There’s a lot of talk about who earns the aim of a street style photographer’s lens during Fashion Month, and, often it seems, those people aren’t women of color. But this season, there was one particular image from Paris Fashion Week that made the rounds on multiple websites and on Instagram — and had major impact. The picture was of a Black woman, Melody Trend, wearing a black sweatshirt printed with the words “ghetto until proven fashionable;” she styled the top with a green fur coat, hunter green sweatpants, and extra-large hoop earrings. The photo went viral — even appearing in Phil Oh’s gallery for Vogue — and the item sold out immediately.
Twenty five-year-old Nareasha Willis, who created the sweatshirt, wrote on Instagram she was “literally in tears” at how well the item was received. “I just told my friend that I didn’t believe ‘Black Vogue’ [Willis’ “campaign to promote diversity on and off the runway] would ever be featured in @voguemagazine because it’s too controversial because of its name itself, and the message behind the brand,” she shared. “And, boom ? Black Vogue featured on a platform where I felt as though they didn’t give our culture enough credit.”
Though Willis always looked to Vogue growing up, she didn’t feel like the pages of the fashion publication recognized her beauty. “I didn’t really see a lot of women who looked like me,” she tells Refinery29. “We have our legends — Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Tyra Banks,” but their appearances within the magazine were so infrequent that Willis felt like she would never have a shot at the cover. So she set out to create images she wished to see. “For so long, I felt excluded from the fashion industry, so I decided to just create our own,” she adds. Enter: Black Vogue, a initiative meant “to reassure every Brown girl and boy that our culture is appropriate and influential in the fashion industry.” On her site, she writes: “As Black millennials, we have the power to generate trends and new platforms. From embracing dark skinned women to supporting Black-owned businesses, we are living in a time where a shift is commencing in the Black community.” Of course, the movement offers its own branded merchandise, including the sweatshirt that took Fashion Month by storm.
“I'm using fashion to make a social change,” Willis says. She notes that she isn’t fixated on celebrities wearing her pieces, that it’s more about the everyday people who have the power to shift the standards of beauty. And clothing is a good way to get the conversation going. “Sometimes when you just start off with activism, people ignore you or they get bored with it or feel like it's too aggressive,” she explains. But a sweatshirt? “It’s a fun way to gain awareness. You’re going to know I’m woke and I look bomb doing it.”