The erasure that talented black clothing designers once endured is fading, but minorities still account for only a tiny fraction of people in the industry. Here's how that's changing.
Consider Ann Lowe, the mid-20th century designer of dresses for America's social elite and "society's best kept secret," according to the Saturday Evening Post. In 1953, when admirers asked Jacqueline Kennedy, Lowe's most famous client, who had designed her beautiful wedding dress, Kennedy replied, "a colored woman dressmaker." Likewise, The New York Times went on at length and in detail about the opulent dress, its tucked bodice and circular designs, and its 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. The one detail the Times neglected to include was Lowe's name.
With Grace Wales Bonner winning the coveted 300,000 euro LVMH prize in June, while Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, oversaw the recent $500-million sale of the company, you might conclude that after decades of exclusion, the fashion world is finally ready to welcome black talent into prominent—and visible—positions as designers and executives.
With heavyweights like Edward Enningful at W Magazine, and the recent ascension of Elaine Welteroth to the top of the masthead at Teen Vogue, there are also certainly more prominent black faces in positions of power in fashion than there were even a decade ago. But to stop there only oversimplifies and distorts a complicated situation that begs for more nuanced understanding.
Let's start with the numbers, which tell a very different story. Out of almost 1,300 brands listed on Vogue.com—not an exhaustive list of all designers, but an indicator of those held worthy of acknowledgment by the industry—only 16 are black, or just over 1 percent. One percent.
Moreover, to speak of black designers as a group itself is problematic: Blackness is not monolithic; designers of color come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Grace Wales Bonner has almost nothing in common with Olivier Rousteing beyond skin color. She is a British intellectual weaving quiet, romantic, and intricate narratives around black male identity. He is a French social media star with a penchant for flash, celebrity, tassels, and gold braiding. To specify their blackness is diminishing, just as much as ignoring it. However, there is often an ironic strength in numbers—or perhaps it is more accurate to say, a shared awareness. As the academic bell hooks states in "where we stand: class matters":
"More often than not racial solidarity forged a bond between black-skinned folks even if they did not share the same caste or class standing. They were bonded by the knowledge that at any moment, whether free or enslaved, they could share the same fate.
"That fate? Invisibility."
We've come a long way from the outright erasure visited upon Ann Lowe; designers like Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly and Tracy Reese have risen like so many fireworks in an empty night sky,
But visibility does remain an issue.
"It's not just in design where we're not really seen," says Edward Buchanan, former design director of Bottega Veneta and current creative director and founder of Sansovino 6, a luxury knitwear brand based in Milan. "We're not seen as head buyers, we're not seen as head merchandisers, we're not seen as directors of anything, and at the end of the day, if you don't have these people as an integral part of your team, then you can't see diversity on the outside; it's impossible."
Buchanan, 46, launched Sansovino 6 2009, only after applying for multiple creative director positions but never quite making the cut. "I was always getting in the door. A lot of people would see me, and the collections that I was working on [were] doing very well, but people were not giving me that opportunity. I realized that no one … was going to give me anything, and so I had to create it on my own. I had to create my own space."
What we're really talking about is value. Buchanan and Lowe, like many, were rendered invisible not for lack of talent or lack of production, but in many ways because Blackness is valued so little in this Eurocentric, post-colonial world; it doesn't add, rarely does it maintain, and more often than not, it deceases value. Industry powerbrokers–out of fear or feigned ignorance–still cling to the long-held and utterly unsubstantiated myths that that black faces don't move product or aren't "expensive enough" to justify everything from all-white runways, mostly white faces on magazine covers, and a lack of diversity in Hollywood's top roles.
"Less than," says Brandice Daniel, when asked to characterize the initial reception to Harlem's Fashion Row, an organization she founded 10 years ago, with the double-barreled mission of bringing visibility to multicultural designers and support their businesses as well. "Because people associated it with African Americans, they automatically had a perception that it's not worth as much as things that are happening during New York Fashion Week."
This devaluation even creeps into the fashion world's vocabulary, despite appearance and progeny; as if one's skin color diffuses the vision of the viewer. The terms "streetwear" and "urban," although inherently benign, have evolved into low-brow labels associated with the wardrobe of inner-city (read: "black") youth, namely t-shirts and sweat pants (not unlike how "thug" has become a socially acceptable, coded replacement for the "n-word"). Brett Johnson, a relative newcomer to the world of fashion, presented the fourth collection of his eponymous line of Italian-made menswear at New York Fashion Week: Men's this past February. Sartorial classics like tailored suiting, overcoats, and motorcycle jackets are his brand's mainstay. "People were like, 'Oh, this is good … for streetwear,'" says Johnson, scion of billionaire Robert L. Johnson, "but that's just not who we are or where our aesthetic is."
As Kerby Jean-Raymond, creator of Pyer Moss, an athletic-infused line of tailored sportswear, famously asked, "I just want to know what's being called 'street,' the clothes or me?"
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However, there are some designers for whom terms like "streetwear" are perfectly fine. "I'm not interested in dressing women in gowns," says women's wear designer Jerome Lamar of his "street-glam" line, 531Jerome. "I'm actually from the boogie-down Bronx. This whole street world that I actually have experience in, is authentically me." After an eight-year stint at hip-hop brand Baby Phat, Lamar began working for American couturier Ralph Rucci and later consulted for Armani. "I'm the only person I know that has succeeded in the hip-hop [world] and then went to work for a true couturier. My world is a bridge between the two."
Lamar is not altogether unique. His experience, like Wales Bonner's LVMH prize, is a bellwether that signals small but substantive shifts in perception and acceptance. Where once designers like Maxwell Osborne, one half of Public School, were lauded for breaking through the impenetrable wall of the establishment, an entirely new crop of designers has entered the field, with a quiver full of cross-cultural references and pluralistic black experience in tow. Before there was Wales Bonner, for example, there was Orange Culture, a Nigerian-based menswear line, designed by Adebayo Oke-Lawal, one the 30 finalists in the inaugural LVMH contest in 2014. Like Wales Bonner, Orange Culture engages black male identity as a narrative device, frequently referencing the brightly-colored Dutch Wax Cloth so often associated with West Africa.
"I'm really interested in the story of black people on the planet," says Recho Omondi, of her namesake line, Omondi. "I feel like it's a really fascinating and integral part of world history, and it's the least often told." With only two seasons under her belt, Omondi already has substantial social media following ("It's everything for us") and has been hailed by Harper's Bazaar as a "Designer to Watch." Inspired by her own internal duality—navigating the cultural shift between life in the U.S. and her native Kenya—Omondi uses soft knits, oversized silhouettes, and muted colors to weave a story of heritage in a modern world.
"I think something modern has to be relevant for more than one season," says Dexter Peart, one half of Want Les Essentials, an accessories brand he owns with his twin brother, Byron. Using materials from around the world, the duo draws inspiration from their upbringing as children of Jamaican parents who moved to Canada during the civil rights era. Growing up as one of the few people of color in their neighborhood informs their driving concept: inclusivity vs exclusivity; "democratic" essentials like handcrafted bags, shoes, and apparel. "This idea that great quality or craftsmanship only comes from one place also doesn't feel very modern," say Dexter in response to why he sources materials the world over, not just Europe. "There are categories or boxes that have been put up to sort of create value in places, but don't necessarily say where [that] value is from."
Operating outside of the establishment, the new class of minority designers are reinterpreting fashion's codes to tell a more layered narrative, eschewing the shock of the new, to bring tradition, craftsmanship, and longevity to the forefront of their work. The clean lines sculpted of nubuck leather to create the minimalistic sneakers of Number 288 by Benyam Assafa. The post-modern sartorial mashup that is Harbison by Charles Harbison. The meticulously tailored, made-to-measure atelier of Devon Scott. The unabashedly refined humor found in the footwear of current CFDA Incubator designer Aurora James's brand, Brother Veilles.
The list goes on, and the origins, methodology, and execution are divergent; the descriptor "Black" cannot and does not define these designers, nor can it contain them. Charting their own course, these clothiers have unraveled the invisibility cloak, showing that modern luxury is the ability to inhabit multiple worlds at once, draping intersectionality on your back with ease.
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