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Nov 07, 2021
There’s Kerby Jean-Raymond at Pyer Moss, Shayne Oliver formerly of Helmut Lang, and, of course, Virgil Abloh — Louis Vuitton’s first Black artistic director, and a rare Black designer at the top of a French heritage house, appointed in 2018. Rihanna and Jay-Z have served as creative directors at Puma. A surge of top Black fashion designers is promising to reshape an industry that’s been notorious for pandering to racist stereotypes, even though fashion trends often are taken straight from the black community. In today’s Daily Dose, we’ll explore the complicated relationship the black community has had with high fashion, and we’ll center some of the innovators working today to level the fashion playing field. Take a look.
Credit Where Credit is Due
1 - Kanye Leads the Way
“I have to give props to Kanye West,” says Eric Archibald, creative director of the streetwear brand Diplomacy and former creative director for Sean Jean. “The voice of Kanye West introducing Virgil pretty much gave us an outlet.” With a life and career as publicly chaotic as Ye’s, it’s easy to forget that he had a seismic impact on the landscape of music and fashion over the last two decades. It was only 2013 when the Grammy Award–winning producer and rapper was aggrieved about being excluded from high fashion as he spoke with Sway Calloway, the host of Sway in the Morning, about breaking into the world of fashion. “You don’t have the answers, Sway!” An impassioned Kanye West screamed over the SiriusXM Shade 45 airwaves. He was upset with Nike, which had produced two lines of his Red October shoes but wasn’t paying him royalties. Kanye wanted more than to just be a brand collaborator or a face representing a community — African Americans — that the sporting goods firm wanted to target. He wanted his own table. Up until that point, the only Black creative directors at top major fashion labels had been Ozwald Boateng at Givenchy in 2003 and Olivier Rousteing, a French designer who took over as the creative head of Balmain in 2011. Kanye took his popular Yeezus brand to Adidas, where they’ve since partnered on sneakers — even as the musician has built his own clothing line.
2 - Ozwald’s World
Ozwald Boateng has always known the importance of looking good. The son of Ghanian immigrants, his mother had him in suits by the age of five. He quickly became a skilled tailor after learning to sew at 14 from a girlfriend, and by 27 he had become the youngest tailor to open a store on Savile Row, a street in London known for its traditional bespoke tailoring for men. He was also the first black tailor on Savile Row when he opened up shop in 1994, having made a name for himself by designing colorful, trendsetting suits. In 2003, Boateng was appointed Creative Director for menswear at Givenchy, the world-famous French Fashion House. He stayed in the role for three years, then opened his own store back on Savile Row. He was a defining figure in 2000s menswear, blazing a trail in a world with virtually no high fashion black designers.
3 - Balmain’s Man
When Olivier Rousteing first became creative director of Balmain back in 2011, the fashion world was beyond floored.
Trace it Black
1 - Nothin’ but Buckets
Bucket hats are everywhere these days, from Instagram to high-fashion campaigns. They were referred to as “boonie hats” by military personnel who wore them during the Vietnam War. The first rapper to popularize the hat was Big Bank Hank of the Sugarhill Gang in a 1979 performance of “Rapper’s Delight” on the TV show Soap Factory in the first-ever hip-hop music video. Short-brimmed bucket hats were then popularized by R&B, hip-hop and rap artists throughout the ’80s. Fast-forward several decades, and the hats are now worn by superstars like Rihanna and fashion enthusiasts galore.
2 - A Pop of Color
Now this is a story all about how, fashion got flipped, turned upside down. The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience, a Meridian-based museum, has just launched an exhibit dedicated to the label Cross Colours, which was catapulted to fame when actor Will Smith wore the company’s designs in the first season of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Two years ago, the brand was similarly honored at the California African American Museum. The fashion label was launched in 1989 by designers Carl Jones and T.J. Walker. The California museum exhibit, titled Cross Colours: Black Fashion in the 20th Century, showcased how the company popularized bright colors and graphic designs, all while elevating social causes with shirts featuring slogans like “Educate 2 Elevate.”
3 - Sneaker Madness
Until the 1980s, Converse were NBA players’ shoes of choice. But then superstar Michael Jordan came onto the scene and his lucrative deal with shoemaker Nike challenged Converse’s dominance. The deal and the shoe Jordan and Nike created were the first of their kind. The NBA initially banned the Air Jordan 1s after Jordan wore them for the first time in the 1985 preseason, because they clashed with his team’s footwear. But the shoes skyrocketed to fame, thanks to some clever marketing. The iconic black, red and white athletic footwear gave rise to the sneakerhead culture we know today. Designers such as Virgil Abloh and the fashion house Dior partnered with Nike to release tributes to the shoe last year.
4 - Hems are Back Again
If you’ve been out shopping lately or have at least scrolled through your favorite brand’s online store, you’ve probably seen a lettuce hem or two. The wavy stitched hem is all the rage now, but it was actually invented in the early ’70s by New York City-based designer Stephen Burrows. Burrows accidentally invented the hem when an employee in his New York studio stretched the edge of a sample she was making, and he decided he liked the funky edge. Thus, the wavy edge became his signature. Now you’ll find it everywhere from Target to high-end fashion houses.
Watch Ursula Burns:
The First Black Female Fortune 500 CEO on America’s “Soul-Crushing” Race Problem
Leveling the Fashion Playing Field
1 - Bringing Color to Sustainability
Women of color — especially Black women — are overlooked in the world of sustainable fashion. White-owned brands and white designers often receive attention and acclaim from buyers and critics for their contributions to sustainable fashion, while their counterparts from racial minorities are overlooked. But women like Emma Slade Edmondson are fighting that pattern. She runs an eco-fashion consultancy based in London called ESE to help consumers find ethical and sustainable brands to buy from. She also organizes an annual event, Charity Fashion Live, in which participants re-create the best looks from London Fashion Week using secondhand clothes, which then go on sale in a pop-up shop.
2 - Fatima Kanji
In 2014, Tanzanian-born-and-raised entrepreneur Fatima Kanji noticed a disturbing trend when she started checking the tags on her clothing. Many of the “African” clothes she had purchased were, in fact, mass-produced in Asian countries like Bangladesh or India, which she felt took the soul out of the fabrics. So she decided to do something about it. The University of Texas grad founded Pensar Africa in 2013, which ethically sources fabric and other goods from African artisans and sells them to buyers across the Americas. After settling in Puerto Rico, Kanji found a particularly robust market for the clothes thanks to a cultural movement of reclaiming the “presence of African culture” on the island.
3 - Not Just For NYC
You don’t have to enroll in a prestigious design school to be a successful designer. Just ask Tanzanian designer Sheria Ngowi. A lawyer by training, Ngowi tells OZY that despite his lack of formal training, his designs have been featured alongside pieces from Paul Smith, Burberry and Tom Ford at prestigious fashion week showcases around the world. Ngowi is part of a rapidly expanding cohort of African designers who are forgoing the design-school path, while impacting the world of fashion thanks to a growing global interest in bright colors and expertly made textiles.
Quote of the Day
“Only now are things hitting me, like I’m feeling them emotionally. I used to feel unsafe right in the moment of an accomplishment — I felt the ground fall from under my feet because this could be the end. And even now, while everyone is celebrating, I’m on to the next thing. I don’t want to get lost in this big cushion of success.’’ - Rihanna, on staying present
Who's your favorite designer working today? How would you like to see the fashion world change? Share your thoughts, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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