Fashion is, at its core, one of the most immediate, obvious ways to represent who you are. It’s also one of the areas in which Black women and men have carved out space for themselves — things like the way we wear our pants and the way we do our hair are symbols of our culture, done by and made for our Black community. Popular culture has, of course, been influenced by Black culture, and the history of white creators co-opting Black creations for their own gain is well documented.
Take, for instance, the full-figured Black woman who wears cornrows and has been systematically punished for having those traits. When the Kardashian-Jenner clan emulates those same features, they become mass trends (and worse, the “Blackness” that was once used to vilify these styles gets erased and replaced).
As I’ve grown into myself as a creative Black-American woman, my style and fashion sense have become elemental — a form of expression that gives me life like nothing else, and connects me with people who see the world similarly. Fashion has long been a way for Black people to own their power in times when so little of it was provided by society and government. Indeed, it is much harder to police what someone wears on her body than it is to police bodies marching, protesting, and resisting. Race remains the most contentious issue in our lives today, its weight reflected on every part of us, including our clothing choices. Black designers, then, influence our culture at large when they make strides in fashion.
In her TEDx Talk, Maggie Anderson, activist, CEO and cofounder of The Empowerment Experiment, explains that one dollar will circulate within Black-owned businesses for a total of only six hours — meaning that there are so few Black-owned businesses that within half a day, a Black business owner will likely be required to make a transaction with a non-Black owned business in order to keep her own company running. Representation of Black people in the top tiers of the fashion industry is no less dismal. Those who have made it, who are still trying to make it, aren't just crafting manners of dress, they are working to change a system that has been in place for too long.
As racism in America persists, so does the fight against it. For some, finding alternative ways to be present in the world, and occupy unwelcoming spaces, has become the way to bear this out. Social media has been instrumental to this cause — forever altering the ways we speak out, network, and educate ourselves and our peers by connecting with fans and influencers in real-time. On Instagram, for example, I found that activism came in forms more creative than just graphic T-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” screen-printed across the chest. Without explicitly stating it, all Black fashion is activism — and it lives on accounts like Art Hoe Collective and The Very Black Project, which highlight creatives of color, as much as it does on the Pyer Moss runway. For many designers, supporting the current civil rights movement is a pressing, personal issue — and one that's also hard to define.
“When it comes to me and Black Lives Matter, yes, Black lives matter in my work, Black beauty matters in my work, Black stories matter in my work because that’s my experience in the world and it is simple as that,” designer Charles Harbison of the Harbison Collection told me, noting that the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement are inherently present in the work he (and designers like him) make, by virtue of their very presence in the industry.
Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss noted: “The biggest fear I had was that once you start speaking as an activist, people start trying to pigeonhole you to that." His fall/winter 2016 show was unmistakably political in its critique of American police brutality and the resulting fatalities. He does explain, however, that it is impossible to not embed his own reality into his creations: “For me, it’s like, what’s real for you? I’m not getting inspiration from things I’m not experiencing," he says. "I’ve done things in the past…I would make certain statements that I didn’t really relate to me and it felt more fake. [Now] I use my personal experiences and I use my personal stories to create art. I appreciate and stand by it more.”
The most counterintuitive aspect, though, is the expectation that a Black designer should be standing for and producing items that speak for an entire race. There is no one person or brand that should have to fully encompass the experience of all Black people, nor should any one Black designer's success negate the challenges that people of color still face trying to break into fashion. While, of course, all work by Black designers isn't specifically a statement about their Blackness, their very presence in the industry does make a statement about placing value on diversity. Whether selling Black Lives Matter T-shirts or crafting couture, they are there, claiming space and creating.
Racism hurts everyone — yes, even the majority — and so there’s room for anyone to contribute to the dismantling of it. One of the best things we can do to improve race relations and contribute to inclusivity is to increase representation. If we provide more diversity in visible or powerful positions, there is hope that attitudes toward people of color will become more accepting. And that means celebrating the differences in cultures and perspectives, without simultaneously viewing them as an “other,” or a specialty or alternative in a field — especially when that field is worth about $1.2 trillion globally, as the fashion industry is today.
To be Black is to shoulder many burdens we did not ask for. There are the Eurocentric beauty standards meant to keep you out of the ranks and the systems built around your expected failure, but there is also a centuries-old fire inside that bets on your survival (or — better yet — your success). Blackness is a thing that still needs defending and to be unapologetically shared with the world — and so clothing, self-expression, is activism. And that's how the industry will continue to be moved to a more inclusive place, with these designers embracing Black Lives Matter in their own ways: by designing, and mattering, and asserting their place and pride in their work, whether it's branded with a certain slogan demanding those things or not.