It’s Fashion Week Again: Black & White Contrast Back In Season: The Never Ending Debate About Fashion’s BlackOut

New York fashion week has come again and as with all the globally recognized fashion weeks from London, to Paris, to Milan- it’s always the same old song with Black writers and publications speaking on fashion’s usual “Blackout“, where Black models are scarce and Black designer’s lack press; yet Black celebrities are ubiquitous and sought after for front row photo opps. and after party performances. I am one of the few I guess who is tired of reading these stories because it has become our danger of a single story as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie coined: “Show a people as 1 thing, as only 1 thing over & over again & that is what they become. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story…when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of  paradise…for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories, Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity…” 

In a recent interview with EBONY, current season Project Runway contestant Samantha Black admitted, “I have to make sure that when people look at my clothing or the way that it’s photographed… they don’t think automatically, ‘Oh my God, it’s a Black designer.” She elaborated, “I have to be very careful with my music selection for my fashion shows. I also have to be careful when I shoot my lookbooks.” Be careful, ‘Black’ means avoiding an “urban” soundtrack for shows. “Alexander Wang,” she gives an example, “he uses Black music artists all the time in his shows… He’ll use the most ratchet music, and it’s seen as fine and great, but if I did the same thing, I would be ridiculed.” Casting models for fashion shows and the lookbooks that get sent to editors for review consideration is also a delicate process. “I can’t have an all-Black cast of models,” she says…READ MORE    

I adamantly reject this single story about Blackness in fashion where we are always seeking White validation to show that we have arrived or at the very least just as good as our White counterparts. Runways and advertising campaigns are equally if not more lacking of Asian, Latinos and many other demographics, but for some reason that has not become their single story season after season. Vogue Italia for the first time ever featured an Asian model on its cover in January, and it didn’t get as much buzz on social media networks nor huge international press as their all Black issue, their Africa issues and every time Vogue has a Black person on its cover because it is usually Black people and Black media giving these things so much attention that the rest of the world picks up on it as our single story, while others just give “Kanye shrugs” and move on with matters that are truly beneficial in building their communities. It seems all a White designer needs to do these days to garner a tremendous amount of press, particularly from Black publications, is to walk all Black models down the runway to get heralded as “making a bold statement”; even though that is just as rare amongst Black designers who don’t get the press whether they do the same or stick with the status quo of few to no Black models. The type of self imposed prisons Blacks put themselves in in many aspects of life is utterly mind boggling; while the very same Black people when given the power to make the change that they say they want to see on their own runways and ad. campaigns choose not to for fear of being seen as “too Black”. You are Black whether you or the world likes it or not, and all the bleaching, cosmetic surgery and White validation in the world will never change that, so why can’t we throw fire to the rain and be the change we say we want to see? If White designers and design houses can unabashedly have all white everything, why can’t Black designers and design houses unabashedly have all black everything with the same glory and celebration of who they are? The real issue is that whilst White designers have no problem with who they are and being seen as being true to themselves in catering to their fellow Whites without black obligation; unfortunately too many Black designers have not arrived at that same sense of unabashed pride in self through craft. As Lauryn Hill said “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?..Come again“.

All I could think of when I hear Black designers and artists talking about not wanting to come off too Black is when Malcolm X said “Who taught you to hate yourself”  because I have often wondered who made up this rule that it is somehow career suicide for a Black designer or artist to cater to Black culture or a Black audience if they want to sell to those who are not Black? Whites have been catering to White culture and a White audience forever and that has never stopped Blacks from buying up all the Gucci, Fendi, Prada, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and “whitevers” that they can get their hands on. If according to Black publications and writers, Blacks are pretty much invisible during fashion week season after season then what do they have to lose by giving and showing more of their Blackness when we say that is what we want to see. Do we not realize how ridiculous our arguments have become when we push for Whites to have more black and Blacks to have less black? How can we speak and teach about inclusiveness when we have yet to embrace nor master that craft within and amongst our own institutions. We celebrate Black History month in America often leaving out most of the Black world outside of America. We talk about White mainstream publications exclusion of Black models, while most of our own Black publications rarely embrace Black models, designers and stories throughout the continent of Africa and her Diaspora beyond our very own shores.

The danger of this single story of the blackout in fashion is that it has become our only story season after season, taking press away from many of Black America and Global Africa’s best and brightest designers like Mimi Plangewho is one of the very few young fashion designers of any color to have had an exclusive shoe collaboration with Manolo Blahnik, which is one of the top world renowned luxury footwear companies. These stories take press away from the accomplishments of those who are doing their part to bring about change like Harlem’s Fashion Row and the new crop of global African models like Ataui Deng, Grace Bol, Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, Arlenis Sosa and many others who have been gracing global runways , advertising campaigns and the pages of mainstream White publications even when Black publications weren’t calling on them, let alone knowing who they are at all. This single story of  “fashion’s blackout” takes away from the press of celebrating the true global Black spirit during Black history month; whereby we have always made a way even when there has not been a way and soared beyond our wildest dreams with innovation and creativity as Sean P. Diddy Combs has done with the first ever Instagram fashion show in a day and age where social media is king.

Much like how the narrative of slavery has been taught to Black American children as their beginning and sometimes only contribution to America to irreparable psychological damages, whereby there has to be a Black history month to offset the danger of that single story being the only story; we must be more diligent and a little more creative in spending more time offsetting this idea of a “blackout in fashion” by highlighting our real achievements and accomplishments outside of seeking White validation. When London fashion week comes around let’s do better than recycling these same “fashion blackout” types of stories in counting how many Black models White designers use and let’s count and speak about how many new Nigerian designer fashion collections can now be found at luxury retailer Selfridges and others throughout Europe whom took the welcomed opportunity to broaden their horizons in discovering the new crop of designers at fashion weeks sprouting up throughout Africa, showing the global fashion world that Africa has arrived and that haute couture, luxury and ready to wear can be found outside of New York, London, Paris and Milan.

Why do we put the onus of inclusion on our White counterparts instead of taking personal responsibility within? Black people even take great pride in boasting about how the world copies everything we do and have from our voluptuous body parts, to our love of hair adornment, to our fashion style- so are we not the change we’ve been waiting for? Everywhere you go and look the faces of global style trendsetters are Black. From First Lady Michelle Obama, to Beyonce, to Rihanna to Kanye West etc., yet they are mostly wearing, collaborating with and shouting out  non-Black designers; so at what point do we call them out on taking some of the responsibility to this so called “fashion blackout”? At the end of the day we have to recognize that fashion is a business and we are the ones not taking care of business through cooperative economics. A Nielsen report this past September on “The State of the African-American Consumer,”  reported that Black Americans’ buying power could exceed $1 trillion by 2015, while the NAACP found that only 2 cents of every dollar a Black American spends is given to black-owned businesses.We have all been told all of our lives that you teach by example, so what example are we ourselves teaching and setting? As Italian fashion houses take it upon themselves in pride and patriotism to refurbish and beautify their major monuments and institutions in desperate need of repair in order for them to be kept and enjoyed by future generations; how are we giving back and preserving our own institutions globally in need of these same types of commitments in brand and foundation building for the future? No one can build a strong lasting house without setting a good foundation, so perhaps if we focus on setting that strong foundation, we will never have to worry about our house being built strong nor ever crumbling at its seams. It’s February- the month when Black America officially celebrates its Blackness, so as Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack once sang …Be Real Black for me… You deserve it, no validation necessary, so show up and show out unafraid without anxiety or repercussion to be you in full embrace of your Blackness and everything that it represents, from where and what you eat, who and what you wear, to how and when you speak and shout “I’m Black and I’m proud”. As we say at PGF (Product of Global Fusion) …Proudly African…Globally Relevant – we wear it, we live it, we speak it and we manifest it; therefore no one can deny it because all are welcomed!