Fashion designers, magazines and stylists thrive off of culture. Pop culture. Subculture. Black culture. Now, this was not always the case in fashion. Charles Frederick Worth, a 19th-century designer, the father of couture most notably, the first fashion designer, created his clothes around the styles worn by royalty, catering to his high-class clientele. Long after his time as a designer, the same could be said about the designers who followed, who created their designs, inspired by customers who were high in status.
The paradigm has shifted a bit. Inspired by the essence of subculture, as of late, black culture, creatives in fashion scrounge looking for the next big thing in fashion, a “thing” that is deeply rooted in black culture.
Uchenna Ozuzu, a black creative, the blogger behind The Daily Dose of Chen Chen, echoes the same sentiment saying: “I believe that ethnicity elevates fashion to a greater height, and with black culture having a rooted history to multiple ancestral descents, we can launch a new revolution of fashion in our (black) communities.” However, demographically who are these creatives handling the dissemination of black culture as it relates to fashion?
According to the New York Times, the council of fashion designers of America, in 2015 were made up of 470 members, 12 of them being black. Percentage-wise, 2.5 per cent of the foremost designers in America are black. On the CFDA website in their ‘featured members” section, there are no black designers to be found. Here, all of the designers are of European descent except for one, Prabal Gurung, a designer native to Singapore. Looking deeper into the committee of the CFDA, Tracy Reese is the only black designer, who serves on the board of directors.
In 2012, Kejia Minor, a former corporate lawyer, became the first black editor-in- chief of a Conde Nast publication, Brides Magazine. Elaine Welteroth just last year followed suit becoming the second black editor-in-chief of a Conde Nast publication the first of Teen Vogue along with recently appointed Edward Enningful of British Vogue. Conde Nast established in 1909, produces more than 25 magazine brands, including Vogue, GQ, Lucky and Allure. 108 years since its inception, there has only been three black editors-in-chief, in all of their many publications.
The faces that grace the covers of fashion magazines and on the runway, reflect the same narrative, namely the lack of diversity in fashion. According to Thefashionspot.com, in 2015, 22.75 per cent of magazine covers were graced with models of colour, 7.7 per cent, of those models, identifying as black.
In 2015, Serena Williams became the first black female athlete on the cover of Vogue U.S. In that same year, Beyoncé became the third black woman, following Naomi Campbell and Halle Berry to grace the September issue of Vogue U.S, an issue that is coveted among models and social influencers. In the United Kingdom black British model, Jourdan Dunn was also seen on British Vogue’s February 2015 cover.
To be on the September issue of any magazine, is a statement in itself, according to Alexandra Jacobs, a New York Times writer, in conversation with Who What Wear explaining: “Autumn is the time of important cultural happenings, of re-engaging with the outside world and the intellect after the sanctioned mindlessness and insularity of summer.”
As of late in the United States, racial division has never been more present. Taking note of the tumultuous climate as it relates to race, major fashion distributors and disseminators, need to reflect that in their projects. Echoing Jacobs’s sentiment in regards to the September issue as being an issue that highlights major social influencers who reflect key happenings on a cultural level, why is whitewashing still a thing with regards to the people on the cover of September issues across the board?
Will the upcoming September issues be any different? Privy to the statistics and the facts as they relate to the lack of black creatives in fashion, let’s delve a little deeper. Why the lack of black creatives in fashion? Is there even a lack of black creatives in fashion?
Debbie-jean Lemonte, the Jamaican-born blogger behind The Loc’d Bella, also a professional photographer disagrees saying: “I don’t believe we’re lacking in the fashion industry. We just aren’t given the opportunity to be visible. Over the course of the last four years, I’ve met a lot of creatives of colour who work behind the scenes in fashion, who aren’t being given their credits and accolades. And if they are visible, they are made a mockery of. They aren’t taken seriously and that needs to change.”
Aspen of Aspen Cierra photography adds: “There are black photographers, models, makeup artists, stylists and hair stylist whose name you will never know and whose photo you will never see in the behind the scenes shots.”
Lemonte introduces the issue of the lack of visibility and more pressing, the snagging of another’s creative idea, a gateway to cultural appropriation. The lack of black creatives in fashion, on paper to a minimal degree, is a consequence of not crediting black creatives who significantly add to creative projects, akin to the experiences of Lemonte.
Unbeknownst to the consumers of major magazines or digital publications, and even of the runway, creative ideas are often taken from their originators, without proper acknowledgement.
Cultural appropriation, an amplification of the latter, defined by Oxford Reference is: “a term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non-Western or non-white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.”
In this past year alone, there have been numerous implications of cultural appropriation in the world of fashion.
Marc Jacobs’s Spring/Summer 17 show repeatedly made headlines, when it featured models of European descent strutting down the runway, donning colourful, woolly hair extensions meant to imitate dreadlocks, a Rastafarian hairstyle deeply rooted in the black diaspora.
Guido Palau, the hairstylist behind the dreadlock controversy when talking about his work as it related to Marc Jacobs’s Spring/Summer 17 show told in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar: “The interesting thing about Marc is how he takes something so street and so raw, and because of the coloration of the hair and the makeup, it becomes a total look. Something that we’ve bypassed on the street and not really looked at or seen a million times, he makes us look at it again in a much more sophisticated and fashionable way.”
Referring back to the aforementioned definition of cultural appropriation, Palau’s response explicitly states that Jacobs took something off of the street, a piece of another’s culture and made it better: “more sophisticated”.
A hairstyle that has been a significant part of the Rastafari culture, a part of black culture, traditionally discouraged in corporate America, has now been reduced to something to be exploited for the sake of fashion.
The same could be said of fashion publications. On the 2015 November Vogue Italia cover and inside the magazine, Gigi Hadid donned afros of varying colours and textures, imitating a hairstyle very near and dear to the black diaspora, especially black women.
Historically, afros are a significant part of a black woman’s aesthetic, a political statement, an outright celebration and adoration of one’s blackness. Critics, in response to the issue, unanimously questioned the creative direction of Hadid’s shoot. Why wasn’t a black model, called to do the shoot?
Similar to the Marc Jacobs’s show, a part of black culture, that has been discriminated against and ridiculed was taken and moulded into, in the words of Guido Palau, “a much more sophisticated and fashionable way.” Black culture, the place where most fashion publications seem to find their inspiration, continues to be whitewashed.
There are indeed black creatives in the world of fashion, though minimal who should handle the dissemination of anything that reflects the culture of the black diaspora. Fashion, an art should be handled like art, coming from a place of authentic experiences. Fashion is not something to hastily replicate without the consideration of the originators of the “original piece”.
Understanding the disregard for black creatives at the publication level and the disregard for black culture on a global level, let’s delve a little deeper, into a potential social and generational explanation for the lack of black creatives in the fashion industry.
Historically, people of colour have been psychologically and physically limited when it comes to climbing the employment ladder. Due to this generational limitation, parents within the black community more often than not, encourage their children to pursue jobs that are associated with high placements in society and jobs that will financially provide.
Lemonte seconds this notion, explaining: “You have to understand, I’m from the Caribbean. We’re taught from a young age that education is the most important thing (besides family and religion). We’re taught to aspire to be doctors, nurses, engineers, etc.” This way of thinking within the black diaspora may in some way contribute to the relatively lower numbers of black creatives in mainstream fashion.”
Slowly, but surely the narrative as it relates to the lack of black creatives in fashion is changing according to Aspen who says: “I appreciate magazines like Teen Vogue since they hired Elaine Welteroth. She has turned that entire magazine around and for the better; for people of colour, women, LGBTQIA and more.
Since Welteroth’s debut as editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue, there has been a sleuth of social and political centred articles in addition to an increase in the number of black models and social influencers. Aspen adds: “I also love that black creatives are creating their own thing from Sesi Magazine, Hannah magazine and CRWN magazine to brands like Nubian Skin, who create lingerie for women of colour. We have to create our own things – if the mainstream doesn’t recognise our greatness, we have to make them.”
With more exposure than usual, the narrative of the lack of diversity, the lack of black creatives in fashion continues to be a resounding topic. Will this generation be the generation to shift the paradigm?
Words by Callyn Iwuala