A handful of significant appointments of black designers and cover stars marks something of a change for the fashion industry, but racism is rooted in much deeper structural problems.
This year is being hailed as a breakthrough year for black figures in the fashion industry.
Virgil Abloh was appointed creative director for menswear at Louis Vuitton. Ghanaian-born Edward Enninful, who took over as editor-in-chief of British Vogue in late 2017, made Rihanna the first black woman to star on the all-important September issue. A record number of other major magazines had black September cover stars, from Beyoncé for American Vogue to Slick Woods for Elle UK.
Yet as a financial and cultural cornerstone of capitalism, the fashion industry’s problem with racism cannot be magicked away with token appointments.
Elsewhere this year, fashion chain H&M sparked a boycott with a slogan hoodie reading “coolest monkey in the jungle” modelled by a black child. Nike caused outrage with a supposedly “gang-inspired” balaclava also advertised by a black model.
Meanwhile, in the run up to the US Open tennis championships, Serena Williams collaborated with Abloh’s own brand Off White and Nike, but was the target of a viciously racist cartoon in the aftermath of the tournament.
In an article entitled “What it’s Really Like to be Black and Work in Fashion” Lindsay Peoples Wagner surveyed over 100 individuals working largely in New York.
IMG model agent Ethan Miller told her, “Fashion happens to be extremely homogeneous. There are those subtle bigoted moments that we let slide in order to keep our white counterpart feeling comfortable. No one wants to be perceived as the ‘angry black person’ as you’re trying to get ahead.”
Each season the number of black models on the runway remains tellingly low. According to Fast Company, only 15 percent of models at New York Fashion Week last season were black.
Racist mantras have frequently been wielded as truisms. The ideal of feminine beauty, while not explicitly white, is explicitly tall and narrow hipped, with small breasts.
Another mantra is that black models do not sell. Rather, black people are routinely excluded. Editors of magazines with a largely black readership such as Vibe attest to second-class treatment at industry events.
In 2013 a Zurich boutique refused to allow an incognito Oprah Winfrey to see a $38,000 Tom Ford bag, claiming it was “too expensive” for her.
Peoples Wagner writes, “Only 15 of the 495 Council of Fashion Designers of America members are black, and only ten black designers have ever won a CFDA or CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. Less than 10 percent of the 146 fashion designers who showed at the major Fall 2018 shows for New York Fashion Week were black.”
Of the rest, designers exclude and include the faces and aesthetics of non-white people on a cyclical basis.
When the mood suits, fashion brands plunder the heritage of peoples around the world as “ethnic” inspiration in an act known as cultural appropriation.
As Jessica Andrews writes in Teen Vogue: “Black people have been at the forefront of style while simultaneously being denied visibility within the industry.”
The look associated with hip-hop was first scorned then appropriated and sold by high fashion brands.
A key hip-hop stylist was Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day, the Harlem tailor who dressed figures from Big Daddy Kane to Mike Tyson in the 1980s. Day reimagined designs by key brands — Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and MCM — helping shape an aesthetic for a new, black soundtrack. As a result, he was shut down in 1992 by Fendi lawyers.
Without a hint of irony, last year Gucci replicated a puff-sleeved jacket Day made for the Olympic gold medallist Diane Dixon in 1989. A collaboration between Day and Gucci followed, but the fire of outrage over uncompensated intellectual property had already blazed on social media.
Black political issues similarly run the risk of being trivialised as trends. Kerby Jean-Raymond was one of the first designers to highlight the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign through his work at Pyer Moss.
“2015 was a turning point for me,” he told Peoples Wagner. “Being inundated with news and imagery of black bodies slaughtered in the streets, killed by police, in choke holds. But when we titled our show ‘Black Lives Matter’ in 2015, I became a pariah for a good six to 12 months, and no one in the industry really wanted anything to do with me. Speaking about race was really taboo.”
Last month Nike (again) made BLM advocate Colin Kaepernick the face of its latest “Just Do It” campaign.
While Donald Trump tweeted his outrage and some on the right burned Nike apparel in protest, sales rose by 31 percent the weekend that the campaign dropped.
The brand has moved into the spotlight, arguably eclipsing a discussion on police brutality.
The system needs more than a few new faces to design, wear or publish the latest styles. It needs a complete overhaul beginning with fair treatment and pay for those making the clothing and an end to the inner circle of privilege based on colour and class.
The racist ideology that keeps more than a few black models out of the shows is part of the same fabric that keeps workers across the world under the yoke of profit making.