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Op-Ed | Why Aren't There More Black Designers?

Times’s also up for fashion’s institutional exclusion and workplace suppression of black designers, argues Kibwe Chase-Marshall.
Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Kibwe Chase-Marshall

Monday marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day, commemorating one of America’s foremost civil rights advocates. King’s legacy remains revered internationally, especially among those for whom the African American community serves as a source of inspiration — political, aesthetic and otherwise. It’s rather ironic, then, that Martin Luther King Jr. Day would consistently go under-acknowledged within the greater fashion community — a rather telling but deeply disturbing phenomenon.

Within a fashion industry that touts itself as celebratory of difference, diversity, and inclusion, Black design talent consistently remains, at best, marginalised and all too often plagued by systemic employment discrimination. Let me be clear: the established, mainstream fashion design community does not have a diversity problem, it has a "Black people problem." Within the majority of luxury, contemporary-level and mass-market design studios, talented Black designers are seldom equitably afforded opportunities to attain senior designer, design director, creative director or vice president of design titles. More often than not, they are blacklisted by influential recruiters and hiring managers, resulting in little to no prospects for stable employment or market rate salaries.

Fed up with watching this most blatant form of discrimination thrive while the broader industry capitalises on Black celebrity associations and the recent uptick in Black casting, I decided to do something. Over the holidays, I began conceiving what would become a social media campaign; the goal was to ask and answer my own questions, in hopes of developing a plan for how the fashion design community could move toward fairer hiring practices. On Wednesday, January 3rd #BreakSilenceBreakCeilings went live.

A few days thereafter, H&M depicted a young Black boy in a hoodie reading "coolest monkey in the jungle", confirming how recklessly fashion brands with little to no Black leadership utilise images of Black people. (The Swedish retailer has appointed a diversity leader since the incident.) In fashion, timing is everything, and the time has come for the industry to remedy the systemic marginalisation of Black design talent.

My path to working in fashion was non-traditional. Back in 1997, when I was struggling to find my footing and secure loans to attend New York University, I was offered a role as a designer at Michael Kors where I'd been interning for two seasons. As my prospects for financing school waned, I enthusiastically accepted the role and threw myself into the challenge of mastering a new craft. I was not formally trained in apparel design (save for a few courses I had taken at Pratt), but having grown up the son of two architects, I was very comfortable with technical drafting. My sketching ability became my value to the team, as I designed hardware details, show-specific accessories and communicated styling directives via illustration across categories.

Over the course of the next decade, as I landed roles within the studios of Isaac Mizrahi, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Gap Inc., J. Mendel and An Original Penguin, I grew strong in my abilities to lead fittings, appraise and select fabrics, and build colour stories as well as nurture talent, predict market trends and build valuable vendor relationships. But 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.

By the early aughts, headhunters were still reaching out, but I noticed that they rarely seemed to passionately advocate for me in the manner that many of my non-Black peers enjoyed. Something wasn’t adding up: I had worked at top-tier brands, acquired competitive skills and my network extended into the studios of many of the brands for which I wanted to work, but opportunities were still evading me. This all coincided with a design industry shift in fascination from Seventh Avenue to Central Saint Martins and each year’s crop of British-trained graduates produced by the school.

These expats had their pick of prime opportunities in New York, and the more they personified this burgeoning Anglomania, the more employers saw them as indispensable. Of course, there were dynamic talents among this crew, but it was the incidentals like their accents, hair colour and 6th-degree connections to cool models or high-profile stylists that were sealing the deal. Unable to compete in an unfair contest, I decided to refocus on my studies full-time and earned my Modern Culture and Media BA from Brown University in 2010.

If with great power comes great responsibility, it's time for fashion's leadership to stop abusing their positions.

My ability to quickly create content became a new tool in my arsenal, allowing me to freelance as a writer, as well as work as a designer, to keep the lights on. I continuously updated my design portfolio with new work, but the well of recruiters had run dry. Hiring managers (when I could access them) seemed to take sadistic pleasure in assigning me projects that upon completion, I would learn, were for roles that had already been granted to other candidates. “We’ll be in touch if something else fits your profile” became code for “you’ll never hear from us again.”

It has taken years of documenting my experiences to convince some of my closest non-Black friends of the prevalence of discriminatory practices, so, within the wider industry, I adhered to the de rigueur code of silence around this issue. Within the community of Black designers, many of us felt that we had to keep quiet, lest we find ourselves cast further into the depths of terminal unemployment. And yes, we also faced various other forms of fashion industry discrimination to boot (ageism, sizeism and class prejudice among them).

In addition, discrimination can operate in illogical ways, splitting hairs between Black and Latinx identity based on skin tone, hair texture and other phenotypical indicators, so while there is no shortage of Latin presence within design studios, darker-skinned Latinx individuals (often perceived as Black) often fare just as poorly as their Black colleagues.

Too many of us facing this battle grew as divided as we were conquered, often feeling that our survival rested upon sabotaging opportunities for those who shared our racial identity. And we learned, most disturbingly, that our excellence as professionals could all too often spell our demise, as those in the non-Black professional majority, who sat in spaces of relative privilege, rarely wanted to work as hard as we did in order to garner a lane within the race, so the industry (covertly) barred us from competition.

Currently, the fashion industry appears very committed to championing equity for women within the workplace; glancing at a photo of LVMH’s ceremonial signing of the UN's Women’s Empowerment Principles pledge in 2013, one can’t help but note the racial homogeneity of the 26 executives in attendance. What the photo evidences is a community of white, female power brokers (and those with adjacency to this space) that gatekeep access to opportunity for people of colour, much in the same manner that men have traditionally done so in relation to women. If with great power comes great responsibility, it’s time for fashion’s leadership to stop abusing their positions and begin authentically making actionable commitment to solving the problem of Black exclusion.

I’ve chosen to focus on creating inroads for Black professionals working in design as I feel that the design sector most influences the broader fashion community. What I can offer is, by no means, a solution to every facet of a complex web of problems, but it is a comprehensive suggestion for how to advance change.

I challenge the Council of Fashion Designers of America and American Vogue to partner (as they do on the Fashion Fund Award) on a three-pronged program, with the goal of reforming an industry that has normalised the exclusion of Black professionals. Members of the design and recruitment industries who elect to participate in the program would be able to take advantage of comprehensive bias mitigation trainings and practice audits, which are being implemented to level the employment playing field throughout many other industries.

Proposed CFDA/Vogue Partner Programme:

1. Design
Purpose: address the non-meritocratic appraisal of design talent that most consistently disadvantages Black professionals.

  • Design-studio racial stats disclosure.
  • Immersive hiring manager bias elimination training.
  • Pledge of commitment to creating equitable inroads for Black talent via meritocratic hiring practices.

2. Headhunting & Recruitment
Purpose: address the consistent denial of fair access and representation for prime opportunities for Black design talent.

  • Compliance with auditing of recruitment and headhunting practices by contracted third party.
  • Pledge of commitment to creating equitable inroads for Black talent via meritocratic representation.

3. Talent Pool & Academic Communities
Purpose: bring greater visibility to consumers, students, talent pool and media regarding overall industry commitment to change regarding inroads for Black design professionals.

  • Annual disclosure/endorsement by CFDA/Vogue of participating brands, along with statistics regarding the racial composition of their design teams.
  • Annual disclosure/endorsement of participating headhunters and recruitment firms.

In authoring this piece, I have reclaimed much of the power that was stripped from me by an industry that has been, at times, resolute on ignoring my value and erasing my presence. Any vitriol that the disclosure solicits will only further prove its premise, for nothing I have stated contradicts common knowledge within the fashion design community. I encourage my fellow Black designers to own our collective voices within this #TimesUp moment. #TimesUp for this industry’s discriminatory treatment of us, too. Together we will #BreakSilenceBreakCeilings.

I dedicate this declaration to my mother, Jessica D. Chase.

Kibwe Chase-Marshall is a Los Angeles-based writer and designer.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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