Where Are the Women of Color in Fashion?

Fashion’s feminist awakening appears to have forgotten a massive demographic

The recent appointments of Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, while exciting, have highlighted the fact that women in positions of power at major fashion houses are few and far between. After all, Waight Keller and Chiuri are both the first women to be appointed creative directors at both French brands.

While these hirings signify a feminist awakening in the industry, it’s key to note that the women rising through the ranks of fashion design are mostly—if not only—white women. Inevitably, one question comes to mind: Where are the women of color?

Fashion is an industry that mostly targets women, yet as we noted last July, women have been historically excluded from top positions at fashion houses, resulting in a field dominated by males. Now, we have, to name a few, the newly appointed Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé, Phoebe Philo at Céline, Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, and Bouchra Jarrar, who just left her post at Lanvin. But in its entirety, our story did not include any women of color—that is, a woman who is not white or of European parentage. And that wasn’t an editorial error.

“I think that is a reflection of the higher echelons of fashion,” said Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant at the Museum at FIT, who, along with Ariele Elia, coordinator of the MFA Fashion Design program at FIT, was behind the exhibition Black Fashion Designers.

Designers of color—both male and female—have largely been left out of the fashion narrative altogether, said Way, as evidenced by their scarce presence in the fashion landscape. This results in less than one percent of the global fashion industry profit entering the pockets of designers of color, according to Harlem’s Fashion Row.

“This is in all aspects of the fashion industry. There’s some gatekeeping involved,” said Kimberly Jenkins, a professor at Parsons the New School for Design. “There are people who are higher up who want to keep people there who look like them.” This is a direct reflection of white male dominance in fashion’s executive positions. The 2016 Business of Fashion 500 list included 58 white males in a total of 83 executives.

This is not to say that designers of color have never risen to important positions in the industry. Yet, their mark on fashion history is often forgotten. In the ’70s, there was Stephen Burrows, who participated in the legendary Battle of Versailles alongside his white male colleagues, Oscar de la Renta, Halston, and Bill Blass, and one white female, Anne Klein. Yet, Halston, Klein, and Blass—white Americans—and de la Renta, a white Dominican, rose to the top of the fashion narrative, while Burrows was overshadowed. Today, white males continue to dominate the fashion landscape, while men of color occupy scarce spaces at top fashion houses.

For women of color, the numbers are much lower, yet they have launched their own labels to make a name for themselves. Take, for example, Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs, co-founders of Cushnie et Ochs; Tracy Reese, who helms her own line; Anna Sui, who has become a New York fashion icon; and LVMH Prize winner Grace Wales Bonner.

“The entry into these tiny spaces largely depends upon connections. It takes a particular level of savvy to be introduced to, or associated with the key individuals who can provide the crucial visibility and recognition one needs to make it to ‘the next level,’” said Jenkins.  “Many of the most widely recognized people of color in fashion took advantage of a powerful non- POC’s willingness to push open the door for them, because, more often than not, the climb to the top of fashion’s (traditional) triangular power structure would be daunting.”

Since 2014, only two women of color—Aurora James of Brother Vellies and Laura Kim of Monse and Oscar de la Renta—have been nominated for CFDA Fashion Awards. Meanwhile, the above-mentioned Business of Fashion 500 list only included eight female designers of color out of 121 designers, and only three women of color were shortlisted for the 2017 LVMH Prize.

“Unless you have the social capital or just the actual financial capital to break into those spaces, you are going to have a very hard time getting there,” said Jenkins.

This is especially noticeable when looking at the number of students of color graduating fashion institutions versus the lack of designers of color at the top. According to FIT’s website, students of color make up 41.4 percent of the school’s demographic, while 45 percent of the students are white. At Parsons, students of color making up 51.6 percent of the demographic, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. For female students, the numbers are also much higher than is reflected in fashion houses, with females making up 85 percent of the student population at FIT.

“Graduating designers of color either need that crucial break from someone influential to scale the fashion hierarchy, or the boldness and savvy to circumvent the status quo and build a fashion system that works for them,” said Jenkins.

White women have been able to break into those spaces since the late 19th century, as evidenced by the iconic status of Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin. It seems high time for women of color to have an opportunity to do the same, but it appears that fashion’s feminist movement has, once again, forgotten that women of color deserve a space, too.

As much as numbers and conversation serve as a wake-up call, according to Jenkins, the industry won’t change until action is taken by the whole industry, not just people of color. “Often times, for people of color, there is so much at stake and it’s hard to break in, and then you don’t want to ruffle any feathers or lose your own position by making waves,” she said. “It’s going to take the whole village, really, to all stand up.”

The question still remains: Will a woman of color soon be appointed to direct a fashion house? “Maybe,” said Jenkins. She acknowledges that the recent snowball effect of women rising through the ranks of fashion design has awoken the industry, but she is still unsure if it’s ready to see a woman of color take the helm at a storied brand.

Recent news offers some hope. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nominated a record of four black designers this year, while the newly added members of the CFDA are a diverse bunch that includes Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, Monse’s Laura Kim, and Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond.

Still, while the fashion industry continues to claim its “wokeness,” it’s important for every member of the industry to practice what they preach. This includes hiring more diverse employees to entry-level positions and looking for talented individuals outside of fashion’s inner circles.

As Zac Posen said during Fashion Culture Design’s panel, “Creativity in the age of Trump,” “Declaration of conscience is wonderful, but we need to get beyond that point. You can’t say you believe in something and not attempt to follow through.”

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