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The Road Ahead for Black Designers

Over the last year, unprecedented industry support has helped to level the playing field, but Black founders still face plenty of hurdles.
For many people of colour in the fashion business,  a groundswell of support has birthed gratitude and new challenges. Nick Davis.
For many people of colour in the fashion business, a groundswell of support has birthed gratitude and new challenges. Nick Davis.

Jessica Rich is having a blockbuster year. Her range of PVC heels, already favourites of celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Kylie Jenner, were picked up by DSW in February and debuted at Nordstrom a month later.

The designer already had her own store — a boutique tucked between Versace and Burberry that opened in the ritzy Beverly Center in Los Angeles last December. But in the wake of last summer’s civil rights protests, major retail accounts she’d been striving for since launching her brand in 2017 were suddenly within her reach.

Black entrepreneurs like Rich have found themselves recipients of unprecedented support from the fashion industry. Designers who once struggled to get the attention of mainstream retailers are now being courted by Target, Macy’s and other companies that have pledged to support Black-owned businesses and talent. These efforts are meant to help rectify decades of the industry ignoring BIPOC talent, or stealing their ideas.

Dozens of retailers joined Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge — Nordstrom became one of the largest retailers to sign in July — but there are countless other corporate initiatives aimed at levelling the playing field for people of colour, ranging from financial support to mentoring programmes. Meanwhile, entertainers, from Beyoncé to Cardi B, are going out of their way to include Black-owned products in photoshoots and performances, sometimes thrusting previously obscure designers into the public eye with a single Instagram post.

For many Black entrepreneurs, all of that support has amounted to everything and, on some days, not much at all. They find themselves grateful for new opportunities birthed out of a year of heightened focus on supporting people of colour yet immersed in the sobering reality that even on a more level playing field, the odds are stacked against small fashion businesses.

But, if I had not done the leg work for my business and [to grow] my audience prior to George Floyd then I also wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now.

Rich said she’s now in a crunch to match the pace of other, often much larger labels carried by Nordstrom.

“I had to put together a collection of 15 [or so] different styles within the last two weeks,” Rich said. “Mind you, I do like 15 styles a year ... I have to just get used to it. I can’t complain … these are all good things.”

Often these feelings are further complicated by Black designers’ desire to make clear that any business accomplishment is earned through the same hard work and grit of their peers — if not more so.

“I one-thousand-percent think that if [George Floyd] had not happened, I would not have gotten the same results I’m seeing right now,” said Rich. “But, if I had not done the leg work for my business and [to grow] my audience prior to George Floyd then I also wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now ... Every moment can be a stepping stone but [there’s still going to be] a lot of challenges.”

Jessica Rich's PVC heels have been worn by Cardi B, Kylie Jenner and Jennifer Lopez. Courtesy.

Growing Pains

The groundswell of support that followed the publicity of George Floyd’s death arose at a truly dire moment for many Black entrepreneurs. Like most fashion companies last year, many Black owned-businesses grappled with closed stores, plunging sales and disrupted supply chains as Covid took hold around the world.

Maxie James, designer, founder and chief executive of Ellaé Lisqué, had to dissolve her clothing brand altogether in April 2020. Her drapery-sarong inspired dresses, previously marketed for a night out on the town, weren’t selling during lockdowns. She said she took the “stressful” plunge to relaunch in September, using her own funding, as cities reopened.

In March, as part of an initiative between Fashion Nova and the rapper Megan Thee Stallion — aimed at supporting women’s businesses — she received a cash infusion as well as an online “shout out” from the online fast fashion retailer, which has more than 20 million followers on Instagram. (Fashion Nova has shouldered its own criticism over the years for allegedly knocking off designs from small Black-owned brands. In an emailed statement to BoF, Fashion Nova said it “respects the intellectual property rights of all designers and requires its vendors to avoid infringement.”)

Designer Maxie James. Courtesy.

Now, the business is seeing outsized sales growth: month-to-month revenues have been coming in at quadruple what they were pre-Covid, the designer said. Two of her designs were also featured on the April 2021 digital cover of Girls United, Essence magazine’s youth-focused subsidiary.

“I normally have a predominantly Black clientele,” she said. “But now I have been noticing that more people from other races are wearing my clothes and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that so many people want to support Black business.”

Shantel Jackson, founder of Shoe Gummi, spent several years working with a podiatrist and manufacturers to fine-tune her proprietary shoe orthotics meant to make high-heel wearing more comfortable for women. But the business, which launched in December 2019, was almost derailed by the pandemic.

“I had a real decline in sales. No one was going out, so you can’t wear heels,” she said. “Everybody’s mind was full of uncertainty but continuing to move forward and getting my designs done and putting money into that even while I was losing money was still important to me.”

As reopenings and vaccinations became more promising, Jackson — who said her company was not on the receiving end of new Black-business focused initiatives — reaped the benefits of her investments in the orthotics line. She’s now expanded the range, from one product to six, to accommodate larger and smaller foot sizes.

“Right now, I get to open up and broaden my market with bringing more women to my slice of heaven … but [this growth] causes overhead [expenses] that keep me up at night,” she said.

Shantel Jackson worked with a podiatrist to create a line of shoe orthotics meant to make high-heel wearing more comfortable. Courtesy.

Putting in the Work

ManLuu, a jewellery brand by Moana Luu, debuted in May and within minutes of the website going live, landed its first big order. It was from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. The email was so surprising, Luu initially worried it was spam.

“Being a Black-owned brand actually helps now because people’s eyes are opened. [Prominent people] are conscious now,” said Luu, whose Creole-inspired luxury designs found favour among celebrities like Cardi B, Mary J. Blige and Normani.

Luu scoured the US during the pandemic in search of materials to recreate the golden heirlooms passed down in her French West Indian culture before launching her label.

“As you’ve seen, [when it comes to jewellery] people invest more in quality products and people want something unique, customised and rare. This is not fast fashion,” she said. “I’m [tapping] into uniqueness. I [have] created something that is very special.”

MoAnA Luu is the founder of Creole-inspired jewellry line, ManLuu. Courtesy.

Designers like Luu and Rich own the fact that some of their recent business accomplishments have been a direct result of companies and prominent people making bigger commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. But they’re also certain that having quality products in the first place allowed them to take advantage of new opportunities.

Being a Black-owned brand actually helps now because people’s eyes are opened. [Prominent people] are conscious now.

Planning for the Future

During the first few weeks of protests after the killing of George Floyd, Rebecca Allen and her mostly-minority team at her eponymous shoe brand were inundated with requests from “people who wanted to put us on shop-Black listicles” and “asking us to speak at events.”

“We had conflicted feelings about it,” Allen said. “We were [happy] about this huge [boost] in brand awareness and visibility but we were also like ‘someone had to die for this?’”

Allen’s nude heels for women of colour are now sold at Nordstrom, which she credits in large part to the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. Web traffic and media mentions of her brand and web traffic are off their peak of several months ago, but remain higher than they were before last summer, she said. But, more than celebrating the recent wins, Allen said she reconciled her fraught feelings over Floyd’s death and the influx of support her business received by finding new ways to pay it forward.

Rebecca Allen's nude pumps have been picked up by Nordstrom. Courtesy.

“I had been pounding the table on buying Black long before George Floyd and long before this renewed interest around racial justice,” she said. “But with everybody’s piqued interest now on these things, I’ve just felt like it was a lesson for me to really think more about my own consumption. I’m thinking [more seriously] about our suppliers ... or when we’re working with photographers. We want to work with more women, we want to work with more Black and brown women. If people are looking to us, then how are we making sure that we’re not checking the box?”

We were [happy] about this huge [boost] in brand awareness and visibility but we were also like ‘someone had to die for this?’

After the first few moments of excitement following a celebrity sighting or inking a wholesale deal with a major retailer, Black entrepreneurs — like most other business owners — inevitably come back down to earth and must solve for the next business challenge. For Rich, it’s garnering more marketing spend from her retail partners.

For Allen and Luu, it’s scaling their brands and expanding into new categories and styles, all of which will require them to seek out funding.

Rebecca Allen. Courtesy.

“What we’re seeing a lot is opportunities for networking and mentorship and all that kind of stuff, which is great,” said Allen. “But I think there’s perhaps a perception that people of colour are lacking in a knowledge base when the real gap is dollars.”

For decades, minority entrepreneurs have lagged their white counterparts when it comes to their ability to secure capital, according to data from the US Department of Commerce’s Minority Business development agency.

“The challenge for us has always been financial,” said Allen, who worked as an investment management vice president at Goldman Sachs before launching her brand. “Think about who gets to start brands [in the first place], particularly in fashion.”

Black-owned businesses already entered 2020 with far greater financial challenges than white-owned ones, according to the Federal Reserve’s Small Business Credit Survey. The pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn hit minority-owned firms disproportionately hard: Ninety-two percent of Black-owned companies experienced financial challenges in 2020 compared to 79 percent of White-owned companies. Meanwhile. Black business owners were the most likely to tap into their personal funds in response to their firms’ financial challenges during the pandemic, the survey showed.

Even before their own businesses are profitable, many Black business owners feel an immense responsibility to help other minorities grow their businesses or to create educational resources for young BIPOC people who may otherwise lack avenues for professional development.

James Whitner, owner of Charlotte, NC-based Whitaker Group — a group of 15-plus fashion and sneaker lifestyle boutiques — has been doing “community work” since he opened his first store. His company’s charitable arm, The Whitaker Project, has created initiatives like Color Code, a product collaboration program that helps minority-owned brands and designers create exclusive capsule collections with his retail outposts A Ma Maniére, Social Status, APB and Prosper. He also hosts Free Game, a discussion platform focused on educating minorities on entrepreneurship and raising social awareness.

James Whitner is the owner of Charlotte, NC-based The Whitaker Group, a group of 15-plus fashion and sneaker lifestyle boutiques. Courtesy.

“I have to do charity because of where I’m from. I have to figure out how to help people get out,” he said of his upbringing in Pittsburgh. “I won’t continue to take out without putting back [into Black communities].”

In the past year, Whitner — whose stores carry brands such as Jordan, Nike, Christian Dior and Comme Des Garcons — has seen an uptick in effort from several major brands to support his business and its philanthropic work. Last year, then-Vice-Presidential-nominee Kamala Harris even made his Social Status boutique in Charlotte a stop on her campaign trail.

But overall, James is still frustrated with the broader industry. He said fashion’s true test will be in providing long-term support in areas such as funding and building a pipeline for people of colour who have not yet explored a path into the industry — in many cases because they don’t know a viable path exists.

“Everybody’s talking but I don’t see a lot of activity,” he said. “Everybody’s making a lot of pledges. They’re talking about Black history and [honouring] Juneteenth but I want [companies to] talk to me on September 21 or April 13 or all the random days of the year. Systemic issues need systemic solutions.”

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State of Fashion 2023
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State of Fashion 2023