George Sully: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Sully Wong/CIROC collaboration

Most folks assume that systemic racism is a part of the cultural fabric of the US, South Africa, Brazil, and maybe Great Britain. Canada is one country that rarely, if ever, comes into the systemic racism conversation. After all, Canada has socialized medicine, a strong economic safety net, and a black population of 30 million, compared to 400 million in the US.

All these things should point to a more open and inclusive society. On the surface, Canada appears to have achieved its social equality goals. However, at a closer examination, though covert, Canada suffers from systemic racism the same as most modern Western-inspired societies. And in its fashion industry, black fashion designers are almost invisible.

George Sully is looking to change all of that. With of the launch of his platform Black Designers of Canada (BDoC), the first-ever interactive index of Canadian black designers, George Sully brings much-needed attention to a segment of the Canadian fashion industry that has not received its just due.

George Sully graciously granted Fashion Reverie an interview soon after the launch of BDoC. And as with all things within his purview, Sully exhibited his unbridled passion and enthusiasm, making this interview not only informative, touching on many important key issues, but also joyous with a slice of uncanny humor.

Fashion Reverie: For those of us in the States that are unfamiliar with your brands Sully Wong, House of Hayla, and Shoeonado, could you give a brief synopsis of those footwear companies?

George Sully: Sully Wong is the footwear company that I launched in collaboration with Henry Wong. It is primarily a menswear footwear brand. Sully Wong really took us to another level. That said; Sully Wong is on a bit of a hiatus right now. Both of us have had our first child so we are taking a short break; however, Sully Wong will be back very soon. I have some collaborations and initiatives in the works that I cannot talk about right now.

Shoeonado is my consulting company  in which we sit down with a client and custom design their footwear concept. This is a private-labeling space in which we create from scratch or help to expand a brand that is already in existence, putting all the engines in place to rebrand or brand a new footwear company. With Shoeonado, there is no middleman as we are directly linked to footwear manufacturers in China.

And we can customize footwear to almost anything a brand wants with a 90-day turnaround. With evolving technology, we don’t have to depend on a large order to make a good profit. We can customize footwear to as small of an order as 100 pairs.

A lot of designers and some celebrity brands are finding out that when they partner or collaborate with a major footwear label, the royalty share is not to their advantage. With what we can do at Shoenado, everyone does well financially. Instead of sharing the label with a major footwear brand, the label is just the name of the brand or whatever the client wants the label to be.

House of Hayla

FR: Now don’t leave out House of Hayla.

George Sully: House of Hayla is my girlfriend’s footwear brand. She wanted to create a stiletto brand with an interesting twist. Initially, I wasn’t sold on the idea, but she was so passionate about her concept that I came around.

House of Hayla is primarily about monochromatic stilettoes from head to toe. This has never been done before with stiletto heels. There was some opposition from my manufacturer at first, mainly because it had never been done. In women’s heels there is usually a tan or black sole, apart from the Louboutin red-bottom heel.

We finally got a manufacturer to agree to do the monochromatic stiletto, and it’s been gangbusters ever since. It took us a while to find the right manufacturer, but we finally got it right and now House of Hayla monochromatic shoes come in 28 colors. We have customers that have anywhere from 12 to 24 different colors. We also put in foam insoles and a leather product that is very comfortable. Our customers tell us that they can work and walk in our shoes for two extra hours compared to other stilettoes.

FR: How did you first get involved in designing footwear?

George Sully: Well, that goes long way back. I initially started in the fashion industry with a clothing line which did well. I met my business partner Henry Wong at a fashion tradeshow, and he approached me about making sneakers to accompany my clothing. He explained to me how easy this would be. I honestly thought he was jiving me, but he was persistent and after four or five months we decided to partner together. His concept around sneakers related to creating independent or sub-brands of sneakers that were connected to clothing and wasn’t designed or owned by the major sneaker footwear brands. 

FR: Last week you launched Black Designers of Canada (BDoC), could you talk a little bit about that?

George Sully: The reason I launched BDoC is for the simple reason that black fashion designers in Canada are marginalized in the fashion industry, just as black fashion designers are marginalized globally. Black Canadian fashion designers’ contribution to fashion is Canada is huge, but we receive very little recognition.

Systemic racism in Canada is significant, but folks don’t recognize the racism in Canada because Canada is believed to be a very liberal country. The racism in Canada is very covert. White Canadians will not call you the ‘N-word’ or pass legislation that negatively affects blacks and other folks of color; however, there are covert, systemic racist policies in place that impede people of color, and particularly black folks.

CTA Sneaker

FR: How does racism play out in Canada in the fashion industry?

George Sully: Black fashion designers in Canada do not get the funding and don’t get the media coverage that their white counterparts receive. Because black fashion designers have been marginalized for so long in Canada and their contributions to the Canadian fashion industry has gone unheralded, I wanted to create an index of sorts that aggregated black Canadian fashion designers and their accomplishments.

With all the current social protests and outrage against police brutality and social injustice that has bubbled to the surface, as well as Blackout Tuesday, I wanted to tap into that outrage and acknowledge and design a creative space that showcases our accomplishments, as well as give resources to our community.

Because Canada is a liberal country with socialized medicine, a good social safety net, and liberal values, most people assume that Canada does not have a race problem. But that is not true. Racism in Canada is more subtle, so it goes under the radar. And as a person of color you are shadowboxing everyday because systemic racism here is much more covert. You can’t see it coming at you here as easily as you can in US, but you know your fashion brand is not getting the needed press and you are not getting the financing and funding like your white counterparts. I have mentored white fashion designers who get more opportunities and press than my brands.

One of the current signals where racism in Canada raised its ugly head is when it was revealed that ‘Central Park Karen’—the woman that called the police on African American bird watcher Christian Cooper—was originally from Canada. Canadians always talk about the racism in American, i.e., George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor’s murder, and contend that that type of racism would never happen in Canada. Then, the ‘Central Park Karen’ incident occurred, and it caused Canadians to pause.

SW OTOKO footwear

FR: What are the goals of BDoC platform?

George Sully: This index will help build awareness of black Canadian fashion designers. And those who are looking to connect to those designers, this platform will give access for those looking to speak to black Canadian fashion designers for films, documentaries, panel discussions or just general knowledge about their place in this industry.

So much of our knowledge has been appropriated by other groups and we have never reaped the financial rewards of our brilliance and abilities. This index will take away the excuses that many have used in Canada of not knowing about black Canadian designers. If folks are serious about diversity and inclusion, they don’t have to look any further than this platform to get the information and resources that will facilitate opening doors. We have over 200 black Canadian designers in the index.

FR: Is it a challenge for black fashion designers in Canada to get investment/funding for their brands?

George Sully: It is very frustrating because in Canada designers of color get far less investment money than white fashion designers. Angel investors and funders are not rushing to invest in a designer of color even though some designers of color brands have good market value.

There are 30 million blacks in Canada as opposed to 400 million African Americans in the US. Believe it or not, it is easier for me to get funding in the States than in my own country. Even though you could have a very established fashion brand in Canada, your success is often not acknowledged if you are a designer of color.

House of Hayla monochromatic stiletto

FR: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the fashion industry in Canada?

George Sully: It is bad here. Many Canadian fashion brands were already struggling pre-COVID-19, so things are exponentially harder now. And for black Canadian fashion designers who were almost invisible before this pandemic, you can imagine how difficult things are now.

However, House of Hayla seems to be holding its own. There’s something to be said for women who will purchase stiletto heels during a pandemic. Instagram and other social media platforms have really helped House of Hayla hold steady. Still, there are many Canadian brick-and-mortar stores that have shuttered and are not coming back.

FR: Black consumers are the second largest consumers of luxury goods. With that statistic, why are investors still reluctant to invest in black fashion designers?

George Sully: Well, the simple answer is a lack of trust in our ability to successfully run our own businesses. But additionally, the time is ripe for us to start looking to ourselves for the answers and stop looking for investment outside of our community. We don’t need to partner with major mainstream brands to be successful.

With technology you can now create a smaller amount of product and if marketed correctly, make a good profit. And Shoenado does just that for our partners. China has such incredible footwear craftsman that they can make and manufacturer almost anything. And Shoenado has direct access to those craftsmen.

George Sully at work. All images courtesy of George Sully

FR: What’s next for BDoC ?

George Sully: With the new rise of interest that this index will foster for black Canadian designers, the sky is the limit. There are entities that want to partner with us which can facilitate the index expanding beyond just an index.

—William S. Gooch

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