Fashion has a diversity problem. This is not a secret. White men dominate the top creative and executive spots, and while women are finally getting appointed to major design roles (think Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy and Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior), women of color are noticeably absent from the landscape.
This fact loomed large on the Public rooftop last Wednesday, when designer Brandon Maxwell threw a party to celebrate his friend Aurora James’ CFDA Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent nomination for her accessories brand, Brother Vellies.
James’ nomination is much deserved. Since launching Brother Vellies in 2013, she has not only built a thriving brand of covetable, exquisitely made accessories that’s beloved by everyone from New York cool kids to Beyoncé, but she has helped create jobs for African artisans by producing her handmade shoes and accessories in workshops in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco.
When I told Maxwell, who won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear in 2016, that I was delighted to attend but that Fashion Unfiltered no longer covers events, he grabbed my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “This isn’t about an ‘event.’ Aurora is the only female designer of color to be nominated for a CFDA Award this year, and we need to talk about it.” Admittedly, as a white woman who’s been immersed in this industry for over a decade, that didn’t even cross my mind. And that’s precisely the problem.
This year, the nominee list includes three designers of color: James, for the abovementioned Swarovski Award, Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond for the same accolade, and Virgil Abloh for both Womenswear and Menswear Designer of the Year. Naomi Campbell and British Vogue’s Edward Enninful are also being recognized with the Fashion Icon Award and the Media Award in honor of Eugenia Sheppard, respectively. That’s a step up from last year, when Abloh was the only Black designer nominated, and 2016, when Public School’s Maxwell Osborne was the only African-American designer in the running. After Osborne won the Menswear Award with his co-designer, Dao-Yi Chow, back in 2014, he told the New York Times that he was “the first designer of color on stage accepting this award since Sean Combs won it in 2004 for Sean John.”
“I feel good about my nomination,” said James during the party. “But I think, even if you look beyond this year, what Black women designers have ever been nominated for a CFDA Award in any category?” Not many. Carly Cushnie of Cushnie et Ochs was the most recent, nominated for the Swarovski Award for Womenswear back in 2012.
When asked what Black female designers she was excited about, James cited “the women in our workshops, because they’re the ones who inspire me and have to crush it so hard.” That’s a heartwarming response, but, as Maxwell pointed out, “What’s interesting about this conversation is we’re coming up short on names, and it’s not because Black female designers don’t exist. Go to any graduate program and you’ll find a [very diverse student body].”
So what’s the problem? James echoed a statement that Parsons professor Kimberly Jenkin made to FU last year when she was interviewed about this very topic—the issue is that there’s a huge barrier to entry. “Out of the gate, people usually start in fashion by interning, and there are not a lot of people who can afford to come to New York and intern all summer without pay,” James said. “I think also, Black women have a hard time getting access to capital, so it’s hard to grow and fund a business in fashion.” When asked if she felt we were making strides toward change, James replied with a blunt “no.” But she does think change is possible, suggesting that people in positions of power must remain conscious of fashion’s diversity problem and not simply hire friends of friends, a common practice at magazines, design studios, and PR firms.
For his part, Maxwell thinks James’ nomination is an important step. “The images that we see matter and the choices that we make matter,” he said. “My CFDA Award meant a lot to me because I remember being a young, gay person and turning on the Today Show and seeing that blue dress that Princess Diana wore when she went to the CFDA Awards [in 1995]. If a little girl sees Aurora there, she will see herself there, and that fucking matters. We can talk about change or we can be change.”
The 2018 CFDA Awards will be held at the Brooklyn Museum on June 4th