Little Diversity in a Big Fashion World

You’ve got five seconds to think of one black designer. Can you do it? Probably not.

The lack of diversity within the fashion industry has been an issue for quite some time. Aside from the mediocre coverage of black models, there has been a lack of black representation within the world of fashion designers, too.

According to data collected by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2015, only 12 of 470 designers at New York’s A/W Fashion Week were African-American and only 3 of those designers for the event’s 260 shows were considered household names.

Models such as Naomi Campbell have had to fight for their spots in the modelling world for years, although Campbell, along with a handful of other women of colour, have become household names. Designers face the same struggle. Tracy Reese, whose designs have been worn by America’s former First Lady, Michelle Obama, has openly expressed that she has often been the only black designer in the room at events including Fashion Week.

Through Campbell’s and Reese’s success, it is clear that there has been some improvement in diversifying the fashion industry. However, it’s simply not enough to equalise the ratio of white models to models of colour, as well as white to black designers in the industry.

Fortunately, there are up-and-coming fashion designers who hope to change all that. Three designers from the United States and the United Kingdom spoke on their experiences as people of colour in the fashion world. They also shared their thoughts on the lack of diversity within the industry. It hasn’t been easy for any of them, but all three hope that speaking out will improve the journey for others.

Jo David, head designer and owner of JD Noble, is a womenswear fashion designer based in both New York City and Atlanta. David was exposed to the fashion world at a young age, as her grandmother was a seamstress. She remembers her mother telling her that her family couldn’t afford expensive clothing, so David’s grandmother would get a Sears catalog, tell her children to pick out what they liked, buy the fabric and create an exact replica.

Though designing clothes ran in David’s blood, it wasn’t her first career choice — her mom insisted she pursue law. But she drew such a large crowd to her high school fashion show that David knew she had to chase her dream.

As a woman of colour as well as a fashion designer, David believes there is a lack of coverage of black designers in the industry and “people don’t realize [the] importance” of this coverage. She’s also said that, along with the lack of press, it’s often difficult to work in the industry because of the pressures that come with it, regardless of a designer’s background.

She said: “Fashion is a very competitive and cut-throat environment, but if I feel that I allow things from the outside to dictate my every move, I’m limiting myself

creatively. You are your own worst critic.

“I’ve been in situations where I was asked to create under the watchful eye of others and it drained me to the point where I just liked the garment and didn’t love it — it was so hard for me to even complete that. You put so much of yourself into your work that it hurts when it doesn’t come out the way you want.”

Although David has been in situations where her creativity was stifled, she also believes that the success of black designers is a two-way street. She encourages those who want to be recognised to work harder and seek the attention they deserve. She knows it’s a hard task and, for that reason, David doesn’t exclude anyone.

She said: “I express myself through fashion — my clothes are for everyone.”

Similar to David is clothing designer and fashion industry coach at IE Fashion Academy, Jessica Williams. She was also influenced by her grandmother, who had a passion for fashion design. Williams herself has been designing since the age of 14 and launched her first collection at New York Fashion Week in 2014; she has participated ever since.

Williams launched her company IE Fashion Academy in 2016 with the goal of helping young, talented designers to achieve their dreams. She noted that all of her clients are minorities and they, too, have found that it’s difficult to pursue a career in fashion because of the lack of diversity.

Williams said: “I absolutely believe there is a lack of diversity in the industry. It’s dominated by European designers, and it’s very hard to have your designs sold by retailers as an African-American.

“This is the reason I launched my fashion-business coaching program. We assist emerging and aspiring fashion entrepreneurs with the launch of their brands.”

She knew before she started helping others that this would be a tough task: whilst Williams studied at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, her professor told her that only two people in her class would become fashion designers and none would make six-figure salaries. That negative energy only inspired Williams, who worked hard with her clothing brand, Irregular Exposure, to sell in more than 50 retailers. Oh, and she has surpassed that six-figure salary and bought her own manufacturing factory at only 25 years old, too.

Her professor’s doubt played a part in her success, but Williams also says the lack of diversity in the industry encouraged her strives for more and be a voice to the voiceless.

She said: “I always speak to designers that think they have it all and the retailers don’t take their brands to resale because of their skin tone.”

Like David, Williams agrees that it’s also necessary to work hard and climb higher than those who try and bring her down.

Della Spencer of Della’s Fashion Designs hasn’t been in the industry for as long as David or Williams, but she has studied the topic of race inequality and diversity for 13 years. That’s why she’s particularly in tune with this issue — especially when it comes to streetwear.

Spencer said: “I am frustrated that streetwear is not often seen as ‘luxury,’ unless luxury brands make streetwear. This all echoes patterns of inequality to me.”

Spencer agrees that more needs to be done to promote equality within the industry and believes the industry needs to make more of an effort where this inequality is most noticeable.

She said: “The fashion industry can present a more diverse palette by incorporating more diverse platforms: a black fashion magazine, or, at the very least, more black fashion designers being covered.”

In the end, all three designers believe that designers of colour must work harder to be seen, but it’s not only their responsibility: white designers and fashion houses need to make an effort to hire, showcase and appreciate minority designers, too. If the stand these women are taking is any indication, there will be more than a dozen black designers at Fashion Week in the years to come — and that’s the way it should be.

-Ashley Vega

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