengths and focus. I’d love to be on an equal playing field with other brands of the same caliber and focus on the craft, fashion and brand messaging.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality? 

I’ve always believed fashion is reflective of the current state of our economy. It is political. I’d like to see the industry get innovative and create a new platform that educates and speaks on acceptable policies in a way that resonates.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

I think brands should reassess their core values and approach inclusion with a new lens. Rethink your hiring strategies, charitable efforts and marketing. Making these additional changes will create immediate impact.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

One thing about me is that I remain optimistic at all times and I remind myself that change is constant. I am even more hopeful now with this massive wake up call.

 

Lisa Price, founder of Carol’s Daughter

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

Unfortunately there are many challenges I have faced from a young age. From age 15/16, when I began to shop by myself, up until maybe 10 to 15 years ago, I was followed when I shopped in stores. Always. To this day, I have a very hard time catching a cab in NYC. I always use Uber. Now, those don’t have a bearing on me being an entrepreneur but they are part of the “extra” with which I walk through life as a black woman. While I feel very blessed to have had my success recognized despite the color of my skin and despite the fact that I am a woman, part of that success is because my numbers were so strong and early on my first investor was an incredibly successful innovator in marketing and advertising and he was a person with whom people would not say “no” to a meeting. This combination ensured I was able to get in the room at a time when that was not an easy thing for an African American-founded beauty brand who had the African American consumer as its focus.  

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

If your brand is made for and caters to only one race, that is fine.  Be that and do that.  The problem comes when you say that you are for all but your marketing across all channels does not reflect that and even worse, your marketing welcomes black women but only a certain shade of black girl or maybe she is an ambiguous black girl.  And the worst case scenario is featuring a model with a deeper skin tone but not actually having a shade for her in the line or having it but 90 percent of your retail partners don’t carry it. You have to be honest, authentic and transparent. It is too easy for one to be called out if you are not. 

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

I am hopeful that there is now conversation back and forth. We are speaking to each other and making ourselves vulnerable and asking how to help. That is not an easy thing to do and it is happening. Only good can come from meaningful conversation.

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