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Black Representation in Fashion: A Progress Report

By Brianna Bishop

As fashion enters its busiest time of the year, industry experts weigh in on the next steps of many brands and companies who pledged to diversify as demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement following the parade of black squares on Blackout Tuesday in June.

According to founders and fashion PR extrodinaires, Barbara Aimé, Rosalind Dean and Sahar Sanjar Dejban, corporate fashion needs more Black professionals to occupy space at the highest executive level in order to amplify Black voices, breakdown systemic racism within the workplace and properly represent the spectrum that is Black culture.

Fashion Brands Respond to Black Lives Matter Protests by Fundraising, Pledges for Change

Angela Velasquez, Executive Editor for Rivet at Penske Media Corporation, reported the CFDA’s announcement surrounding the launch of their in-house employment program which will be specifically charged with placing black talent in all sectors of the fashion business to help achieve a racially balanced industry.

“The program will be tasked with identifying black creatives and pairing these individuals with companies looking to hire. Mentorship and internship programs focused on placing black students and new graduates will take shape,” stated Velasquez.

Activism in Fashion During the Summer of 2020

On Blackout Tuesday, many brands were quick to post black squares on their social feed and stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by making hefty financial contributions to organizations such as the NAACP, The Bail Project and others. However, the verdict is still out regarding the upcoming plans designer brands have in store to implement new company policies of actual consequence, that would improve the overall experience for the Black professionals who work for them.

Internal corporate policy changes are imperative to ensure substantial and long lasting contributions to the improvement of the state of anti-racism in the industry. These policy shifts and staffing changes usually take longer to execute than a donation does and require more meaningful thought. In July, Gucci announced that legendary model and activist Bethann Haridson would take on the duties of Global Diversity and Inclusion Director. We’re all aware of the issues that have plagued the fashion house over the years and Bethann is no stranger to advocating for diversity in the fashion industry. In 1988, she co-founded the Black Girls Coalition with Iman as a means to advocate and support to Black models. Hopefully, this partnership will be the catalyst for change the industry needs.

Aurora James, Brother Vellies Designer + Creator of The 15% Pledge

Women of Color Leading the Change: Black Industry Leaders To The Front Of The Line

Change truly starts from within, and who better to lead that change than successful, influential, and accomplished Black women at the top of their game? These programs are designed to uplift and empower Black creatives in the fashion field by utilizing the new influx of opportunities to advance their careers.

To affect the change they wish to see, Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles formed the Black in Fashion Council, an organized group of editors, models, stylists, media executives, assistants, freelance creatives, and industry stakeholders dedicated to building a new foundation for inclusivity. As a result of New York Fashion Week (NYFW) going virtual this season, BIFC launched educational programming and will be hosting diversity and inclusion panels and conversations.

As featured in the July issue of Mae Jones Magazine, Brother Vellies designer Aurora James recently launched the 15% Pledge, an initiative which is leading the fashion industry by example by encouraging major retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. Since its June launch, Sephora, Rent The Runway, West Elm and MedMen are the first 4 major retailers to sign onto the pledge.

Sahar Sanjar-Dejban, founder of LaChambre PR and founding member of IAMAVOTER, launched a program dedicated to supporting Black-owned fashion and beauty businesses with mentorship and resources such as press strategy, VIP relations, and business growth tactics last month called Incubate.

“Incubate was created with the purpose of focusing on the black community and black artists and entrepreneurs. I felt that this was really an area of focus that I could contribute to in a meaningful way in an industry where I know can really set the tone for a lot of things and really help people open their eyes and see exclusivity as just a natural extension of who they are versus like putting in the work to appear diverse,” said Dejban.

Inside the lookbook of Black designer + LaChambre PR Incubate participant, Sammy B Designs.

There is Enough Money To Go Around: Circulation of Money in New York Fashion Week

Barbara Saint Aimé, East Coast Director of Aimé and Dean Agency, firmly believes that a potential strategy that companies could apply to help solve the diversity crisis would be for fashion houses to repurpose the millions of dollars fashion houses spend on NYFW every year in order to fund the salaries of Black professionals.

“I think it starts with prioritizing what you're trying to do with your brand. If you truly want to do the work of an anti-racist, because it's not enough to not be racist, I think brands need to re-evaluate the nonsensical expenses where we're just wasting money,” said Aimé.

Halie LeSavage, founding writer of Retail Brew, explores the massive budgets of fashion's most coveted designers spend on their well-anticipated shows during fashion week.

“Forbes estimates that the “average” show cost at least $200,000. Marc Jacobs reportedly spent at least $1 million to showcase his fall collection. That’s $1,750 per second for a show lasting under 10 minutes,” LeSavage said.

Coming from the fashion PR perspective, Aimé described how these brands are shelling out millions of dollars without any return. In all actuality, showroom appointments are the first stop to the financial return for luxury brands. Showroom appointments create the buzz which gets the looks into the publication for that designer's seasonal collection to be featured for consumers.

Accountability: Cancel Culture’s Effect on the Industry

The fashion industry has profited millions off of Black culture through cultural appropriation. In an interesting turn of events, not only have Black women in fashion persevered through tumultuous circumstances to cement their authority in an industry that continues to reject them, but they are also committed to changing the world through compassion and tolerance.

When asked if it is the responsibility of a Black PR professional to educate their clients on anti-racism and social justice issues when it comes to their brand, West Coast Director of Aimé + Dean agency, Rosalind Dean responded “I think that there are a lot of things that are not my responsibility that I take on anyway.”

“Maybe that's just me. But as a black woman living in this space, I've been doing this work all my life. I feel like I could stand by and not say anything and just be like, ‘figure it out’ or I could teach them the way that it should be taught. I see it as an opportunity to actually get something done correctly,” Dean said.

In response to an enlightening client experience with Janessa Leone, Aimé & Dean launched an initiative designed to educate non-black brands/companies on Black issues and anti-racist practices.

Dejban offered her insight as a non-Black, woman of color regarding the manner in which other non-Black company leaders should hold themselves accountable moving forward. “Speaking as the head of my own company, it’s on me to make a change. It's not on the community that is underserved to make this change. It's on me to make that change for them and really just be part of a coalition of support and an ally moving forward,” said Dejban.

The Need For More Opportunities for Black professionals to Climb The Corporate Ladder

In order for Black women to ascend to the executive level, it is vital that they enter the field with prior professional experience usually accomplished before receiving a college degree. Because fashion falls under a creative field, and most creative fields operate on the outdated and unjust tradition of “paying your dues” through unpaid, entry level work - putting Black women at a major disadvantage due to economic background.

“I think it is extremely important for us to be exposed to this industry, because if you don't come from that world, there's no way for you to possibly get your foot in the door,” said Aimé. “It's a lot about who you know and unfortunately, people like to hire candidates with experience and in order to get said experience, you need someone to give you the opportunity.”

According to Lynn, it is proven that Black women have less access to a company’s senior leadership so much so that 59% of black women in the workplace have never even had an interaction with someone at the senior level.

Trevor Smith, Outreach Director for Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit that advocates for more paid internships in the public, private, and non-profit sector, conducted research and discovered that students who major in more diverse fields like journalism, fashion merchandising, and human development are more likely to apply for unpaid internships according to employer research.

“Unpaid internships only further opportunities for those who can afford to take them, while leaving those who can’t behind. Dismantling the unpaid internships structure is just one of the multiple steps that need to be taken to accomplish racial and economic equality and one that the federal government should play,” said Smith.

When asked how management should approach hiring in terms of diversification when considering a non-Black applicant versus a Black applicant, Aimé answered,“In that case, they [management] are going to need to make room.”

“A lot of times we come into situations where certain people on teams insinuate that we’re so lucky and we should be so grateful to be in the room, and I always like to remember that they're lucky to have us in this room,” said Dean. “We're adding value to this room and I know that the things that we bring to the table are going to be a different perspective.”

Follow Brianna Bishop here.


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