Is the Fashion Industry Still Supporting Black Organizations?

June 2020 can be considered a catalyst for necessary change in the fashion industry.

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of Derek Chauvin and charges facing other Minneapolis police officers who were there, and the killing of Breonna Taylor when Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove of the Louisville Police Department forcefully entered her home, hundreds of thousands across the U.S. and globally took to the streets to protest yet another Black person killed amid persistent injustices at the hands of law enforcement.

Many companies were pulled into the protests as their stores were looted, forcing them to take a stance on the events. And as the injustices remained front-page news, some individuals began to reflect on how they could do better.

While many posted black squares on Instagram to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and donated to charities and organizations to support those in need, others like Brother Vellies founder Aurora James, designer Victor Glemaud and stylists Law Roach and Jason Rembert and more, took things further, launching initiatives to bring equity to Black designers and creatives after too many have stagnated in, or been excluding from, the fashion industry for too long.

For some initiatives, like the Black Design Collective that began a year prior to last summer’s initial protests, it marked a turning point for their efforts.

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“I would say the collective did receive more attention and more awareness after George Floyd’s murder,” said designer and Black Design Collective cofounder and president Kevan Hall.

The Black Design Collective launched in 2019 by Hall and designers Angela Dean, Cross Colours founder TJ Walker and Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter. The initiative is a platform for Black designers to produce and market their products, mentorship for young, aspiring designers and a scholarship fund.

The Collective partnered with the California Fashion Foundation, a nonprofit associated with the California Fashion Association, to hold workshops on business development and success in the fashion industry. The first workshop was held in April 2019 and others have been held virtually during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen our membership increase 100 percent from the summer of 2020 to now,” Hall said, adding that some members hail from the U.K., Canada, France, The Bahamas and The Netherlands. They group has secured $1.7 million in funding through grants, loans and private investors.

The Black Design Collective held virtual events, including Pulling Back the Curtain, a conversation between TJ Walker and Pyer Moss founder and designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, and a monthly series of talks with designers, factory owners and retailers for IGTV. They also partnered with the CFDA to present designers from the collective on the organization’s Runway 360 platform.

“The CFDA introduced us to NuOrder, a business to business platform to present to retailers and fashion directors,” Hall said. “NuOrder gave us the opportunity to be on for one year and Runway 360 is ongoing.”

For the initiatives that started in 2020, most saw support throughout the remainder of the year and into 2021. But the organizations agree that there is still work to be done.

Hall said he would have liked to see more Black designers hired in the last year and data from the companies that signed agreements with the organizations.

“Generally we’re the last to be hired and first to be let go. I’d like to see more intentionality,” he said. “I’d like a report from some of these companies that said they’re going to expand their merchandise matrix and hire and promote workers. How much have you done? Let’s see some receipts. I think there’s been some movement, but until I see people of color in the C-suite at companies and more designers of color in specialty boutiques and not just for [a] season, see the support getting behind brands through advertising and trunk shows, workshops to educate sales people and educate the customers as well on the incredible impact designers of color have made on the industry, then there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Pulling Back the Curtain, a conversation between Kerby Jean-Raymond and TJ Walker hosted by the Black Design Collective. Courtesy Photo

The 15 Percent Pledge, one of the initiatives to begin in 2020 that was founded by Aurora James, calls upon retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses to align with U.S. census data that said in 2019 the Black community represented 13.4 percent of the population.

Some early adopters of the 15 Percent Pledge from fashion and beauty include Sephora and Rent the Runway, and were followed over the course of the last year by the likes of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, Bluemercury, Madewell, Gap Inc., Kith, Moda Operandi, Hudson’s Bay Company, Matchesfashion, J. Crew and, most recently, Ulta Beauty. This month, the Pledge announced that there are 25 pledging companies and brands to date.

“I was terrified to put myself out there that day, by asking for something so gigantic,” James wrote in an Instagram post. “I tagged the corporations I believed could make a difference. Some have, some have not. There are now 13 full-time people at the Pledge, a senior team alongside me that I love to death…and we just started assembling our very first board! I am so grateful to all of the people who have come on and off over the past 12 months at different points to make this happen. There is one thing I know for certain — we are just getting started. I am so proud of the work we have done. I am so grateful for all of the incredible chief executive officers, founders and teams who have come forward to take the Pledge over the past year!”

The Black in Fashion Council, led by The Cut editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles, owner of Sandrine Charles Consulting, assembled to address getting more opportunities for Black designers and creatives in the fashion industry. The council provides a directory for brands to get in touch with Black creatives and also holds the industry accountable through an index score to track each brands’ commitments.

“What we learned in the first few months is there were so many brands looking to take part,” Charles said. The council launched with 38 brands’ commitments including Gap with Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta, Tiffany & Co., The RealReal, PVH Corp. and brands Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, Browns Fashion, Farfetch and Cartier, among others. To date, the council has signed 75 brands.

“So many companies promised many big things and after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, brands realized they need to make a change,” added Peoples Wagner.

The council forged a partnership with IMG to provide a space for emerging designers during New York Fashion Week, which debuted in September 2020, and said this fall it will roll out a survey on how brands “are rising to the occasion” through Human Rights Campaign.

In addition, on June 5, the organization held its first job fair with participating brands H&M, Gap, Instagram, Saks Fifth Avenue, Abercrombie & Fitch and Hearst.

“The pipeline starts with [making] young people of color aware of the jobs and get experience in a program,” said Peoples Wagner. “It’s exposure of what careers are out there, and for employers that didn’t have a presence at the fair, we’re offering a directory to have a talent pool.”

“A lot of the work is going to take a really long time,” added Peoples Wagner. “Making sure these are long-term and sustainable changes requires work for the next three years changing systems and infrastructures. I think the more the merrier. There’s room for all of us to be working against these systems and finding a way forward for people of color.”

The Kelly Initiative was also part of the greater racial justice conversation in 2020. The initiative is a four-point plan to increase the hiring of Black talent in the industry founded by industry creatives Kibwe Chase-Marshall, Henrietta Gallina and Jason Campbell and named after the late designer Patrick Kelly, the first Black American designer to be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne in 1988.

Other initiatives, like nonprofit organization Black Fashion and Beauty Collective established by stylist and designer Rembert, Roach and hairstylist Lacy Redway in June 2020, also brought together Black creatives and highlighted their efforts (their first conversations for this project were in 2019).

Later in the year, during Paris Fashion Week in the fall, Glemaud launched In the Blk, a global collective of Black fashion creatives that includes members Rembert, Roach and Redway, as well as designers Virgil Abloh, Stella Jean, and Liya Kebede, among others.

Antoine Gregory also launched conceptual retail space Black Fashion Fair.

Gregory first thought of Black Fashion Fair in 2016, which was born from a thread he started on Twitter of Black designers to know from America and Europe. In 2018, he continued to expand on the idea with the mission to connect Black designers and Black fashion history to all who are interested. He also uses the Fashion Fair as an archive for fashion designs from Black talents. Gregory had planned to host a trade show in 2020 before the pandemic made the project a virtual affair. The Black Fashion Fair directory began with 218 designers and Gregory said that number is now close to 300.

“Black Fashion Fair was the first one of its kind,” Gregory explained. He sees this concept as a way for Black designers to own their narrative and experience instead of having it taken, repackaged and sold back to them.

“We set a tone and I think it’s amazing to see people want to support Black designers,” he said. “Black fashion is the new hip hop. We tried to own that for so long so how are we going to own our own narrative?”

Gregory hosted the first Fall Fair showcasing 21 Black designers and artworks by Gagosian director and curator Antwaun Sargent, and photographers Ahmad Barber and Donté Maurice of AB+DM. A few designers to show had their first wholesale experience through the Fashion Fair. The next Fall Fair will be on Sept. 17.

More recently, the Fashion Fair held its first classes with Brooklyn Sewing Academy, an ongoing partnership where those interested in the design and craftsmanship process can learn patternmaking, sewing and fashion illustration. Gregory also plans to do studio visits with designer Theophilio and young patternmakers and design development studio Hips Studio.

A look into the Black Fashion Fair, Brooklyn Sewing Academy workshop. Courtesy Photo

When asked if he thinks the industry is as supportive today as it was in 2020, Gregory said, “There’s a need to want to continue to support Black designers and emerging designers when it comes to American designers, but all of the work I’ve done has been related to Black culture and Black fashion. I’m not paying so much attention, because we’re doing so much work on our own and that’s not our focus and that’s not what our work has been about. This is a repository for Black fashion, style and culture. It lives beyond me and beyond this moment and Black designers deserve to have this spotlight on them.”

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