Even though she wasn’t there, the pop star and cultural touchstone came up again and again during the Black Fashion Founders Forum held at Google’s New York headquarters and sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, as speakers pointed to her growing work in the fashion industry as an example of how powerful and popular inclusion is.
Jahleel Weaver, Rihanna’s stylist and a junior creative director at Fenty, said he’s just grateful to be able to say “I work for a black woman,” when asked by moderator Rikki Byrd, a professor at Washington University, what it’s like being part of a one of the few companies that sees black people as a priority.
“I’m blessed to be able to say that and to go to work every day and see black people,” he added.
As for the idea Byrd floated that Fenty Beauty, which is owned by LVMH, has started a “revolution” in the industry by offering a much wider range of makeup shades and using diverse models on the runway with her Puma collection, Weaver demurred slightly and said, “[Rihanna] just did what she saw.”
“She always says the first woman she saw put on makeup was a black woman — her mother,” Weaver said. “It was natural for her to obviously appeal to that, but also to appeal to all women. Is she the first person ever to offer dark skin foundations? No. But is she the first person to maybe market to them in a very long time?
“I feel like there are some companies now that are seeing there’s a demand for this and saying ‘Oh, well we’ve had this forever.’ But it’s like, did you not market to them because you thought you wouldn’t make money? But I’m happy that she started this conversation, to say [to the beauty and fashion industries] ‘Hey.’ These are people and we have a lot of money to spend and if you show up for them, they’ll show up for you.”
There is certainly demand for Fenty Beauty. While her products are frequently sold out of Sephora, another LVMH property that has an exclusive deal to carry the line, the brand is also on track to outperform powerhouse lines like Kylie Cosmetics and KKW by Kim Kardashian.
Bethann Hardison, a former model who went on to start a modeling and talent agency in the Eighties and subsequently started Diversity Coalition, which encourages the fashion industry to be more inclusive, made sure to point out that there have indeed been brands that focused on the black woman market, like Black Opal and Revlon. But she admitted all were “maybe not marketed as well.”
But the issue of diversity goes well beyond beauty products and even seeing black women on magazine covers and in advertising campaigns, which Hardison said she doesn’t see as the biggest issue in the industry.
“Black is cool right now, you’re all helping it to be cool and it will be for a little while,” Hardison said. “But the people behind the scenes and [in retail] can’t see them, so then it doesn’t matter. We have to get black people behind the scenes and in retail so we can really make these changes. That way Pepsi won’t make that mistake.”
Hardison was referencing a spring 2017 ad starring Kendall Jenner, that was widely criticized as — at the least — appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement and quickly led to Pesi pulling it off the air and apologizing.
Having worked in and around the fashion industry for decades, Hardison said she sees the fashion industry as “more ignorant than racist,” but that regardless of intent, when designers and companies repeatedly work with only white models, a lack of intent doesn’t matter.
She added that bringing an issue to the attention of someone in the fashion industry is “easy breezy” compared to going up against a corporation and advocating for more diversity in the c-suite and in boardrooms.
“Now that’s a fight,” Hardison said.
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