NEW YORK, United States — The police brutality that resulted in the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others is just one of the many forms of systemic racism that run deep in American society. Fashion isn’t exempt. In this notoriously insular industry, black talent face constant discrimination. Progress has been uneven at best, true allies too rare.
It’s as blatant as racially offensive merchandise produced by major luxury houses and as covert as a brand splurging on luxurious trips for all-white squads of influencers. It exists in stores, where black shoppers get racially profiled, and at fashion publications where mastheads lack diversity. It’s seen in Silicon Valley, where black founders have a hard time raising money, and it’s at Fashion Week, where black designers, models, photographers and stylists have historically been kept far from the spotlight.
BoF spoke with black voices from the fashion community about their experiences and the path forward. Read on to learn what some of the industry’s journalists, influencers, venture capitalists, store owners and photographers imagine real and meaningful change could look like in the industry, how helpful (and unhelpful) social media solidarity can be, and what real allyship really means.
How do you think the industry should move things forward for black people in fashion?
I’m hoping there's some enlightenment that it’s good business to have a diverse staff at all levels. I've been covering this industry since 1989 and my big beef with fashion has always been that it’s so insular. There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity for people of colour to pursue jobs. At the trade publications, the magazines: people hire their friends and so you never bring in new voices. For board seats, for positions of authority at department stores: You just don’t see people who are black in these jobs. There’s no diversity. But this country is so diverse and so representation should be diverse too. The current [climate] should show there’s a real sense of urgency now.
— Teri Agins, former Wall Street Journal fashion reporter, author
It’s time the industry gives credit to black influence. If something is inspired from a background or culture, put a name to it. Why not honour the individual? And why not collaborate with us? There are designers doing amazing things. If you like our work, give us legitimacy. Invite us to a seat at the table, through collabs, through financing. See us.
— Yseult Polfliet, co-founder and designer, Yoah New York
I’m asking these huge corporations to rethink their business strategy [and commit 15 percent of their shelf space to people of colour]. Black people spend billions of dollars in this country every year but yet represent an insignificant fraction of how [some] companies allocate their purchasing power. Asking businesses such as Whole Foods, Sephora and Target to allocate 15 percent of their shelf space to black-owned businesses will mean they will have to rethink existing business relationships and also start seeking out and investing in a lot of companies they may have previously turned a blind eye too.
— Aurora James, creative director and founder of Brother Vellies
The most important opportunity you can give someone in any industry is a financial one. Hire black people. Stop paying them less. Value their experiences and expertise. This is critical to making sure that they feel empowered and able to create.
— Danielle Prescod, style director, BET
People of colour need to be put in leadership positions. Kerby [Jean-Raymond] and Virgil [Abloh] are great examples but there are millions of others who can do great work like them. The leadership piece allows for a continuous flow of information, and so you need to have it at the top level all the way down to the bottom.
— Julian Eison, venture capitalist at private investment firm Atremo
We have to make sure that there are more of us owning, founding, creating and that we have the tools needed to succeed.
The black community needs mentorships, internships and development programs early on, as this industry is so far out of reach for so many black people. They need to ask the black community for our opinions and actually pay attention. How many gravely insensitive acts of casual racism did we see from major fashion houses with white leadership over the last couple of years? I do not believe those mistakes would have happened had those companies placed people of colour in executive positions, and as valued members of their teams.
— Carly Cushnie, chief executive and creative director, Cushnie
My hope is that the industry will recognise the disparity between people of colour and white people when it comes to areas of diversity, opportunity and advancement. I am a black, female, independently-owned luxury retailer, one of the very few in the nation. Why is that? We have to make sure that there are more of us owning, founding, creating and that we have the tools needed to succeed.
— Sherri McMullen, owner of California-based boutique McMullen
This is the time when brands need to look at their internal policies and marketing strategies and figure out ways to amplify the voices of people of colour. In particular, the lack of diversity in the influencer space has been a problem since day one. This [should] force every individual and business to have uncomfortable conversations about racism and injustice in this country.
— Alicia Chew, fashion influencer
How do you feel about all the social media posts from everyone right now about Black Lives Matter, racial justice, and so on? Do you think they are performative? Helpful? Empty?
From brands, it is hugely performative. There are several brands that have posted today that have active discrimination suits against them. They are only posting as to not be caught as the one person not posting. We don't need an Instagram dog-and-pony show.
It's very telling. The priority seems to be optics of change and not actually change. This is something we see mirrored in the way fashion has approached diversity and inclusion over the last two years. Brands aren't truly vested in combating issues like racial profiling, police brutality and police abolitionism. Fashion has a history of changing reactively and not proactively.
— Shelby Ivey Christie, fashion and costume historian
A lot of these posts are performative allyship. People do it because they don't want to do the uncomfortable work. I believe the rule should be this: if you want to show true support, you need to show what you’ve learned. What are you reading? Who are you following? Posting pictures of protests and saying “Black Lives Matter!” is lazy. The work is heavy, emotionally, but you have to get in there.
I appreciate seeing and hearing the views of some of the larger brands. Even if it’s not genuine, it’s still creating a conversation that would otherwise not be happening. And that’s how trends start. Change will come from popular movements.
I think it's great that everyone has posted something with progressive feelings and good intentions. It's better than not speaking out against racism. But it's also quite obvious when it's performative; you know who has never talked about race before. It's frustrating that it's become fashionable to support blackness to save face.
—Christopher John Rogers, fashion designer
The exponential violence done by re-sharing the spectacle of black death is one I choose not to participate in.
It’s an interesting social phenomenon to watch. To post or not to post? The policing of the posting. Ok, a black square, but oh shit, I used the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and someone just commented that it blocks people from finding necessary info via the hashtag. Social movements cannot be divorced from human instincts: to declare or defy tribal fealty. Personally, the exponential violence done by re-sharing the spectacle of black death is one I choose not to participate in. I do not need to see the videos; they contain no new information and my DNA has a wonderful memory. However, I’m totally here for the discussion. For the outrage. For the tears. Behold the pain of reconciliation.
— Dario Calmese, New York-based artist and photographer
I think people had good intentions with their Blackout Tuesday posts, but it's a form of passive activism, in my opinion, if they've posted with no call to action. I've encouraged hundreds of the non-black influencers I've met over the years to provide their audiences with anti-racism resources and to encourage them to donate to groups who are actively fighting racism and injustice.
Can you share an example of a person or situation that demonstrated true allyship for you?
Tommy Hilfiger. The thing I love about the whole Hilfiger [world] is that these guys had a comfort level around people of colour from the very beginning. Tommy met [marketing specialist] Lloyd Boston at a fashion show and offered him an internship. He helped both Russell Simmons and Sean Combs start their fashion companies. Even though they were starting competing brands, he helped them with industry connections, factories. There’s a real sense of allyship and it’s not just with helping people out: he has a diverse staff too, and I’ve seen it up close and personal.
There is one designer, Laura Harrington, who has a brand called Fly By Night. I met her last year because I modelled her clothes and we talked about my podcast [which is about racism and allyship]. She’s since created an entire page on her brand website dedicated to allyship; it has a list of books she’s read, people she’s followed. She did this all on her own because she really cared. That’s how you translate true allyship. She did the work and is now sharing resources.
My Anglo-American elementary school principal [who] pulled me aside in the 6th grade and told me [that] although I was talented, I needed to get my grades up. It said, “I see you and want the best for you.”
Today, a buyer at a retailer who is supportive of my brand sent me a screenshot of a lengthy message she sent to the CEO of her company, which hadn't yet made comments regarding the situation. She asked them to publicly address their stance on the issue and also reach out to black employees to see how they were doing. She was risking her position at this job in order to make a change there. That's great because a black person working in a white organization, in luxury fashion, isn't always in a position to speak out about this. She's willing to put herself in harm's way.
Chloe King from Bergdorf Goodman. She has been standing up for injustices and fighting behind the scenes for inclusion for years. She lets everyone around her know where she stands and it is a relief that she does not let us carry this alone. She is also not afraid to talk about race.
In Silicon Valley, they’re amplifying voices of colour and providing meaningful action.
Ben Horowitz, [the co-founder and general partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz]. He has set up a whole fund dedicated to people of colour, the Cultural Leadership Fund, that allocates capital to support and invest in black and brown founders. In Silicon Valley, they’re amplifying voices of colour and providing meaningful action. That’s given me a sense that they are people who can actually be trusted.
I admire [the influencers] Jess Ann Kirby and Grace Atwood; these women have proven themselves to be fantastic allies over the years. They've used their platforms to speak up against racism and amplify the voices of [black, Indigenous, people of colour] for quite some time now, and you can tell that they've really taken the time to educate themselves on these issues. They've also encouraged [brands] to do better. They’re great examples of allies because they aren’t passive. They recognise their privilege and have advocated for people of colour. Instead of posting a Blackout Tuesday post and staying silent, they’ve created a game plan to support black business owners and uplift fellow black content creators in the industry.
True allyship for me is when people, as well as brands support you in a way that no one has before. A year ago, Target gave me their vote of confidence. Our collection is finally about to launch, and I will be the first black female designer to have partnered with the retailer. This means something to me, to set an example for young girls everywhere who look like me. This partnership is true allyship for me.
Amy Smilovic, the founder of Tibi comes to mind. She’s the first non-black designer to ask me how she can go about hiring more black professionals for her company. She has always supported me, taken others to visit McMullen, collaborated on events with us. That’s rare with designers, even those I’ve carried and supported for over 10 years.
How do you think brands can acknowledge their failings in a productive way?
Now more than ever, it's important for brands to walk the walk — not just talk the talk. Making a donation to one of the groups on the front lines is a big step.
Donations to organizations are a great first step but as a next step, I think meeting with the grassroots organizations to understand their needs is imperative. Community work requires community involvement. These brands have to come off their high horses and meet with these leaders one on one. Listen to what it is they actually need, then work to support them in that way.
You need to be upfront. Brands need to be able to recognise, and come out and say they were wrong. People learn and change and I believe we all have our journeys. Whenever you join us, I will be happy that you did, but the first thing about joining is acknowledging you weren't here in the first place.
Brands need to be able to recognise, and come out and say they were wrong.
The first step, which many white people refuse to do, is humbling themselves. They say "sorry, but..." instead of just "sorry." BoF did that last October when Kerby Jean-Raymond had something to say about a party that they threw. Instead of listening and apologising, the response was to defend and deflect. We are tired of talking like that. It goes nowhere. Humble yourself. Admit that you were wrong and pay a black person to help you if you are lost.
Invest in the future of the black community. Many of our people choose to spend their money with [certain] businesses, their stores are set up in our communities, and their sponsored posts are targeted to us. If they value our money, then value us as well and show us that we are represented.
Banks and private equity firms can commit to funding smaller black brands and businesses and understand how necessary it is to give these companies a chance to grow.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.