Black Designers Have To Work Twice As Hard — & Are Still ‘Emerging’

Photo: Gonzalo Marroquin/Patrick McMullan.
As far as fashion goes, participating in the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund can be a pivotal moment in an emerging designer’s career. Winning the £300,000 prize and a year of mentorship from some of the industry’s biggest names has the power to change the trajectory of a brand, or even create one. It’s what brought us Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, and Public School. It isn’t often that outsiders are privy to the making of a fashion label, and the awards, which are live-streamed each November, offer an inside look into how winners were selected. Which is why a photo on Eva Chen’s Instagram last week showing this year’s panel of CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund judges was particularly telling.
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Seated at a long table were 10 judges with the future of the fashion industry in their hands: five women and five men; three were of Asian-descent, and all extremely fair-skin. From Anna Wintour to Diane von Furstenberg, the group is comprised of fashion veterans who are very much a part of Vogue’s insular world. But given the fact that streetwear is actively helping to reshape the fashion industry (see: Supreme’s James Jebbia, who was named menswear designer of the year at the 2018 CFDA Awards, Louis Vuitton appointing Virgil Abloh as men’s artistic director, and Gucci collaborating with Dapper Dan after being accused of copying one of his most famous designs), wouldn’t it make sense to compile a judging committee that is better connected to today's most relevant trends, most of which were created and/or popularised by black people?
That’s not to say real diversity only counts when it includes black people, but it does speak to a level of mindful inclusion that continues to elude us. Trends stemming from black culture are everywhere, and yet there remain so few black designers on the Fashion Week calendar. Even fewer are members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America; there are just 15 black designers on the CFDA’s membership roster of more than 500 people.
In an Instagram exchange, commenters pointed out the lack of diversity in Chen’s Instagram post. User @fennellalikewhoa pointed to these facts in a comment on the photo, asking: “Where are the black people that this industry continuously appropriates?” Another user, Rhian Jeong, wrote: “I’m curious which other potential judges were considered...anyone to represent other hues?”
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In response, Chen said: “When you look at the lineup of finalists that the judges choose, I think there’s a beautiful rainbow of hues and backgrounds.” Perhaps Chen misunderstood, as she focused on the finalists — which includes Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond, a Haitian man, and Luar’s Raul Lopez, who is Dominican — instead of the selection committee.
When we reached out to the CFDA and Vogue about the conversation on Chen’s Instagram post regarding the lack of diversity among the panelists, and how the group of judges is selected, Steven Kolb, the CFDA’s president and CEO, provided us with the following statement:
“The members of the Selection Committee are chosen for their leadership roles in fashion and the invaluable insights and resources they can provide to designers who are looking to make their mark in the industry,” he said. “The current Selection Committee is equally divided between men and women; three are of Asian descent.” Kolb added that “over the past three years, three out of the nine winners were designers of colour,” and that “the CFDA continues to do outreach across the country engaging regional fashion hubs and fashion weeks, and we are constantly striving for diversity and inclusion in all our programs.”
The winners of colour Kolb is referring to are Telfar Clemens of Telfar (2017), and Brother Vellies’ Aurora James and Gypsy Sport’s Rio Uribe, who won with a three-way tie in 2015. When pressed to clarify whether the CFDA recognises diversity beyond racial and gender identities (see: ability, size, socioeconomic background) — and if there has ever been a latinx or black judge involved with the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund — a representative for the organisation declined to comment further. The next morning, however, they followed up to note that black designer Patrick Robinson was a judge in 2007 when he was executive vice president of design for Gap and Gapbody. That was 11 years ago.
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Chen told Refinery29 she knows there is still serious work to be done in terms of representation across all industries, including fashion. “When we have wins and steps toward representation like we do with the immensely talented group of designers we have in this year’s Fashion Fund, those wins should be celebrated,” she explains. “Every step towards inclusion and representation is another voice heard and, hopefully, another young person inspired.”
While Chen makes a good point, the standards for non-white candidates selected to compete in the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund seem to be much higher.
Last year’s winner, Telfar Clemens, has been designing his namesake unisex label since 2005, earning exhibitions at the New Museum and putting on extremely innovative fashion shows. It took him 12 years to gain the attention of the CFDA and, even then, he still was considered an emerging designer, competing against brands Dyne (established in 2015), Sandy Liang (2015), and RTA (2013).
Similarly, Kirby Jean-Raymond, a finalist this year, took full ownership of his company, Pyer Moss, in 2017. During New York Fashion Week in February, Pyer Moss debuted its first collaboration with Reebok. He kicked off his career in 2013 when Rihanna wore one of his designs. When Jean-Raymond was 16 years old, he was working with Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig to start Marchesa. Like Clemens, his experience far exceeds that of an emerging designer.
It’s unclear what goes into the admission process beyond reviewing work experience, but Recho Omondi of New York-based label Omondi, who applied to this year’s fund, says it was hard for her to feel invested. “It’s difficult to feel disappointed because I have no idea what they based the candidates on,” she tells Refinery29. “There was no rubric or outline, so it feels somewhat arbitrary. It’s hard to feel invested because I didn’t meet my competitors or anyone for that matter.” All communication with the fund was done via email, she says. “I don’t even know how thoroughly they knew my brand or who I was; I’m not sure if they’ve ever read the press,” she continues. “I’m not sure if they’ve listened to my podcast. I don’t know if they’ve ever looked into my Instagram.”
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Omondi says she relies on the community she’s built to support her and champion her work as a designer. Had the powers that be selected her to participate in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, it would have shown the industry is ready to take some real risks. Omondi, a black woman, could have been a candidate that could have really pivoted the future of American fashion. She has a fresh perspective, the skill, and has already built a community and steady revenue. Perhaps like Clemens and Jean-Raymond, Vogue and the CFDA are waiting until Omondi is less of a gamble. But when both companies have the influence to shape what the fashion industry can look like (and ultimately decides who is even able to participate in fashion), maybe it’s time to stop playing it so safe.
It’s worth noting that Vogue has missed the mark, too, in terms of inclusivity. The news that Beyoncé was photographed for the September issue was also met with accolades that the magazine had (finally!) hired a black photographer to shoot its cover — a first in its 126-year history. That’s not including the cultural missteps the magazine often makes, including recently referring to Beyoncé’s hair as a “hip-length afro,” or suddenly naming Timberland boots a “fresh idea” because a supermodel wore them. When we reached out to Vogue for comment, a representative told Refinery29 that the magazine stood behind the CFDA’s statement on the issue.
But the statement was a missed opportunity for both Vogue and the CFDA. It’s 2018. It’s no secret fashion has a serious diversity issue. It would have been reassuring and commendable for the organisations to take ownership over their role in the lack of inclusivity in the fashion industry. Where are the plus designers? Where are the differently-abled designers? If the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund is really going to shape what’s next in fashion, it needs judges that have a variety of design backgrounds, professional experiences, and ethnicities — who, at the very least, would know not to insult brands like Telfar and Pyer Moss by calling them ‘emerging.’ Now that’s a mission that will strengthen the impact of American fashion in the global economy — and a mission that could actually make some real change. But if they can’t even add one black judge to their panel, then we’ve still got a long way to go.
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