New York Fashion Week Fall 2019 Blackout: Where Are the Black Fashion Designers?

If you are white, you are alright

If you are brown, stick around

If you are black, get back

Patrick Kelly image courtesy of pinterest.com

If you haven’t noticed, the fashion industry in recent years has embraced diversity and inclusion. Not long ago most prominent fashion brands only had a few models of color in their runway shows and even fewer curvy or plus-size models. (Even at New York Fashion Week (NYFW), there was rarely more than two models of color in the top shows.)All that appears to have changed. Valentino had mostly black models in the brand’s recent runway show during Milan Fashion Week. And according to a report on the fashionspot.com, the spring 2019 season was the most diverse season in Fashion Week history. After researching 229 shows and 7,431 runway castings, thefashionspot.com found that 36.1 percent of all castings across New York, London, Milan, and Paris went to models of color. (Essentially two in every five models were people of color.) That’s a significant—3.6 point—increase from fall 2018’s 32.5 percent. For comparison, when thefashionspot.com first started keeping track of runway diversity back in spring 2015, only 17 percent of runway models were nonwhite.

Pyer Moss fall 2019 images courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Everything seems to be going trippingly well around matters of diversity until you look more closely. Yes, there are more models of color and models of varying size on the runway; yes, industry is even embracing transgender models of gender nonspecific models; and, the industry is seeing more people of colors at fashion shows. Still, this is not the whole picture.When the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) released it recent membership roster, out of over 470 fashion designers only 15 were black or African American. According to racked.com in 2015 only 2.7 percent of designers showing during NYFW was black. And according to an article in The New York Times of the 260 shows during NYFW in 2015 only three black designers had a global presence, namely Tracy Reese, Cushnie et Ochs, and Hood by Air (HBA). (Interestingly, in the four years since publication of this article Tracy Reese no longer shows at NYFW; Cushnie et Ochs have dissolved their partnership and brand now goes by the name Cushnie, and HBA is still on hiatus.)

Stephen Burrows image courtesy of The New York Times

“There were more high-profile black designers in the 1970s than there are today,” said Bethann Hardison, founder of the Diversity Coalition, in the same New York Times article, ticking off the names: Willi Smith, Stephen Burrows, Arthur McGee, Scott Barrie, Jon Haggins, [to name a few]. “We’re going backwards.”Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based investment firm with $10 billion under management said, “It’s a paradox, really. African-Americans have generally been the purveyors of style in our country for much of our history, and yet African-American designers have such trouble breaking out and creating businesses of any scale.”

Tracy Reese image courtesy of nytimes.com

What makes this phenomenon so odd is that African Americans’—though only 13 percent of the US population—buying power annually exceeds 1.3 trillion dollars as of 2017. And even more surprising the fall/winter runway seasons, which is mostly in February, occurs mostly during Black History Month.When The New York Times’ “Fashion’s Racial Divide” article was published in 2015, the Obamas were still in the White House. And First Lady Michelle Obama went out of her way to promote black designers—Tracy Reese, Charles Harbison, Byron Lars, and Duro Olowu—by wearing garments from their collections. It felt that black fashion designers were finally getting their just and deserved due on an international level.

Charles Harbison photo courtesy of elle.com

That was four years ago, and the Obamas were only able to create a moment for black fashion designers. And as well-thought out and researched as Vanessa Friedman’s 2015 New York Times’ article was, she overlooked one essential element to black fashion designers’ entrée into the inner sanctum of the fashion industry; money, money, and more money. Add to that opportunity and connections.The high cost of fashion school is not the impediment, nor parental resistance to an unconventional career. Ms. Friedman may not be aware that the black community challenges young people to aim high and that community is sophisticated enough to think outside of the box. There are too many examples to name of African Americans who have achieved success in non-traditional careers. And that success would be untenable without from the African American community.

Though African American enrollment in fashion school is low, for those who do graduate, achieving jobs as a part of a design team is even harder to acquire. [Within] the professional environments in which I worked, I rarely encountered another Black face. Wherever I worked, I was consistently the highest titled Black team member. I was also consistently making considerably less money than my non-Black counterparts,“ explained fashion designer Kibwe Chase-Marshall in a 2018 shoppeblack.us article.

LaQuan Smith fall 2019

And going to the next level of launching and establishing an eponymous fashion brand is even more tedious, requiring a lot of money. “When I opened my first boutique on Park Avenue in 1968, my biggest frustration then and always has been funding. Finding it today is even harder—it costs so much more to start up than it did back then,” explained Stephen Burrows in a 2018 thecut.com article.Brandice Daniels of Harlem Fashion Row conceded in the same thecut.com article, “It’s a challenge to be taken seriously as a designer by investors who could potentially fund a collection. One designer I’ve worked with for a long time has had several potential investment deals fall through. But I’d say it’s even more difficult to get invited into spaces where we can have access to investors.

In fact, Harlem Fashion Row and Google recently held a series of panel discussion about diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, there were no great conclusions or answers, highlighting the institutional insidiousness of this industry challenge.

Backstage at Off-White Men’s Fall 2019 photos courtesy of elle.com

So, what’s next? Perhaps, fashion sensation and Off-White creative director Virgil Abloh has found the solution. “I’ve always been interested in documenting our ‘now,’ and admire how the younger generation is making change happen. I’d love to see the industry grow organically to represent a wider portion of the world and the people in it. Opportunity can make a world of difference.” It’s up to young, woke, fashion folk to change this situation. And they are already starting to do it!!—William S. Gooch

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