Fashionistas Protest Fashion Week

There's been a lot of Sturm und Drang lately about the underrepresentation of black folks in the industry, including a silent protest on opening day. But inside the tents, it was a different story. Is change afoot?

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Terrence Jennings

The big scream during the past few years, when it comes to models -- and weeks, when it comes to editorial leaders -- has been about the lack of diversity in the world of fashion. Prompted by the recent hire of a white woman as fashion director of Essence magazine, there's been a lot of discussion about what it means to be fairly represented in the media, and specifically what role(s) black folks can have in the fashion industry.

Basically, the discussion in the fashion world and beyond has been about clarification. What is our role in fashion? Do we have a legitimate seat at the table? A frequent question of late -- asked by fashion icon Iman -- is, "In the age of Obama, why are we still talking about this?"

Well, on the first day of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's Spring/Summer 2011 presentation, the conversation took a different, hushed tone. A group of a few more than a dozen anonymous, 20-something black women dressed in black and wearing black sunglasses marched from Time Inc.'s headquarters (home to Essence magazine) near Radio City Music Hall to Lincoln Center, Fashion Week's new digs. Completely silent, the women carried signs that read, "I am a fashion director," "I am Susan Taylor," "I am Ionia Dunn Lee," "I am Kevin Stewart," "I am Pamela Macklin," "I am Agnes Cammock" -- all names of African Americans who have served in the fashion director role at Essence during its 40-year history. (Also included was my own name; I served as fashion director there during the '90s.)

"These young women are celebrating the people who led the way for black women everywhere," said former Essence fashion editor Michaela angela Davis, who has been quite outspoken about Essence's new fashion director, Ellianna Placas. According to Davis, there has been a growing concern about whether the door will stay open for black women -- and men -- working in fashion. Right now, among this country's major magazines, there are no black fashion directors.

On opening day of Fashion Week, however, there seemed to be no lack of black industry talent milling about under the Lincoln Center tents. Apart from the usual fashionista hangers-on who didn't seem to be getting past the guards this go-round, there were dozens of credentialed black professionals attending shows, taking pictures and reporting -- a dramatic increase from previous years. In short, black bloggers are here in full effect. Clearly, the blogosphere is having an egalitarian effect at this invitation-only event once reserved exclusively for retailers and fashion editors working at magazines and newspapers.

Certainly, at Hardison's party, there were plenty of black models on hand. Held at the Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District, the party was largely populated by the bold, best and beautiful among black people in the fashion world, once again defying the notion that fashion has no black presence. There were the well-heeled fashion elite -- and a few overdressed wannabes. Some of the insider boldface names in attendance were model Sessilee Lopez; model Selita Ebanks; stylist and former fashion director of Vibe magazine Memsor Kamarake; IMG model agent Kyle Hagler; Inside Edition senior producer Kevin Harry; veteran stylist and editor Stephon Campbell; CAA booking agent Ryan Tarpley; model-turned-fashion designer Lois Samuels of The Vessel by Lois; veteran fashion designer Byron Lars; media personality Bevy Smith; hairstylist and creator of Hair Rules! products Anthony Dickey; plus many more models and celebs, from Ice T to Russell Simmons, from Tyson Beckford to hip-hop mogul Andre Harrell and beauty maven Keisha Whitaker.

It's anyone's guess what Fashion Week will yield businesswise in terms of the ground that black folks gain in the rarefied world of fashion. But if Day 1 is any indication of the future, there is no doubt that there is an electric awareness coursing through the black fashion community that insists we be recognized, included and, when appropriate, celebrated for what we have accomplished.

Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She has also served as the editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine, the founding editorial director of Uptown magazine and the fashion editor of Essence magazine.

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