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What Would Fashion Look Like if it Liked Black People as much as it Liked Black Culture?

Author: Anita

Iris van Herpen | Spring/Summer 2019 Couture

Hello, it’s our first official post of 2019!

Last quarter, I took a really interesting class called Race in Contemporary American Society with the most amazing professor and I learnt so much. For my final paper, I decided to explore themes of race in fashion, I had a lot of fun writing it so I decided to cut it down a little bit and share it with you guys. Hope you enjoy it! It’s called “What Would Fashion Look Like if it Liked Black People as much as it Liked Black Culture?” The title was inspired by Amandla Standleberg’s YouTube video from a couple of years ago that I encourage you to watch here. Hope you like it, any feedback is welcome!

Looking back in American history, at how black people have been represented in the media - from the offensive blackface to numerous prominent black figures in the industry today, one can say there has been progress. In September 2018, an online publication that produces diversity reports every major fashion season, “The Fashion Spot,” reported that Fashion Week Spring 2019 was one of the most diverse runways to date with “In an article on The Cut, that details “What It’s Really Like to be Black and Work in Fashion,” Lindsay Peoples Wagner says, “In a season where 16 magazine covers feature black women, it may appear that things are starting to shift. This year’s CFDA awards were more diverse than ever. In fact, fashion is having a real love affair with “blackness” right now. The appointments of Virgil Abloh as men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton and Edward Enninful as editor-in-chief at British Vogue are legitimate milestones” close to one-fourth of New York’s shows [featuring] over 50 percent models of color.” But fashion is still not free from outrageous headlines detailing instances of racist comments or campaigns from industry leaders. The fashion industry still has a long way to go in really adopting diversity, inclusion and true authenticity, this is due to the lack of representation of people of color where it matters most – internally.

There’s a loud voice of a racially progressive ideology in consumer facing avenues (like runway) but a much quieter one behind the scenes, as many companies fall short of living up to these ideologies in their corporate institutions on a day-to-day. “There have never been more than one or two black editors-in-chief of any major U.S. magazines, and only one black designer leading a major American fashion brand. And, up until this month [September], no black photographer had ever shot the cover of Vogue. Only 15 of the 495 CFDA members are black, and only ten black designers have ever won a CFDA or CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award.” On the creative side, the “art” card is often used to take the heat off these discussions with designers claiming that people of color just don’t fit into the creative vision they have for their collection, and on the business side there have are a number of socio-economic factors that have limited the participation of black people in the fashion industry. However, black people and their culture have often been used to sell products and lead campaigns, for example, Kanye West being used as the face of one of the Adidas’ highest earning departments in the company, Beyoncé in Topshop and Rihanna for Puma. So the question is: Why doesn’t the fashion industry love black people as much as they love their culture, and what would it look like if they did? Fashion is an industry that grapples with accurately representing the racial diversity of clientele that they serve and cultures they are inspired by. Black people and their culture are often appropriated in fashion, where terms like “ethnic” and “exotic” have been used to the point of cliché, without designers crediting a specific tribe that inspired their collection. Even worse, many of these brands often release culturally insensitive content in their advertising campaigns, this year alone we have seen H&M release a campaign with a black boy wearing a sweater that says “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle”, and Dolce and Gabbana recently released a culturally insensitive video ad that stereotypes Chinese people. Many of these companies walk a very fine line of influence and insult, with the root of the issue stemming from the fact that they don’t have many people of color working in corporate and are ignorant of what a large part of their consumer base cares about.

The fashion industry is one historically built on exclusivity, one of the many allures of the industry being how hard it is to be ‘in’, but now that the industry is rapidly seeping into popular culture, the industry needs to be cognizant of who is included and more importantly who is excluded. When exclusivity and elitism intersects with issues of race in fashion, it aggravates resulting effects. Robin Givhan, a racial discrimination lawyer talks about the industry at a talk at Fordham Law School, “Back in the '50s and '60s and '70s, it was this very walled-off world… The vast majority of people engaged it through a trickle-down effect.” Fashion shows used to be invite-only for a select crowd of people but with the turn of social media and live streaming, the fashion industry is more accessible to everyday people. Fashion shows and fashion itself has been transformed from covert affairs enjoyed by a handful of people to public displays of art for the world to see.” Givhan says in addition, that “with today's ubiquity of billboards, magazine editorials and advertisements -- not to mention reality television modeling competitions -- it's much more important for industry players to understand the ripple effect in the public psyche of which models get air time.”

The subjectivity of the industry and lack of accountability of brands complicates the industry’s ability to tackle racism within itself. Diversity reports like the one produced by The Fashion Spot, try to create this sense of accountability, but in the grand scheme of what is most valuable to these companies, their bottom line, there are little to no repercussions except a change the perception of the values the company stands for. In addition, some things are too subjective to quantify. For example, colorism (with brands and booking agents showing a preference for black models with lighter skin tones), is hard to measure or report– the shade of a model’s skin isn’t something that can be effectively reflected in data and probably something not immediately obvious to people who aren’t black (both designers and consumers).

A 2018 report by Nielsen, Black Impact: Consumer Categories Where African Americans Move Markets analyses the purchasing and influence power of black consumers. With African Americans are spending $1.2 trillion annually, “black consumers and consumer of color alike are making considerable contributions to the overall market…the enormous buying potential of black consumers has put a spotlight on many popular brands’ ability to navigate the nuances of culturally relevant and socially conscious marketing.” Not only do African Americans hold large economic significance, they are sharing and supporting brands and products they like, “African Americans are more likely than non-Hispanic white peers to interact with brands on social media or to use social networks to support companies and brands (44% more likely).” The Nielsen report also details a halo effect of what black consumers endorse not only buy other black people but the general population. “Our research shows that Black consumer choices have a ‘cool factor’ that has created a halo effect, influencing not just consumers of color but the mainstream as well.” Black women have been noted to be of importance in influencing mainstream culture, they contribute a significant amount to the $1.2 trillion total purchasing power of black people in America. “Despite black women’s dollars holding so much power, they often go overlooked. When it comes to consumerism, 63% of black women agree that they are willing to pay more for a high quality items (12% higher than non-Hispanic white women). Yet they are often left out of the marketing campaigns for top brands.” The target for many of these marketing campaigns aren’t spending as much as black women are, a Nielsen report on the “African-American Women: Our Science, Her Magic” states “in most health and beauty product categories, black women over-index white women for dollars per buyer and buying households.” This is not a statement on the affluence of black people in America today as buying power isn’t synonymous with wealth, but it makes a statement about the capacity of black consumers often ignored by many big fashion brands.

Diversity in fashion is not a zero-sum game, it is about inclusion and expansion and by including people of color in the creation process, diversity and the disappearance of racist scandals will happen naturally and authentically. Even better, diversity and authenticity is beneficial for everyone. When Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line came out with 40 foundation shades, she was able to cater to women on both ends and along the black-white spectrum. It was a monumental moment for beauty because it was beneficial for everyone she didn’t decide to just make shades for just black people. Even in the fashion industry, a lot of makeup designers, hairstylists and clothing designers of color can cater to both ends of the black-white spectrum whereas their white counterparts can mostly only service white people – so why are most of the makeup designers, hairstylists and clothing designers in the fashion industry white?

In the larger world of racism and the problems it perpetuates, the racial issues in the fashion industry might appear trivial but it’s part of a bigger narrative. The issue of racial diversity in fashion is one that is steeped in historical references that have upheld a certain type of definition of elegance. Despite one’s involvement in the fashion industry, in the hyperconnected world we live in today, we are constantly presented with these images from social media. Media functions as 47% of the voice creating the most value for luxury brands – and people are looking for ways to connect and see themselves represented in media. Who we choose to include and more importantly not include, is reflective about who is valued in society. “The racial makeup of fashion’s visual cultures is only a symptom of a much deeper problem: the almost-exclusive control of white perspectives to define what is beautiful…some of the most common racial functions in fashion are people of color used as multicultural scenery, there to provide contrast and intensify the difference between them and the white model(s) people of color used as multicultural window dressing, there to cover over the reality of fashion's systemic racism.” It’s exemplary of how race works in American culture, “it’s impossible not to connect this with the fact that women of color around the globe are making our clothes very cheaply in poor conditions. There is global inequality in all areas of the way the fashion industry works.”

Tackling diversity in fashion is important because big brands and people in positions of influence can change the socialization of a new generation of people growing up in a digital age. Recently, we’ve seen the importance of representation in digital mass media like film, with movies like Black Panther (cast with predominantly people of color) where black people are not merely included in the movie but had entire narratives built around their culture. Black Panther was one of the highest grossing films of 2018, outperforming even Marvel’s expectations; people of color rallied around these movies with many people going to see it numerous times. Why? Because they’re trying to send a message to big corporations like Marvel in the monetary language they speak – that representation matters.

The wait for fashion industry leaders to embrace inclusion might be along one but many designer of color are making a space for themselves in an industry that has told them for so long, that they don’t belong. The 2018 CFDA Fashion Fund prize winner, Pyer Moss celebrates black culture during a “present-day moment of people calling the cops on black men having a barbecue by exploring what black American leisure looks like.” His Fall 2018 collection showing, Kerby Jean-Raymond introduced the “American, Also” series where he “[aimed] to reverse the erasure of the contribution of African-Americans and other minority groups within American culture.” He goes on to say, “I wanted to challenge the narrative for what’s typically [considered] ‘American’ and reverse the ratio of African-American exclusion in the conversation,” He was inspired by The Negro Motorist Greenbook during his research and “It got [him] starting to imagine what the African-American experience would look like without the constant threat of racism.”

Pyer Moss  | Spring 2019 RTW

Every element of his show was steeped in black history and heritage – the venue was Weeksville Heritage Center in New York, Weeksville was founded by James Weeks, an African-American man in 1838, after slavery was abolished in New York, it became one of the country’s first free-black communities. “The spirit of freedom is woven throughout this collection, which draws from black cultural life — not the fancy, high-profile elements that have shaped music, sports or cinema, but the mundane, quotidian pleasures.” His looks featured everything from t-shirts with the image of a young black man grilling burgers, to the phrase “Stop calling 911 on the culture”, to one of a “black father lovingly cradling his baby, rendered in glittering beads on a shift dress. “Just black people doing normal things.””

So, what would it look like if fashion liked black people, as much as it liked black culture?

Jean-Raymond Karber of Pyer Moss offers a solution, A starting point would be to stop other-izing people of color in the fashion industry. The demographic makeup of those working in the fashion industry should mirror the consumer base they cater to and greater society at large. Black people are “not the default face of America; they are the face that America shows as proof of its diversity, as evidence of its openness, as a testament to its welcoming spirit. Black folks are not simply American. They are also American.” And that mentality needs to change. Truly progressive brands should incorporate diversity in every step of the creative process and do it consistently, and more brands in fashion need to start doing this. The global fashion industry should stop trying to be inclusive, stop trying to be diverse. Rather than count racial bodies, it should begin recalibrating its structural dynamics of race, power, and profit. And as Editor-In-Chief, Mr. Edward Enninful said, “I’ve been in this industry a long time, and I’ve seen change. But until we’re no longer having this conversation, we’re not there.”


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