On Friday, February 15, in a room full of some of fashion’s most influential and aspirational people, Harlem’s Fashion Row founder Brandice Daniel delivered a bleak statistic: Less than 1% of designers sold in major department stores are of color. However, even in that moment, change was already afoot, thanks in large part to Google, who teamed up with Harlem’s Fashion Row for its first ever HFR x Google Fashion Summit.
The event, which brought together black fashion designers, content creators, influencers, business owners, tech gurus and thought leaders for a day of panel discussions and networking, ended New York Fashion Week on a positive and progressive note. As part of a new diversity initiative that seeks to get more people of color a seat at the table in the industry, Google fostered an environment where those who aspire to excel in the fashion business were able to directly connect with fashion’s elite.
“It takes a village to make some of the things that we want to have happen for us in fashion happen,” Daniel said. “I have lots of dreams. One of my dreams was to do a fashion summit. I felt like we needed to bring some of the most influential and dynamic thought leaders in this industry to have real conversation about how do we push this industry forward—how do we push diversity forward in this industry?”
The room was full of stylishly decked out attendees—some of them designers showing off their own work. Fashionistas milled about, joining in important conversations and gaining invaluable knowledge from industry titans like Claire Sulmers (Fashion Bomb Daily), celebrity stylist Zerina Akers (who styles Beyoncé), designer Mimi Plange, IMG Models agent Ethan Miller, and more over the course of a full day of panel discussions and fellowship over food and the fashion business.
Kicking off the day of events was “Building Impact and Influence in the Digital World,” a panel moderated by industry veteran Harriet Cole, with Shawn Howell of Saks Off 5th, Claire Sulmers, and Alexis Bennett, e-commerce editor of InStyle magazine. Howell offered much-needed insight into how big brands in fashion are changing the in-store shopping experience with new layouts, while also bridging the in-store experience with e-retailing. Bennett further explored the impact of e-commerce as she revealed brands are still learning how to incorporate it into the editorial world, discussing how she makes e-commerce and editorial work together as only the second editor at InStyle to hold her position. And for the Instagram addicts in the crowd, Sulmers dropped gems on how to work around the platform’s new algorithm and use social media for exposure.
“For entrepreneurs, if Instagram is not your main outlet, diversify as much as possible. We started with events, we started with e-commerce,” said Sulmers. “We just started doing so many different things, videos, podcasts; try to find different ways to access your audience. The goal is your audience so don’t rely on [one platform]. You just never know.”
Sulmers added that she has an organic relationship with many of the designers in her marketplace, some of whom started out as advertisers simply selling pieces that she likes. Following the panel, Sulmers connected with designers aspiring to get their pieces on her shop, giving advice on how they can maximize their appeal to her and other e-commerce shops.
Other panels detailed how to score brand partnerships—including what major retailers like Macy’s look for when they work with influencers, how other giants in the industry made it, and how Google builds increasingly inclusive products. Google’s panel included its head of equity engineering Dema Rodriquez, global brand evangelist Annie Jean Baptiste, and Erika Munroe, head of strategy and operations-diversity, equity and inclusion. Luxury brand lead David Dipenti moderated the discussion, where the panelists kept it real about how they address Google’s diversity initiatives, in office and the communities they wish to reach.
“The whole point of [my] team is to ensure that we bring an inclusive lens to the product design process,” Baptiste said. “Historically, when we’ve talked about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, we really focused around culture and representation, and we want to really expand that notion to include products as well.”
“Google builds products for billions of users all over the world who may not look at or think or think like the products teams are necessarily building currently so it really is important to us that we’re being intentional about bringing diverse perspective to the table at those key points in the product design process,” she added.
For the typical Google users, what that means is more diverse Google searches and more culturally relatable initiatives like the HFR x Google Fashion Summit. In fact, the panel got so real that Rodriquez and Munroe even repped their sororities—AKA and Delta Sigma Theta, respectively—and the audience went ham (because when sorors find each other it obviously becomes a love fest). And when Munroe mentioned she is a Hampton University alumna (like the writer of this post, ahem), folks from Howard of course piped up, turning into an HU vs HU moment. For a moment, it was kind of like a scene out of School Daze... but at Google. Google.
Obviously, above all else, we had fun. But back to fashion, which is why we were all there: the final HFR x Google panel of the day discussed what’s next in fashion.
Hint: It was all of us in the room.
“Everyone in this room was selected to be here for a reason, so if you’re here you want to make sure that you network with the people not just on the stage but in the room. The other thing I want you to know is we want you guys to ask as many questions as possible,” Daniel said. “I want to make sure everyone leaves out of here inspired, encouraged, motivated to do something new and with a new thought that you might not have had before you came here.”
The best part of a day spent with Harlem’s Fashion Row and Google? (No, it wasn’t the cafeteria.) Everyone on the day’s panels were accessible, and easy to find and connect with online, so even if you weren’t there, feel free to visit Harlem Fashion Row for more information. As Daniel has been proving for over a decade, it’s all about getting the knowledge and paying it forward—so we all can win.