As the Black Lives Matter protests have swept through cities around the world, fashion brands have tried to contribute to the conversation. On Instagram, companies from Prada to Gucci to Reformation to Everlane have posted comments opposing racism. But the truth is that the fashion industry has a long history of marginalizing black designers, photographers, models, and business leaders.
Today, less than 4% of the 500 members of the invite-only Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), fashion’s most influential trade organization, are black. Fewer than 10% of designers at New York Fashion Week in recent years have been black. And there have been vanishingly few black designers at major fashion labels: It was big news when Virgil Abloh became Louis Vuitton’s first African American creative director two years ago.
This lack of diversity at the top trickles down, influencing many aspects of the fashion industry. A year ago, Prada and Gucci faced backlash for creating products with imagery evocative of blackface and lynching. Spike Lee said on Instagram that he would boycott the brands and attributed the “racist, blackface hateful imagery” to not having enough black designers on staff.
More recently, black employees in the fashion industry have shared their disturbing experiences with discrimination. Yael Aflalo, the founder of fashion label Reformation, posted an apology on Instagram after a former store manager described how Aflalo had created a racist company culture by marginalizing black models and not speaking out when employees posted explicitly racist images on Instagram. Christene Barberich, cofounder of the fashion news site Refinery29, announced she was resigning after several former black writers described how poorly they were treated at the publication.
The fashion industry has a long way to go on racial justice and equality. But there are things brands can do to effect change that extend beyond declarations of solidarity and hollow apologies. We interviewed three black fashion designers—Aurora James, Tracy Reese, and Anifa Mvuemba—to find out what the fashion industry can do right now to become more equitable.
Aurora James: Pledge to support black designers and businesses
Aurora James, the founder of the luxury accessories company Brother Vellies, says that brands need to do more than just pay lip service to the movement for racial justice. They need to come up with strategies to overcome systemic racism in corporate America. “I kept seeing brands post their support of Black Lives Matter, but as a black woman and a black business owner, I wasn’t really feeling it,” she says. “I just didn’t get the sense that they truly understood what ‘standing with someone’ meant.”
To bring about real change throughout the world of retail and fashion, James has launched a grassroots movement called the Fifteen Percent Pledge, where she’s asking large retailers, including Target, Whole Foods, and Shopbop to put their money where their mouth is. Black people make up 15% of the U.S. population, and by taking this pledge, brands commit to devoting at least 15% of their shelf space to black-owned businesses. According to James’s calculations, this could pour $14.5 billion back into black communities. “Supporting the black community should be more than just words,” James says. “Brands should be allocating 15% of their purchase power to black businesses. That just seems like the bare minimum; it’s a quota that they should already have.”
James believes that taking the pledge could be transformative not just to black communities, but also to the retailers themselves, since it would force them to confront their own blind spots when it comes to race. She has laid out a three-part plan to help businesses get to 15%, which includes conducting an audit of existing suppliers, publishing findings internally and externally, and developing a concrete strategy for bringing more black suppliers on board. “This is about understanding what systems you have in place that make it hard for black people to thrive at your company or even get in through the doors at all,” James says.
This has the potential to transform James’s own industry. Fashion retailers such as Shopbop and Net-a-Porter are important because they can make or break a designer’s career simply by carrying their label. Rent the Runway has already taken the pledge and said it would ensure that black designers make up at least 15% of the products featured on its site. But perhaps just as importantly, Rent the Runway says that it will extend this commitment to ensure better representation within the company of black models, ambassadors, stylists, photographers, and more.
This is exactly what James hopes will happen. She believes that supporting black designers and businesses is just the first step, one that will lead to more comprehensive change. “I’m urging people to think about how they can apply the pledge to many different facets of their business,” she says.
Tracy Reese: Publish your progress
Tracy Reese is one of the best-known designers in the United States, having built a thriving business over the past three decades; she also serves on the board of the CFDA. But her ascent wasn’t easy. “I haven’t just thought about inequality in this industry—I’ve experienced it,” she says. “For my generation, there wasn’t time to stop and register racial injustice. There was really much more of an attitude of bearing down and walking around to achieve your goals.”
Reese says she’s heartened that the current generation of designers—and black young people more broadly—are not willing to let injustices go ignored. Instead of operating within a flawed system, they are demanding that the system itself change. At this moment, many fashion brands seem like they’re eager to evolve, but Reese believes it is important to hold their feet to the fire and ensure they make good on their promises. “We’re not asking for an extra piece of the pie—we’re just asking for equality and equity,” Reese says. “We have to hold brands accountable for publishing their progress and asking them where they are three months, six months, nine months from now.” According to Reese, the onus is on everybody with a stake in the fashion business—from the CFDA to consumers to the media—to track that progress.
In her practice as a designer, Reese has worked hard to create space for black creatives and designers, and her approach could be a model for other brands. Three years ago, she bought a house and set up headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, where she grew up, creating opportunities for artisans in the city to make and embellish clothes in her collection. “It was pretty disheartening how black people are not in positions of power here in a majority-black city,” she says. “There are just these white saviors creating entry-level jobs for unemployed black Detroiters but without the opportunity to rise through the ranks and become decision-makers, managers, and stakeholders. That’s really painful, and I’m not having it.”
In some ways, this a radical move, since New York has historically been the fashion capital of the United States, and the locus of power in the fashion industry. If you didn’t have the means to move to New York to intern for a designer or attend a fashion school such as Parsons, you would have a tough time breaking through. “There’s so much more opportunity if you don’t have to get past the traditional gatekeepers of the fashion industry in New York,” she says. “I’m really working to create my own little sustainable ecosystem here in Detroit.”
Reese also believes that the direct-to-consumer movement can help level the playing field for black designers. Throughout her career, Reese has partnered with department stores and other retailers that have carried her collections. But just this month, Reese launched a website called Hope for Flowers that allows customers to shop her latest collection, which is made from eco-friendly fabrics. She believes that the next generation of fashion talent has the opportunity to bypass the traditional retailers that have historically marginalized black designers.
Anifa Mvuemba: Transform the industry from the outside
While James and Reese are focused on transforming the system from within, 29-year-old designer Anifa Mvuemba has built her eight-year-old fashion line, Hanifa, by choosing to operate outside the system. She encourages other black designers, and her growing team of employees, to follow her lead. Mvuemba headquartered her business in Maryland, where she grew up, rather than moving to New York. She didn’t attend fashion school or intern for another designer, nor has she shown a collection at New York Fashion Week. And yet she built a $1 million business, and her outfits have been worn by everybody from Lizzo to Kylie Jenner. It’s an unconventional playbook, but one she’s encouraging others to use.
One reason that many black designers struggle to break into fashion is that the traditional path involves moving to New York and building connections with a small group of powerful industry insiders, including more established designers, fashion magazine editors, and department store buyers. Like many others, Mvuemba found this insular world intimidating and out of reach. “As much as I wanted the fashion world to recognize what I was doing, it seemed impossible,” she says. “I saw other [nonblack designers] launch their businesses five years after I did, and boom! They seemed to break in so much more easily.”
Mvuemba’s advice to other designers is not to wait for the industry to change. She believes that technology creates opportunities for young designers, like her, to bypass the system. Instead of trying to break into department stores, she launched a direct-to-consumer brand online. Instead of big advertising campaigns, she’s growing her business on Instagram, where she recently pioneered the world’s first virtual 3D fashion show.
Mvuemba believes it is possible to change the industry from the outside, as well as from within. As she has blazed her own trail and achieved success, she has had the opportunity to hire seven employees and expects to continue building her team. As she mentors these employees, she encourages them to chart their own path in the fashion world. “I’ve recently asked my team, ‘Why am I seeking validation from the fashion industry?'” she says.”We’ve been able to achieve so much within the last eight years. I have a loyal audience of black women, and women of other races, who support this vision. We’ve been able to achieve all of this without [the mainstream fashion industry]. So we’re just going to do our own thing, whether they want to recognize it or not.”