Reports that Essence magazine is hiring Ellianna Placas, a white woman, as fashion director have ignited a passionate response around the Web. Michaela angela Davis, a former fashion editor at the magazine, spoke out against the news on her Facebook page: "It's with a heavy heart I've learned that Essence magazine has engaged a white fashion director. … It's a dark day for me." The magazine's editor-in-chief, Angela Burt-Murray, has responded to the backlash.
Here, former Essence fashion editor Harriette Cole writes about how, even before she achieved the position, her ability to aspire to it had a profound influence on her career — and those of other black strivers in the fashion industry.
I remember when I first knew I wanted to be part of the world of fashion. I was a 12-year-old gangly girl in Baltimore. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be a model. Back then I was writing poetry and short stories and hiding them away in my closet. By age 14, I was strutting my stuff on runways at church, at school and in small local productions.
When I went to Howard University, I studied English and walked the runways at every major fashion event at school and in the District. I wrote fashion features for The Hilltop, my college newspaper. Upon graduation, I was invited to go to Europe to be a runway model. But I wanted to write more. Early on, I realized that the only subject I knew enough about to get people to pay me to write about was fashion.
I decided I would move to the Big Apple and become a fashion editor. To prepare, I created two internships at free D.C. newspapers, where I wrote fashion articles for one year with the intention of using those clips to get myself a job. I followed my mother's advice, remembering the people who had been kind to me and reaching out to all of them who worked at magazines in New York City to see if I could land an interview. I secured two. I was offered both jobs, though neither of them was in fashion. I accepted the position at Essence, as an assistant editor in the lifestyle department. I was excited even as I was disappointed. I felt I deserved a fashion job.
And so I incorporated fashion into my role. Everything I had learned up to that point about photo production, about hair and makeup and wardrobe, I brought to the table. We used to travel annually to different parts of the world, documenting the cultures of people of African descent. I remember one year I asked Iman if she would prepare a care package for me of makeup that I could use when we traveled to Zimbabwe to tell the stories of the dynamic leaders there at their 10th anniversary of emancipation. I planned to style the women — from their own closets — and do light hair and makeup. It was wonderful to honor these beautiful women by drawing upon all of my creative resources.
I loved my job, which by then was running that department. And then the unlikely happened. The venerable Ionia Dunn-Lee, who had occupied the fashion editor's seat at Essence for 17 years, left. And Susan Taylor, the editor-in-chief, invited me to fill the position. I pinched myself: "Really?!" After seven years, I was to step into a position that I had barely dared envision for myself.
During the five years that I ran the fashion department, not only was I able to celebrate black women's style, but I was also able to hire many other black women (and men) — though not everyone I hired was black — to help me produce those pages. I hired Michaela angela Davis, who brought her rock-and-roll sensibility to the table. I gave the late celebrity makeup artist Roxanna Floyd her first job at the magazine. (She went on to do makeup for more than 60 Essence covers.) I hired African-American fashion stylists, makeup artists, hairstylists and designers and have heard time and again that had it not been for Essence, they might not be where they are today.
Essence was a training ground for incredible black talent (one of very few open to us), and it was my privilege to be an integral part of nurturing many outstanding creative individuals. When I left in 1995, there were very few top black fashion editors at mainstream magazines. There was Constance C.R. White, who had been at WWD and then went to Elle and, afterward, The New York Times. (She is now at eBay.) There was Teri Agins at The Wall Street Journal, and Agnes Cammock at WWD (who years later filled my seat at Essence). Later, there was Pulitzer Prize-winning Robin Givhan at The Washington Post and Sydne Bolden at InStyle.
And then there was Andre Leon Talley, who, first at Ebony, then at WWD and currently at the bible of fashion publications, Vogue, has been a front-row editor at every fashion show in the world.
Still, even now, some 15 years after I left Essence, there are only a handful of black women or men in leadership positions at mainstream fashion books (the ones mentioned above and one or two others) — and not a single one, to my knowledge, is fashion director. Come September, the front rows of fashion shows will bear witness to how closed the industry remains to black talent.
Although there are certainly plenty of talented black female (and male) stylists out there who conceivably could have filled this role, none of them was chosen. Why? Only the folks inside the halls of Essence know. But the firestorm that has erupted keeps burning because it appears that our one rightful, branded seat has been given away. The good news is, Placas has an opportunity to bring on great black talent to flesh out her pages. I trust that she will.
Still, the hire continues to sting many hearts. I wonder how many young dreamers (like me when I was 12) won't dare aspire to that role, because it is no longer reserved for them. I wonder, too, what my career would look like if I hadn't been afforded that prized opportunity.
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.