Why Aren’t Black Designers Given The Recognition They Deserve?


A look at the lack of color at the highest levels of the fashion industry

Fashion houses are experiencing shake-ups of seismic proportions. Brands like Céline, Mugler, Burberry and, most recently, Dior Homme have been playing musical chairs with designers over the past couple of seasons. There have been some surprises and some disappointments in the new head of house selections, but one thing is consistent: It's almost always a guy—and, in each of the aforementioned examples, those guys are white. 

This is nothing new. Historically, it's been very rare for black designers to be picked from the pool of potential candidates. Olivier Rousteing for Balmain is the most notable example, as is Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air who was chosen to be a designer-in-residence for Helmut Lang last year. But, Oliver hasn’t been appointed permanently, despite the success of his debut collection. And both these designers are very much the exception, not the rule.

What we first have to acknowledge when we get into a conversation about black fashion designers is the fact that there are so few in a position to be chosen to head major houses at all. Of the hundreds of shows that occurred during New York Fashion Week this season, only a few were fronted by notable African-American designers. The more mainstream names like Tracy Reese didn’t show, and neither did Oliver nor Maxwell Osborne of Public School. And so that leaves Kerby Jean-Raymond (of Pyer Moss), Telfar Clemens, Carly Cushnie (of Cushnie et Ochs), and LaQuan Smith, all of whom—with the exception of Cushnie—are rising stars but not universally known names yet. So, we’ve got a grand (pitiful) total of four shows headed by black designers.

Some might say the number of black designers in the industry, others, like model Pat Cleveland, think the number is "about the same." She lists Stephen Burrows as one of the more notable names from the '70s, when she started her career. He became the only black fashion designer to compete in the iconic Battle of Versailles and brought along black models (including Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, and Ramona Saunders), who are believed to be the major reason the Americans came home with a win. Cleveland says of Burrows: “You can look at the metal dress—the Gianni Versace one—that was originally Stephen Burrows. I wore that dress to Europe and then everybody saw that dress. He did so many original things like the wrap dress, the lettuce edge... He was an innovative, natural creator, he never copied anything.” Yet his brand and his career weren’t nearly as lucrative as those of his American colleagues’ (Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Bill Blas, and Anne Klein) or European ones (Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, and Hubert de Givenchy). And it's a similar situation that black designers find themselves in more than 40 years later.

Haitian designer Azede Jean-Pierre says that she’s always been one of very few—if not the only—people of color in classrooms, showrooms, and in offices. She’s worked at Ohne Titel and Ralph Rucci. She did her due diligence. She learned from the best and had great schooling and created beautiful designs. Rather than stay at a brand and try to rise in the ranks, though, Jean-Pierre decided to start her own self-titled label. She wanted more creative control, but she also felt like it was her only option at the time. “I can't say my opinion wasn't valued at the places I was,” she says. “I think the issue was, if I stayed, would I have felt that I could move along as quickly based on talent as someone else? I’m honestly not sure.”

If the industry you work for doesn’t serve you, branch out and do your own thing. It’s what black people have been doing from the beginning of time. “You can either stand at the door and keep knocking, or you can find alternative ways to get in the house,” Brandice Daniel, founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, says. But, sometimes that window you think you can climb into is sealed shut. Jean-Pierre says the biggest roadblock for black designers is money. “To start a fashion design business, you have to come from some kind of money or you have to find access to it—that’s a huge barrier to entry.” 

That’s one of the aims of Daniel’s company, to help black designers gain more financial backing, but also to set them up for success. As anyone hoping to promote change in a stubborn industry knows, it’s a task easier said than done. “For my first 10 years, my mission was: Let me get these designers in front of editors, let me get them in front of celebrity stylists who are styling people all the time in magazines and have really high social media followings, and people who work in the industry,” she explains. “Let me expose them to this audience and the bonds will start to grow and it will impact their business.” They would get press and be featured in esteemed places like The New York Times, but it still wouldn’t move the needle with their business, Daniel says. “I've seen designers come in for like three years, be really hot, and they would leave and stop designing because, at the end of the day, their income not only has to sustain their business, but it also has to sustain their livelihood, and that's tough.” And unless you’re Kanye West, you can’t afford to, say, take a break and come back. You have to move on.

And then, when you do manage to crossover to the mainstream industry, you often get pigeonholed. Jean-Pierre recalls a time when designers effectively had to whitewash their collections in order to get noticed. “You had to have all white models for it to feel professional because, if you didn't, people would say, 'Oh, this is a black thing,'” she says. “And it's unfair because you're just putting out there what everyone else is putting out there—your art, your beliefs—and the standards of quality could be all the same, but the way that you present it or if it's coming from a different perspective, you get scoffed at.”

Designers Clemens and Jean-Raymond have both spoken about having similar experiences, but their complaints center around their disdain of the word “streetwear,” which their clothes often get labeled as. Clemens says he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with the term, but it doesn’t hold as much respect in the industry. “The fashion industry basically wants you to play a character of a black designer, instead of just accepting you for what you are,” Clemens told us last year. “There’s no artistic credibility, they’re labeling it without actually having to look at it.”

But what you miss out on when you prematurely dismiss black designers are often the most innovative collections of the season. Jean-Raymond uses his shows to speak on political issues, ranging from police violence and drug addiction to the immigrant experience. Clemens, who won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund last year, donated 100 percent of proceeds from his White Castle capsule collection to pay bail for minors held on Rikers Island. While other brands seem to be using social justice as a means for profit and/or to appear more woke, many black designers use it as a means of education and change. And they do it with authenticity because they’re pulling from experience. As Cleveland explains: “Being black is like, you have music, you have art, you have all of these things that came through pain, trying to create beauty. It’s the same case for fashion: Every stitch hurts, every stitch takes time, every stitch has meaning.” And you can’t try to recreate that without coming off as disingenuous.

As Jean-Pierre wrote in an Instagram post recently, it’s not enough to put a black person in a campaign or on a runway anymore, when those same people aren’t also in the design rooms and behind the scenes. It not only makes the company look bad when the inevitable fuck-ups happen (and we’ve seen them happen time and time and time again), but it short-changes those with true talent and—what companies are truly concerned about—the consumers. “Our cultures are so varied, there’s such a mix, and we need people of color to really convey a message that everyone deeply understands,” Jean-Pierre says. “If you don’t have that, you don’t really have quality. You just have one singular message.”

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Daniel agrees and has noticed brands making more of an effort. “I think people are looking for ways to make themselves fresh and to feel like they are on the cusp of something different and new in fashion,” she says. “And, trust me, there's not a lot of new things happening right now, so if you don't start to do things that are different than what you've always done, you won't be able to sustain yourself.” Black culture is trending right now, she says, pointing to the popularity of Black Panther as proof. And Daniel believes now is the perfect time to make changes that actually stick. Over the next couple of years, her main focus for HFR is partnering with larger fashion brands that are interested in working with multicultural designers. She points to the collaboration between Gucci and Dapper Dan as the perfect example. “There were a lot of people who had never heard of Dapper Dan, but because of his partnership with Gucci, he's able to leverage that partnership with a lot of other different things,” she says. “And Gucci is able to leverage the cool factor that Dapper Dan has, so it's a mutually beneficial relationship.” She’s also planning to launch a new eight-week program to help designers learn more about the business side of the industry. 

Jean-Pierre, on the other hand, is cautiously hopeful. She thinks the industry is going to have to suffer a bit in order for real progress to be made. “I think it's definitely going to blow up from the inside, and it already has, but that doesn't mean it won't improve,” she says. “The dollars will evaporate a little bit or lessen coming in and people will have no choice. The culture is evolving at such a rate that you have to catch up with it or get left behind.” Kibwe Chase-Marshall—who wrote an op-ed for Business of Fashion two months ago in which he outlines the faults of the industry and lists ways it can improve—holds a similar opinion. “I don't think people give up a hold on power, access, and privilege easily,” he tells us. “What I'm optimistic about is a moment in which cultural inequity is being called out.” He notes that the change has to come from black designers like himself. Those who have actively or passively architected this discrimination can't be left to dismantle it without the essential contribution of those who face it.”

Which brings us in a very roundabout way back to creative directors. As Jean-Pierre explains, there is plenty of qualified talent. “I know that creative directors have to be chosen out of exceptional people, and to be exceptional and black is to be beyond exceptional,” she says. Black designers have just been stifled. If they had more opportunities, they would be at the head of major houses right now. Which is why it’s up to the industry to decide whether or not it wants to actively dismantle the existing, homogenous mold, and make some changes. If and when that happens, Jeanne-Pierre says: “That will be a feat for everyone.”

Photo courtesy of TNT.

The gang takes on a casino this season

For its third act, the TNT series Claws is here to prove that it's still the gaudiest show on television.

Claws follows a criminal underworld in Florida that lurks just beneath the surface of a local pain clinic, a strip club, and, most prominently, a nail salon. Despite wanting to make a legit business out of her nail salon, HBIC Desna (Niecy Nash) has spent the past two seasons getting deep into a life of crime. She has had the help of her autistic brother Dean (Harold Perrineau) and the four women she loves the most—Southern belle and con artist Polly (Carrie Preston), silent possessor of Big Strap Energy Ann (Judy Reyes), restlessly sober Jenn (Jenn Lyon), and former stripper Virginia (Karrueche Tran)—who are all back together in the new trailer.

Spoiler alert: Virginia was shot trying to protect Desna at the end of last season. But she survived, and now she's rocking a bedazzled eye patch as the gang takes on their next venture: a casino. "We own a casino," says Desna in the trailer, as we see shots of people gambling and money thrown in the air. "If we play this right, we can all level up." As always, trouble follows, the manicures are over-the-top, and, as an extra treat, Dean is still pursuing his dream of being an adult dancer.

Claws returns for Season 3 on June 9. Check out the trailer, below.

Claws: New Season Sunday, June 9 [TRAILER] | TNT

Photos by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for WE Day, Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

He also thought Lana Del Rey telling him he would be guillotined was a compliment, so we don't think he understands women

In a new memoir called Then It Fell Apart, singer Moby alleged he had a relationship with actress Natalie Portman when he was 33 and she was 20. But, in a new interview with Harper's Bazaar, Portman set the record straight, saying that his description of their relationship is false and contains other factual errors, that makes his behavior seem even grosser than it already did.

Not only did Portman say that the two didn't date, but that he also misrepresented her age. "I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school," she said. "He said I was 20; I definitely wasn't. I was a teenager. I had just turned 18."

She says that they met when she went to one of his shows: "He said, 'let's be friends'. He was on tour and I was working, shooting a film, so we only hung out a handful of times before I realized that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate."

Portman also stated that she was not contacted to fact check this information, noting that "it almost feels deliberate." "That he used this story to sell his book was very disturbing to me. It wasn't the case," she said. "There are many factual errors and inventions. I would have liked him or his publisher to reach out to fact check."

Another part of his memoir describes a conversation with Lana Del Rey, in which she joked about how wealthy he was. "You're a rich WASP from Connecticut and you live in a five-level penthouse. You're 'The Man.' As in, 'stick it to The Man.' As in the person they guillotine in the revolution." His response: "I didn't know if she was insulting me but I decided to take it as a compliment." This only further proves that Moby doesn't understand women at all, which may explain how he took a couple of hangouts with Portman to mean that they were dating.

Moby has since responded to Portman's statement in an equally creepy Instagram post with a photo of him shirtless with the actress, calling the interview a "gossip piece." "We did, in fact, date. And after briefly dating in 1999 we remained friends for years," he said. "I like Natalie, and I respect her intelligence and activism. But, to be honest, I can't figure out why she would actively misrepresent the truth about our (albeit brief) involvement. He also said that he backs up the story in his book with "lots of corroborating photo evidence, etc." He then ends with this: "I completely respect Natalie's possible regret in dating me(to be fair, I would probably regret dating me, too), but it doesn't alter the actual facts of our brief romantic history."

Among many other things that are questionable about his claims, if you have to have "corroborating evidence" to prove a relationship that one person claims didn't happen, you're doing the whole "dating" thing wrong.

Photo by Jerritt Clark / Stringer / Getty Images.

She's been wonderfully honest about the ups and downs of her procedures

There is a good chance that, right now, Cardi B is wearing really something really tight. I'm not talking about one of the pieces from her Fashion Nova collection, either. Instead, she's probably cooing at baby Kulture while swaddled in a compression garment, a necessary part of the healing process after certain cosmetic surgery procedures.

As reported by E! News, Cardi B has had to cancel several performances after her doctor ordered her to rest and allow her body to recover following cosmetic surgery. A rep for Cardi explained to E! that "Cardi was overzealous in getting back to work" and that "her strenuous schedule has taken a toll on her body and she has been given strict doctor's orders to pull out of the rest of her performances in May." This followed an admission by Cardi herself, at the Beale Street Music Festival earlier this month, that she should have canceled her performance because moving too much would mess up her lipo.

Cardi's transparency about plastic surgery is nothing new for her. She has opened up in the past about her underground butt injections, including the financial pressure she felt and the risks she took to get them. She's been open about both of her breast augmentation procedures as well, most recently getting them redone after giving birth to her daughter. But Cardi's transparency about the ups and downs of plastic surgery is still rare amongst celebrities and is therefore refreshing.

And it's not just celebrities who keep quiet about these procedures. The first person I knew to get a butt augmentation was a friend from high school. We reconnected as adults, and I remember going to her apartment after her surgery, and seeing her pace the floor in her compression garment, since it was still too soon to sit and put pressure on her backside. But even in the comfort of her own home, she seemed to speak in a hushed tone about having had the surgery. Before I'd arrived, she just told me she'd had a "medical procedure," and didn't say anything more. This has been the case for other women I've met who have gotten "work" done, including my aesthetician, a colleague who got a nose job, a darling YouTuber with whom I had the pleasure of having dinner; all of them would only acknowledge their enhancements in secret—the shame was palpable, and unfortunate. It's clear that women who get plastic surgery might be celebrated for the results, but there's an expectation that they should keep quiet about it, and feel bad for having made a choice about their own bodies.

So it's no surprise that, in the pop culture realm, people like Cardi are exceptions to the rule. Thanks to the internet, we can easily track the fullness of a celebrity's lips or backside over the course of time without them ever explicitly acknowledging the medical intervention that took place. And while people, of course, have the right to privacy, and should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies without offering explanations, it would still be nice if they opened up, if only to take away the attached stigma that affects so many people. Which is why I hope Cardi's willingness to lay it all out there becomes a trend. No one should have to harbor shame for investing in having a body that looks the way they want it to.

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Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"In my head I thought, This is how it ends"

Kit Harington almost lost a lot more than the Iron Throne while filming the final season of Game of Thrones. According to an interview with NowThis News, the actor almost lost one of his balls while riding a mechanical dragon.

Harington revealed that the incident took place when he was filming the scene where his character, Jon Snow, takes a ride on Rhaegal for the first time in the Season 8 premiere. Since dragons aren't real (sorry), Harington was filming the scene, where Jon almost falls off the dragon and then swings around to pick himself back up, on a mechanical contraption.

"My right ball got trapped, and I didn't have time to say, 'Stop,'" Harington said in an interview. "And I was being swung around. In my head I thought, This is how it ends. On this buck, swinging me around by my testicles, literally." We see shots of the fake dragon he's riding in front of a green screen, and it does look pretty terrifying.

Luckily, his testicles remained intact through the near-disastrous event, and he's survived with quite the story to tell to unsuspecting journalists.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for goop

"I had to create a harder shell about being a woman"

In a panel discussion during Gwyneth Paltrow's In Goop Health summit, actress Jessica Alba revealed that she "stopped eating" to avoid unwanted attention from men when she was first starting her career in Hollywood.

According to People, Alba said that she "had a curvy figure as a young girl" and, as such, was made to feel as though her body was the reason that men may be inappropriate toward her. "I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men," Alba said during the panel discussion. "Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn't get as much attention. I went through a big tomboy phase."

She continued, "In Hollywood, you're really preyed upon. They see a young girl, and they just want to touch you inappropriately or talk to you inappropriately or think that they're allowed to be aggressive with you in a way."

Alba also noted that she was raised in a conservative household. "My mom would say, 'You have a body, and it's very womanly, and people don't understand that you're 12,'" she said. "I wasn't allowed to have my nalgas out, which is butt cheeks [in Spanish], but I was born with a giant booty, and they come out of everything. So, I didn't get to wear normal things that all my friends wore."

She said that these reactions to her body really affected her attitude. "I created this pretty insane 'don't fuck with me' [attitude]," she said. "I had to create a harder shell about being a woman."

According to her, her relationship to her body only changed when her first child, Honor, was born in 2008. "[After she was born,] I was like, Oh this is what these boobies are meant to do! Feed a kid!" she said. "And that was the dopest shit I'd ever done. So, I came into my body as a woman finally and I stopped being ashamed of myself."