Systemic racism has historically limited opportunities for Black talent in fashion. Many in the industry have pledged to change the situation, but are their deeds matching their words?
On 25 May 2020, smartphone video footage of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, killing an unarmed Black man called George Floyd in Minneapolis was circulated around the globe. The murder – shocking in its casual brutality even to those familiar with such abuses – became symbolic of the realities of racial injustice and sparked a huge wave of protests worldwide.
The following week, fashion designers and retailers were among the thousands of businesses that published Instagram posts featuring a black square and anti-racism slogans to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite its overall lack of diversity and its reputation for using racist imagery in design and marketing, the industry showed up in full force, with well-known brands taking to the internet to pledge their commitment to changing their ways.
Aurora James, founder and creative director of US footwear brand Brother Vellies, challenged big retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Net-a-Porter and Macy’s to walk the talk by dedicating at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned fashion brands. In the UK, meanwhile, rap artist Swiss set up Black Pound Day – the first Saturday of each month – as an initiative to tackle the economic inequalities that Black people face by encouraging consumers to support Black-owned businesses whenever possible.
Just over a year on from the start of such initiatives, has the industry delivered on its promise to become more diverse and inclusive?
Black representation in the fashion press
Several fashion magazines – following the ground-breaking example set by Edward Enninful, who became British Vogue’s first Black editor-in-chief in 2017 – have made it their mission to diversify their coverage by publishing regular features highlighting the work of Black brand owners and designers. For Timmy Amoo, womenswear designer and owner of label Canopi House, this has been a welcome development.
“Before June 2020, we used the term ‘Black-owned’ in our community as a means of supporting each other, but it has since become a term that resonates with the wider world – and I’m glad to see that,” she says. “It has certainly brought to light the issues that Black people face – especially in fashion – when it comes to finding stockists and obtaining finance and other types of support.”
But other industry insiders believe that the mainstream media can do much more to inspire long-term change than publishing guides to the best in Black-owned fashion (articles that have generally been compiled by white journalists).
Agnès Cushnie, co-founder and director of art and marketing at premium footwear brand Sante and Wade, says: “I have seen UK publications featuring lists of Black businesses to show support for the movement, but I’ve yet to come across any substantial framework to ensure that diverse designers are guaranteed to be considered for inclusion on fashion shoots, features, paid opportunities and so forth.”
It is evident, then, that more work needs to be done by the media to give Black people in the industry the prominence they warrant, both on and off the catwalk. This would help them to access the same opportunities that their white counterparts have always had to take their careers and businesses to the next level.
Racial diversity in high-end fashion
According to The Fashion Spot, autumn/winter 2021 was “officially the most racially diverse season on record”, with “a little over 43% of castings going to models of colour”. But, although the presence of Black models on catwalks and campaigns has increased in recent months, the luxury sector has yet to fully embrace the work of young Black designers aspiring to become international players.
One such designer is Benjamin Kyei, a 24-year-old London-born Ghanaian who established the Gosse au Coeur label in 2017. “When I first started researching my fashion line, I felt like a bit of an intruder because I wanted to enter the luxury market and sell T-shirts for £200,” he recalls. “Although I spent two years studying luxury fashion before launching my brand, it was always in the back of my mind that I, as a Black man, didn’t look like the typical male fashion designer – ie, older and white.”
Kyei continues: “People didn’t quite understand my vision as a newcomer. But I was inspired by Kanye West, who launched Yeezy in 2017 and achieved huge sales with no formal fashion education, and by Virgil Abloh, who founded the luxury streetwear brand Off-White.”
In what may be a sign of further changes to come in the high-end segment, London-based menswear designer Bianca Saunders was shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH prize. She’s hoping to go one step further than Abloh’s protégé, Samuel Ross, who was a finalist in 2018.
Kyei says that he would “like to see more up-and-coming Black designers aiming for the luxury space. It would also be good to be recognised for our creative talent first and foremost, as opposed to the obstacles we’ve had to overcome because of the colour of our skin.”
The outlook for Black-owned brands
In February this year, CNBC quoted research indicating that 80% Black-owned businesses were failing within 18 months of incorporation. Fashion line Farai London is one of the 20%. Founded by creative director Mary-Ann Msengi during the first UK lockdown, it has gained an enviable following thanks in no small part to the effectiveness of organic influencer marketing. The company recently announced that its brand will be stocked by Selfridges, both online and in its flagship London store – a clear sign that things are moving in the right direction.
So what does the future hold for Black-owned fashion brands? The last word goes to Agnès Cushnie’s business partner, Shola Asante, co-founder and creative director at Sante and Wade.
“I hope for a day when there’s no longer a disparity in the statistics showing how much harder it is for Black brand owners to gain access to funds and opportunities,” she says. “For this to happen, the entire industry has to make a genuine effort to shift negative perceptions and embrace a future where a Black fashion entrepreneur has the same chance as any other of success.”