The Next Karl Lagerfeld Will Be Black
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A wave of Black fashion designers are making moves that are set to redefine the industry.
By Joshua Eferighe
- Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, Shayne Oliver at Helmut Lang and Kerby Jean-Raymond at Pyer Moss are among a wave of Black designers shaping the future of the fashion industry previously notorious for perpetuating racist stereotypes.
- Musicians-turned-designers, such as Kanye West, Rihanna and Jay-Z, have also led the way.
“You don’t have the answers, Sway!” An impassioned Kanye West screamed over the SiriusXM Shade 45 airwaves. It was 2013 and the Grammy Award–winning producer and rapper was aggrieved, as he spoke with Sway Calloway, the host of Sway in the Morning, about breaking into the world of fashion. 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. That crack in a glass ceiling has since widened, as a surge of top Black fashion designers is promising to reshape an industry that’s been notorious for pandering to racist stereotypes.
Now that the glass ceiling is so punctured, other talented African Americans can follow suit.
Cindy Conroy, fashion reality TV host and stylist
There’s Kerby Jean-Raymond at Pyer Moss, Shayne Oliver at 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. That’s giving rise to a scenario where the next Karl Lagerfeld — the iconic fashion designer, artist, photographer and caricaturist who was creative director of Chanel and Fendi — might well be Black.
“Now that the glass ceiling is so punctured, other talented African Americans can follow suit,” says Cindy Conroy, fashion reality TV host and stylist. “Everyone’s better for it.”
These aren’t isolated instances — they’re part of a chain, each link syncing up with the previous one to create the momentum that Conroy points to, and that would have been impossible to imagine at the turn of the century. Rihanna was Puma creative director, then Jay-Z came in for the role. Abloh, the most sought-after Black designer today, was creative director for Kanye’s Yeezy before moving to the upper echelons of the Paris fashion world.
“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.”
But it isn’t just individual initiative. The market is a factor too. On the whole, the median income of African Americans is a third lower than that of their white peers. But Black buying power in America has grown fourfold from 1990, to $1.3 trillion in 2018 — faster than for white Americans.
“We really cannot deny the power of the Black dollar,” says Archibald. Conroy tells me the emergence of Black people into high fashion injects fresh perspectives into brands that need to “keep up” with changing times and wants.
That doesn’t mean the problem is solved. Eric Jones, CEO of Couture Candy, a 15-year-old fashion e-commerce business, says Black designers still have some undeniable roadblocks in their way. “You could still see fewer stats of Black designers in the major fashion shows and labels,” he points out.
But their numbers are growing. As for the new Karl Lagerfeld being Black? Archibald thinks they’re already on their way. The challenge: investing in them. “Invest in a dream, invest in creativity, invest in innovation,” he tells me. “Make sure the designer gets to express his freedom.” Fashion’s redefinition has started.