The Power of Black Fashion
By Isabelle Lee
When online retailer Shein started selling a phone case earlier this year that featured an art piece depicting Michael Brown’s murder without permission from the artist, social media erupted in outrage. The design depicts a Black man lying on the ground, outlined in chalk. Designer Jean Jullien created the image in 2014 in response to Brown’s murder and the Ferguson protests. Jullien’s design had been poached by fast fashion, the name given to the industry that employs exploitative practices to rapidly and cheaply produce clothes and accessories. And the community of creatives was not about to let that slide.
This season’s hottest trend is giving credit where credit is due. So join us as we explore the surprising history behind your favorite contemporary trends, discover how small designers are holding fast fashion accountable and highlight the inspiring movement to un-whitewash sustainable fashion.
tracing it back
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.
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.”
The Start of Sneakers
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.
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.
slow your roll
In the first half of this year, Chinese retailer Shein’s mobile app was the most downloaded fashion app in America. Since its founding in 2008, it has become notorious for its extremely low prices and sketchy labor practices. The clothing giant is also known for stealing from smaller indie designers, especially designers of color, by replicating art without permission. Then, it creates fast-fashion alternatives to the artists’ designs using inferior materials as replacements for high-quality craftsmanship. Shein recently copied the design for a hand-crocheted sweater from the website of the Nigerian brand Elexiay, with the fast-fashion version nearly an exact replica. Designer Elyon Adede wrote on Twitter: “It’s quite disheartening to see my hard work reduced to a machine made copy.”
2021 Is the Year of the Brand
According to Morehouse College graduate and Atlanta resident Matthew Harper, “There has been a movement [especially among Black women] in regards to ownership and empowerment” of their businesses. Harper owns Esquire Branding Agency, which works with a variety of entrepreneurs in the Big Peach, helping them reach a broader audience using beautifully curated events complete with killer cocktails. The gatherings have become a staple of the Atlanta art and design scene. The self-described “culture specialist” tells OZY that among his clientele and in his community, more people are becoming “aware of their own personal aspirations and starting their own businesses.” But self-starters are especially vulnerable to companies that poach their ideas or designs. By helping them trademark their designs, Harper provides an essential service for fledgling creatives.
Luxury for All
There are many excellent guides that can help you find Black designers, artisans and business owners to buy from. Baltimore native Alex Davis’ online lifestyle platform Gallerie 88 showcases Black-owned businesses in the luxury brand world through a weekly online newsletter and social media campaigns. According to Davis, her business is all about redefining the concept of luxury. “Luxury has been defined by European standards. Therefore, when people of any color imagine their aspirational life, European culture is centered,” she tells OZY. “Gallerie 88 is about centering Black culture in one’s aspirations, not just in fashion, but also in art and design.” The “trend” that she is most excited about this fall is “highlighting and supporting Black creators.”
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.
Who Needs 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.
Instagram eco-influencers often promote sustainable products that are super expensive, which makes environmental crusader Leah Thomas’ attitude toward sustainable fashion decidedly refreshing. “I’m never going to shame someone — even if they’re shopping a sustainable H&M collection,” Thomas told The Zoe Report. “Maybe that’s the only thing that’s accessible to them. And that’s the first step that they can take.” She’s an advocate for making small, sustainable changes when shopping for clothes. Take it from Thomas; there’s no need to shell out for an ultra-expensive, sustainably produced T-shirt when you could buy from a thrift store or trade with a friend and still be equally — or even more — environmentally friendly.
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.
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee