Is Fashion Really Moving Forward? (Part I)
A Conversation with Six Black Fashion Design Students
As the fashion industry embraces its long-overdue influx of diversity, we can’t help but raise the question: “Why aren’t there more designers of color, specifically black designers?” According to FIT enrollment data gathered in the Fall of 2016, a total of 853 students or only 9% of the FIT student body is black. This number decreases when looking solely at students majoring in fashion design. Black students represent a small portion of the population at FIT; these numbers can be compared to the small percentage representing black designers working in established fashion houses as well as the contemporary market.
A few articles have recently been published that mention exclusion and workplace suppression of black designers. An op-ed by The Business of Fashion, as told by Kibwe Chase-Marshall, discussed that the few black designers who have worked or work, in the industry, face discrimination when searching for opportunities and have kept quiet, afraid of unemployment. The UK’s Dazed Magazine posted an online article where Samuel Ross, designer and founder of A-COLD-WALL*, shared that he feels black parents are not as accepting of creative jobs.
By collaborating with six black fashion design students at FIT, we wished to showcase their talent and learn more about them. Blush Magazine Web Director Brinley Knopf and News & Culture Editor Turandot Yuan spoke with each designer to explore what design means to them, where their inspiration comes from and their thoughts on issues in the fashion industry today, including the use of cultural symbols on the runway and the lack of diversity among top designers.
John E. Bell @bohnjsellcollections
John is a 29-year-old originally from Nashville, TN. He studies Technical Design at FIT in the BS program. Last year, he received his Associates in Menswear and prior to that he co-founded womenswear brand Bohn Jsell Collections, inspired by the transitional style of New York career women. John’s love for fashion began at a young age as his mom and grandmother are both seamstresses. In high school, John worked in retail, sketched prom dresses for classmates, taught himself to sew, and began designing. Having showcased collections in NYFW, John continues to build his empire. You can find his collections on the e-commerce website Nineteenth Amendment.
Blush: What are the inspirations behind some of your collections?
John: I try to come from a positive space because fashion can be somewhat objectifying and can at times expose women in a way. I wanted to spin it and have consumers feel good about themselves and feel empowered in these garments. A recent one we did was pretty much based around traveling to Africa; it was called Solstice. It was about rebirth, a refreshing kind of thing. It’s always for someone with an attitude, someone that’s very direct with where they’re going.
B: Why do you think black designers don’t get enough recognition or are just starting to be recognized even though such talents have always been around?
J: Black designers do not get enough recognition mainly because we don’t have enough visibility in the industry. Speaking from personal experience, having to support my business solely without investors and established PR has been a bit challenging. However, with consistency, my hardworking business partner Kasha Reavis, and teamwork with friends, I plan to defy those odds.
B: Your lookbooks are modeled by a diverse roster of women. Do you feel like mainstream fashion today is doing enough to encourage inclusivity?
J: I feel like it’s definitely getting better nowadays, but it is long overdue. I think more people are going to do it, but I question the intent. Are you doing it because you really believe in the inclusivity of people? Or are you doing it because people say you should? I think it’s important to see everybody represented because they are the consumers, they’re the ones who are looking up to you.
B: Do you consider your designs to be political?
J: No, not at all. I think it’s crazy that people are always like, “Oh, this is a black designer.” What people fail to realize is that we are Americans and humans. We’re just like everybody else and not a separate group. I’m a designer and that is all I want people to know: that I create things for everyone.
Carly McBride @carlsscloset
Carly is a 19-year-old in her sophomore year as a Fashion Design major. She is originally from Freeport, NY. Carly found her passion when she chose a fashion design class in her middle school, followed it throughout high school, and then took pre-college courses at FIT to better her craft. She designs with inclusivity in mind and focuses on texture and intricate detailing.
B: I saw that a diverse roster of models are represented in your portfolio. Do you feel that mainstream fashion, right now, is doing enough to promote diversity and inclusiveness?
C: Recently, [mainstream fashion brands] have been doing a lot of diverse shoots. They are starting to do a good job promoting diversity and it seems like everybody is doing it. But I think also it’s kind of a token thing. It’s like, “Oh well, we’ll throw a black one in there.” So I feel like maybe they’re being forced to do it. I just hope later on they’ll want to continue to do it, and it won’t be on purpose.
B: How do you feel about the recent prevalence of cultural appropriation? In your opinion, how should the fashion industry approach multiculturalism?
C: Personally, with cultural appropriation, me being mixed, I don’t even know where I stand. Say I got braids, people not knowing my background would be like, “she’s not even black, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” For me, I look at [appropriation] differently because if I look at somebody and they’re wearing braids, I don’t know their background, so I don’t wanna judge them right away. I think people need to be more understanding nowadays. It’s not just your skin tone, it’s your background. I just watched a video of this girl, and she was mixed, and she was saying that she walks around not knowing who she is because there’s nobody to compare herself to. I feel like this goes hand in hand with people not understanding cultural appropriation.
B: People are just taking a lot of things by face value?
C: The fashion industry should learn about [cultures] before using them. Before you start actually using [a cultural symbol], research it and understand how it’s actually used and how you can use it in a respectful way that won’t be disrespectful to the community you’re getting inspiration from. Something or someone always inspires the fashion design process.
Rhandle Pedro @imworkingwhileyoutwerking
Yonkers native, Rhandle is a 19-year-old Fashion Design major in her second year. From a young age, she has had a passion for designing and sketching. With dedication and support from her parents, Rhandle vowed from the 6th grade that she would attend FIT. Many of her designs are influenced by architecture and nature.
Blush: When you design, do you have a specific person or muse in mind?
Rhandle: Because I’m a black woman and our struggles can be difficult sometimes, I always envision someone who looks like me in whatever I’m creating. I think that’s such an important aspect because sometimes you go to stores and you don’t feel represented.
B: What are some social and political issues you’re passionate about? And do you incorporate them into your designs?
R: I am adamant about Black Lives Matter and the current state of our government with Donald Trump being in office. I’m adamant on social justice and human rights. We’re all people and the fact that people are being mistreated or being killed, that’s a problem. It’s not a black issue, it’s our issue. We’re all human beings. Sometimes it feels like responsibility, that you have to [be political] all the time, but sometimes I just want to create something pretty. So it’s a mix. I definitely feel like I should… It’s more like, I want to share an issue, people need to understand this. At the same time, sometimes I just want to make a pretty dress.
B: Why do you think black designers aren’t recognized as much as other designers?
R: I think that plays along in any field. You don’t see as many black doctors or lawyers and that is because if you go back to slavery and Jim Crow, you were not set up to [succeed]. You had all these barriers in front of you; compared to other people, it’s going to be harder.
B: Do you feel like there could be a collective effort in the black community to better represent the designers and artists?
R: We can always do a better job. Sometimes when black designers get to a certain extent of success, their prices may go up. For example, when Tidal came out, I remember people were like, “Oh, no, that’s too expensive, we can’t do that! How dare he [Jay Z], Spotify is free.” But this is a black-owned app. Why would you not support that? People are being paid and represented the right way. You may have to spend a couple more dollars, but it’s for a good cause. I feel like that is a common thing we can do. You have to look at the big picture instead of yourself. You have to think of what this will do in the future, how this will impact people. I think once more people get that mindset, we can definitely get to a better direction and help people out; make sure they get on top and do the best they can.
B: In recent years, the student body of FIT has become more diverse, but the percentage of black students are still relatively low. Why don’t more black students come to fashion school?
R: People don’t know the process of getting into fashion school, including a portfolio. Until I came and found out the process, I would have never known myself. So I think it might be the school’s responsibility to go to more [high] schools and talk about the process of getting into fashion school. Colleges need to make sure to go to schools with more people who look like me.
Photographer Heather Leigh Cullum
Hair Stylist Melissa Papillon
Production Assistant Kayla Nicholson-Buckham
CLICK BELOW FOR PART II