It was a telling moment: In late July, Eva Chen, director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, posted a photo of the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund judges’ table—and there was not one black face in sight.
As reported by Refinery 29:
Seated at a long table were 10 judges with the future of the fashion industry in their hands: five women and five men; three were of Asian-descent, and all extremely fair-skin. ... That’s not to say real diversity only counts when it includes Black people, but it does speak to a level of mindful inclusion that continues to elude us. Trends stemming from Black culture are everywhere, and yet there remain so few Black designers on the Fashion Week calendar. Even fewer are members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America; there are just 15 Black designers on the CFDA’s membership roster of more than 500 people.
It was a bitter pill after a 2018 CFDA Awards ceremony that boasted its first black female host in the event’s 37-year history, and only resulted in honorary awards to black influencers—despite the most black nominees in the event’s history—as designers Virgil Abloh, Aurora James and Kerby Jean-Raymond went home empty-handed. Commenters on Chen’s post were quick to note the fairness of the table:
“Not even one black person as a judge, how nice!!!”
“[A]t least ONE of them should be black.”
“Where are the Black people that this industry continuously appropriates?”
“I’m curious which other potential judges were considered...anyone to represent other hues?”
Chen defended the panel—while simultaneously deflecting from its lack of diversity—responding: “when you look at the lineup of [finalists] that the judges choose, i think there’s a beautiful rainbow of hues and backgrounds.”
That “beautiful rainbow of hues” would ultimately include what appear to be only two designers of color (including former CFDA nominee Jean-Raymond)—and no women of color among this year’s 10 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund contenders, making it even harder to ignore that literally no seats at the table were given to black or brown people on this highly influential panel.
This is the type of everyday practice that prompted a groundbreaking survey by Lindsay Peoples Wagner, fashion editor of The Cut, of “100 black individuals, from assistants to executives, stylists, celebrities, models, and everyone in between” on what it’s really like to be a black person within the fashion industry, and the marginalization, microaggressions and outright racism we experience on a daily basis. As Wagner wrote:
[B]ehind the scenes, on sets for magazine covers, in castings for runways, and on the teams chosen to create multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, black people are rarely to be found in positions of power. There have never been more than one or two black editors-in-chief of any major U.S. magazines, and only one black designer leading a major American fashion brand. And, up until this month, no black photographer had ever shot the cover of Vogue. Only 15 of the 495 CFDA members are black, and only ten black designers have ever won a CFDA or CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. One of the most popular and financially successful black designers, Tracy Reese, has never received a single nod. Less than 10 percent of the 146 fashion designers who showed at the major fall 2018 shows for New York Fashion Week were black, and only 1,173 black models out of 7,608 model castings walked.
Well-known names like Tracee Ellis Ross, Tyra Banks, Virgil Abloh, celebrity stylist Law Roach and many more contributed candid testimonials about their experiences, while several others responded anonymously or not at all, out of fear. Among the revelations? Black models lamented being at the mercy of colorism, and stylists untrained to do their hair, while many black stylists recounted only being hired to do black clients, pigeonholing their careers. Still others discussed being the “right kind of black,” citing incidences of sizeism. And then, there is the intersection of race and gender, and the “mean girls” culture that can proliferate when creatives are given the clear message that there’s only room for one.
And in a season where an unprecedented 30 percent of the fall fashion issues feature black women and other women of color, the biggest fear is that it’s simply a fleeting moment. A sampling of the respondents, in their own words:
When I entered the upper echelon of the model industry, I witnessed a disturbing trend. In addition to the seasonal change in fashions, people of color also went in and out of fashion. ... There was never a “white model” season — that was always the default, the given, the norm, while us girls of color were transient exotic spices to sprinkle onto the runway when we were in style. Race is not a trend. My skin is not a trend. My body, my booty — not a fashion trend. —Tyra Banks, supermodel/mogul
We are constantly tapped for our style, essence, swag, and being. It’s an act of racism to not want to engage in a conversation with a group of people who you look to for inspiration all the time. ... —Julee Wilson, fashion and beauty director, Essence
You feel like you constantly have to prove that you are qualified to be in the room. It’s so disrespectful. —Lacy Redway, celebrity hairstylist
When you’re working your way up the ranks and building your résumé, you want to think that the other black women around you support you and want to see you win. But it’s a mean girls clique. You crave community, and want to bond over the crazy things people say to us. But once we do black-girl-magic it up, we have a hard time being happy for other women of color. It shattered me when I got jobs and black women were not happy for me. —Anonymous
It’s hard to believe that we still often use the phrase “first black woman to …” —Eniola Abioro, model
2015 was a turning point for me — being inundated with news and imagery of black bodies slaughtered in the streets, killed by police, in choke holds. I was an activist before I was a designer, and these events took me right back to the roots of why I started working in fashion. But when we titled our show ‘Black Lives Matter’ in 2015, I became a pariah for a good 6 to 12 months, and no one in the industry really wanted anything to do with me. ... Speaking about race was really taboo. —Kerby Jean-Raymond, designer
I often come back to this Michelle Obama quote; she said, “So many of us have gotten ourselves at the table, but we’re still too grateful to be at the table to really shake it up.” And it is so true! You can be in a room, and it’s like, do I say something? Am I going to look like I am campaigning for us? But, my whole philosophy is, if I don’t who will. —Antoine Phillips, senior director, global communications and celebrity, Coach
Things would change if more prominent black actresses or actors would use black creatives. ... In this industry, the people who have the power to change somebody’s life, change somebody’s career, they need to do that. They need to give those opportunities to people who need it. —Law Roach, stylist
There are those subtle bigoted moments that we let slide in order to keep our white counterpart feeling comfortable. No one wants to be perceived as the “angry black person” as you’re trying to get ahead. Nor do you want to feel like the dancing minstrel. But then there are those overtly racist moments. You start to question your dignity, asking yourself how much of myself can I compromise when it comes to my pride and identity as a black individual? I am now in a headspace where the answer is none. ...
Anti-blackness is built into the ethos of this country. ... When you think about the black body in America and the timeline of our existence here, you realize that it’s only been about 100 years that our humanity is vaguely recognized. Our history in America is riddled with violence. So, the simple idea of compensating us in the same way our white counterpart is compensated, in fashion or in any industry — that’s a little bit of a stretch. The context of the conversation should be one of social reform where black people get to experience true liberation in the exact way the white American gets to experience their freedom. Our time is now. —Ethan Miller, agent, IMG Models NY