New York Fashion Week ended a few days ago, as did the BBW Black in Fashion series, and if you would allow me a moment of self-congratulatory indulgence, this was quite an amazing roller coaster ride! I had no idea that I would get so immersed in this topic, and after seven days I've barely scratched the surface of with respect to history and current information. If you missed any of the posts to the Facebook page, please take a look at the index post, and read this epilogue for additional information that didn't make the initial series.
First Ladies and Fashion
I was initially intrigued by the connection between Elizabeth Keckley and Ann Lowe, dressmaker/designers to two historic First Ladies, but it took a while before I fully recognized how pivotal that relationship could be in terms of influencing the career of a specific designer or even a particular trend. For Elizabeth Keckley, her influence on the fashions of the time is unclear, but her client base and livelihood depended a great deal on her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln (which apparently became strained after Keckley published her memoirs). Ann Lowe's design business did not lack for well-heeled clients, which is why it is not too surprising to learn that after she designed the wedding dress for Jacqueline Kennedy, they maintained a relationship for many years afterward.
The inclusion of Michelle Obama in this series evolved from a mere mention of her choice to wear a specific contemporary designer to a full-fledged recognition of her role as a key fashion influencer. While a few of her predecessors could be similarly appreciated for their style (Nancy Reagan comes to mind), with the exception of Jacqueline Kennedy, I was unable to verify if previous First Ladies in the modern era specifically sought to patronize black designers. Interestingly, on the fifth day of this series, the Obamas unveiled their official portraits, rendered by two promising young African American artists which is consistent with other choices they made to highlight the work of lesser known American artists of color during his term. It is no surprise then, that as one of the most photographed women in the world, Michelle Obama has launched and revived the careers of several contemporary designers.
Black Fashion Venues
My initial intent was to acknowledge the historic importance of ESSENCE and EBONY magazines, two black publications that played substantial roles in providing showcases for black designers and models. As I researched other subtopics and realized that this effort was expanding, I remembered the all-Black issue of VOGUE Italia. This ground-breaking issue was the brainchild of its late editor, Franca Sozzani and was published in July 2008 at a moment when there had been a noticeable decline in the number of black models featured in major fashion publications and on runways. (And I need to note that no mainstream American publication has
undertaken a similar effort; however, GLAMOUR magazine has been working
to promote more content created by women in its publication.)
The Italian VOGUE in Black issue was announced and planned prior to the death of designer Yves Saint Laurent, who passed a month before its publication. We must pay homage to him because he was one of the first major designers to use models of color in his shows and his friendship with Eunice Johnson meant that his creations were among the first by a major designer to be included in the EBONY Fashion Fair. It cannot be overstated how the example and influence of one white designer helped to change an industry--it was Laurent who helped to launch Naomi Campbell's career as a supermodel.
A fair amount of credit should be given to reality television for creating new venues for black designers and models. Of course that means giving props to both Project Runway and America's Next Top Model for demonstrating the importance of diversity and inclusion in the industry. In the series, I highlighted three black designers from PR who performed well and made their mark but it also provided an opportunity for models as well. ANTM featured a fair number of black models in each cycle, including winners Eva Marcille (3), Naima Mora (4), Danielle Evans (6), Saleisha Stowers (9), Teyona Anderson (12), and Krista White (14). Several of those winners have gone on to become successful working models, including a few who crossed over to the catwalk for the designers from PR.
For years, Andre Leon Talley was the black fashion overlord, with few peers. Since his retirement, others have ascended to high places, so the job of discovering and mentoring more promising young talent no longer rests with one lone influencer, but among several. While we tend to look to the editors at mainstream publications to declare what is in and what is out, social media will continue to serve as a venue for fashion bloggers whose voices and perspectives are both immediate and current.
I am also hopeful that advocates like Bethann Hardison will continue to speak out about the lack of diversity in the industry until it is no longer a need. Because if models are merely the hangers for displaying the art, then it should not take headlines or alternative campaigns to shame designers into using black models. And it should be noted that while the series recognized the historic and iconic black models from the past, there are many fresh faces out there who deserve attention and opportunities to shine.
I did not focus on cosmetics because that is a topic that should (and might) be its own series. Iman, Tyra Banks, and Pat McGrath have their own cosmetics lines which demonstrates how integral makeup is to the fashion industry--not just as looks that are created for the runway, but also for what gets advertised to consumers. Black women historically had limited makeup options,which is why a legacy brand like Fashion Fair and now a contemporary brand like Fenty Beauty are so revolutionary. The existence of those brands has influenced mainstream companies to expand their offerings in order to cultivate black women as customers.
Black celebrities started cosmetics companies to fill a void, so it follows that their influence on fashion could and might become its own topic because there is no denying the symbiosis of that relationship. Black celebrities like Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge sought out designer Zelda Wynn Valdes to provide dresses for their performances and appearances, which undoubtedly enhanced her profile and her business. Celebrities themselves have turned to design to market their style to consumers, such as Rocawear by Jay Z or Sean John by Sean "Diddy" Combs, which certainly influenced the work of mainstream designers like Marc Jacobs.
Clearly, there is so much more ground to cover with respect to blacks in the fashion industry. This is merely an introduction for me into a topic that I've always found fascinating. I never assumed that blacks were not an integral part of the fashion industry; I think I just never gave it that much thought beyond the images that I saw on the pages of fashion publications. Which explains a bit why this series was such an undertaking...because it is easy to assume that other than the models and a handful of influencers, black contributors to this industry might be inaccessible to the common consumer.
I have to confess that this was one of the most challenging pieces I've written because as someone whose interest in high fashion has been limited to September issues and TV shows that rate the red carpet looks of celebrities, it is intimidating to tackle a topic so far outside of my lane. And because I did not approach this as a research project initially, I've put a lot of pressure on myself to provide a somewhat comprehensive overview. I've also decided to do my part to seek out and support more black designers (where I can, as soon as I'm confident enough to wear this to playgroup):