Blanc's editor in chief and family, dressed in Gucci, at their annual BBQ.

An image from “The Stories of Us,” Blanc magazine, summer 2019, taken at the annual family barbecue … [+] of editor in chief Teneshia Carr. Models and family members, including, Carr’s mother, right, wear Gucci.

ACE AMIR, BLANC

For an industry that claims to be in the thrall of beauty, the jarring inequalities of the $2.5 trillion fashion ecosystem aren’t very pretty.

The path to success for Black creatives is beset with obstacles, disadvantages, setbacks, disappointment and compromise as a result of the well-documented systemic racism and unconscious bias in fashion industry institutions and businesses.

Black designers and fashion editors jockey for equal footing with their peers, but often lack the networks and connections that could help open doors to jobs. When they’re ready to step out on their own, funding, showroom representation and wholesale distribution can be a trial.

With fewer industry role models in positions of power and influence and, historically, less representation in fashion magazines, envisioning a future in the industry has required imagination, a single-minded focus and resolute confidence.

The Black designers, makers and editors in this story, who are operating businesses with creativity, resourcefulness and grit, discussed their experiences.

Teneshia Carr was 15 years old when she picked up a copy of Vogue – she doesn’t remember where – and started leafing through it. Carr recalled that her developing aesthetic sensibility was attracted to the fashion stories, but she simultaneously felt put off by them.

“I realized it was giving me a horrible complex, but I read it with such fascination,” said Carr, editor in chief of Blanc, an independent magazine with fresh perspectives on fashion art and music. “The way Grace Coddington, [former creative director at large of Vogue] created editorials and those fabulous worlds…. I wanted to create a space where I could see myself. I could never see myself and people like me, my mother and my sister at places like Vogue or in advertising.”

Carr shrugged off concerns about Black representation in Vogue, and set her sights on its parent company when she finished college.

“Despite all of that, I applied to Conde Nast 200 times,” said Carr, who channeled her disappointment and anger into Blanc. “I created Blanc to be my Trojan horse. It was my way to be seen in a white world. It was a way for me to sell this idea, combined with my idea of inclusivity, back to the same people who would never see me.”

Carr opened Blanc’s door wide to talents of different races and models of a variety of ages, sizes and shapes.

“I don’t try to tick off boxes. When it’s Pride month, I don’t say, ‘Lets do something about Pride.’ I want to show the world how it actually is,” she said. “It’s all of us living the same lives, but with slightly different experiences, together. I think the world is primed to accept this as the new normal.”

“Making a token black issue is in itself racist,” Carr said. “‘We didn’t use Black people all year, but we’re going to put them all in one issue so they shut up about it.’ You have Beyonce on your cover, but you don’t get a gold star for having a black photographer shoot your cover when it’s your first black cover photographer.”

Now in its second year, a partnership with Gucci entails the Italian brand running ads in Blanc and making available collections for editorial use in stories. “Gucci is so supportive,” Carr said. “For one of my shoots, they gave me more looks than they’d given anyone. I took the clothing to South Philadelphia and shot it on my family.”

Carr confronted Gucci about its now infamous winter 2018 collection featuring a black turtleneck sweater-hat that resembled blackface. “I told them, ‘You don’t know me, but you hurt me. It’s just another way to show me that I’m not the norm and there’s something wrong with me. I’m sure it’s hard to eat shit and take that from a person you don’t know from a little baby magazine.’ They said, ‘What can we do to help you get your messaging out there?’”

“So many organizations have been taking money off Black bodies and Black culture,” Carr said. “The movement that’s happening now is powerful because we can have these conversations in the open. Why Black designers are struggling now is something we can talk about and tackle in the moment when the entire world is listening.”

Two edgy styles from Zaime New York.

Zaime New York is Zapora Williams’ new responsibly-sourced and ethically-produced collection

Zaime New York

“I don’t want to make it all about race,” said Zapora Williams, who launched Zaime New York in March, after 15 years of working at fashion firms. “There’s thousands of brands, but it does feel like it must more difficult for Black brands to get a seat at the table. That’s why a lot of Black-owned brands are doing direct-to-consumer.”

Williams decided to take the direct-to-consumer route herself with Zaime. “I’m filling orders as I get them and shipping them out,” she said. “When I created the brand I wanted some wholesale partnerships with retailers I always admired. I just feel completely invisible.

“I’ve pitched all of the major retailers,” Williams said, adding that Zaime is responsibly sourced and manufactured on demand with a turnaround of about 10 days. “A dear friend in the industry, who said she felt very moved by what’s happening with the Black Lives movement and racial inequality, sent a letter on my behalf to 70 buyers. We only got three responses, and one asked to be taken off my email list.”

When Williams attended an L.A. trade show before the COVID-19 pandemic, Zaime, the only black-owned brand among 200 labels, was relegated to the basement. “I didn’t get a lot of foot traffic. They thought my friend and I were sales reps.”

“We often get lumped into streetwear,” Williams said. “Black doesn’t automatically mean streetwear. I wanted to showcase Black women in a new light.”

At her last job, colleagues talked about exclusively using white models until the “whole diversity thing kicked in around 2017 and made Black models trendy. I asked why other ethnicities weren’t used, and they said because they couldn’t find anybody attractive enough.” 

Two models wearing Zaime's liquid-luxe, empowering styles.

Two looks from Zaime.

Zaime

Williams said it’s hard to scale the business with Black female-owned companies being underfunded. “The Fearless Fund said Black female entrepreneurs are the fastest-growing group, but got under 1% of venture capital funding,” she said.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the closest thing the industry has to a governing body—although it has no control of its member designers—has been under pressure to provide solutions to rid fashion of racism, as various factions splinter off. Recent initiatives announced by the CFDA include building an in-house employment program to place Black talent in fashion jobs, and mentorship and internship programs to find opportunities in fashion for Black students and recent graduates. A diversity and inclusion training program in the fall will launch for CFDA members. “As we create more opportunities for Black designers in fashion, we’re confident that fashion will transform and become the diverse and inclusive industry it needs to be,” the CFDA said.

The coronavirus pandemic has made achieving those goals more difficult. The global health crisis has decimated brick-and-mortar retail, as Ascena Retail, Neiman Marcus Group, Lord & Taylor and Brooks Brothers, among others, filed for bankruptcy protection, and consumers move further toward digital commerce.

“The labels people know and trust are popular in times of trouble,” said Teri Agins, author of Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities are Stealing the Spotlight From Fashion Designers. “And cheap. Forget race, let’s talk about economics – it’s huge. Fashion has always been a bad investment. You’re not going to get financing. They’re no infrastructure that’s going to nurture you. People need to understand the realities of the industry. We’re kind of beyond racism now.”

Agins predicted the end of mega-brands and a return to small businesses that cater to different tribes, posing fewer opportunities for new labels. “We’ll go back to small and discreet. People’s priorities are different – luxury resale and Rent the Runway. One or two designers will break through, but I have my doubts about there being any big businesses. This is an industry that’s changed. We don’t have a lot of independent restaurants because the overhead favors chains. The same is happening in the fashion business.”

Asked if high-profile Black designers such as Yeezy’s Kanye West and Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton men’s wear artistic director and Off White founder, have a responsibility to help fledgling talents, Agins said, “I would argue that neither Virgil nor Kanye has made it because they have no track record, no clout. Kanye is a celebrity, in same vein as Sean Combs and Russell Simmons. They’re wealthy people, who are able to underwrite their own businesses, like [The Row’s] Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen and Victoria Beckham.” 

“Kanye has been in business for five minutes and Virgil is an employee of LVMH,” Agins added. “This is a very complex business. I tell people who want to be designers, ‘Go work for somebody and learn, get the sources and resources, and get the experience, so when you’re ready to go out on your own, you’ll really be ready.’”

A model wears Hope for Flowers' maxi slip dress with colorful stripes and tiered fabric at the the hem.

A multi striped tiered maxi slip dress from Hope for Flowers by Tracy Reece

Hope for Flowers

“There’s a barrier to representation for designers of color,” said veteran designer Tracy Reese. “When I started my collection for the second time, in 1996 and 1997, we had a showroom in New York. I went to L.A. to find representation. It was challenging. I was able to get appointments, but when I came through the door, it was like, ‘Oh.’ I saw all the reps contemplating. Everyone was cordial, but I could tell they weren’t taking me very seriously.”

Reese was no newbie at the time—her designs were sold at Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue. “It wasn’t until I met with Terry Sahagan at TSS that it clicked,” she said. “She didn’t care what color I was. We had a connection. I was walking in with a track record and credentials. [The other reps] were seeing potential road blocks, and looking at me and wondering, ‘Will she be able to produce the orders?”

Reese said the bankruptcies of troubled retailers whose problems were exacerbated by COVID-19 are giving pause to surviving players, which will be more cautious and less willing to bring on new designers.

“Buyers are only interested in a store’s top 15 to 20 resources, and ears are shut to a lot of newness, unless someone in a position of power is pushing for it,” Reese said. “They have this tiny window of curiosity. Everybody is chasing after the same brands. They’re not training people to be merchants anymore. There’s not a lot of humanity or emotion. Everything is so high stakes and they’re in such terrible shape financially, that everything is a numbers game.”

“Here’s the thing,” she said. “Designers of color, if you want to reach a broad audience, you have to decide, are you going to design products that appeal to everyone, or just people of color? You should be representing everyone. What’s beautiful about America is we can have an incredible mix of cultures and creativity.”

Reese’s new collection, Hope for Flowers is designed for a diverse tapestry of consumers. Launched in her home town of Detroit, Hope’s message for the environment and society is that both need care and nurturing. The designer is weaving social and ecological practices into Hope’s sourcing and operations, and working with organizations such as Nest’s Makers United Project to foster an ecosystem of responsible, equitable fashion manufacturing in Detroit.

Reese said she was surprised when a top global e-commerce site with a sustainable initiative dismissed Hope for Flowers without any consideration.

“An assistant emailed and said they’re covered in this type of product,” Reese said. “We didn’t even get to have a conversation or speak to a buyer. I’m thinking, You’ve got fewer than 10 resources out of 1,000 under your sustainable umbrella. How can you tell us you’re covered without seeing the actual product? You don’t know why you’re getting the cold shoulder.”

A Hope for Flowers design with an oversize floral pattern.

Tracy Reese launched Hope for Flowers in her home town of Detroit.

Hope for Flowers

Reese wants Hope consumers to speak out and “use their power as consumers to be agents for positive change in the world.”

As a consumer, Reese hasn’t been immune from racial profiling, which occurred at Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus. “You get used to it, but you shouldn’t have to,” she said. “I make sure I look a certain way when I walk into a store, so I don’t have a problem. We’ve all had incidents that come with being Black.”

It was painful when Reese’s longtime wholesale account, Anthropologie, in June was accused of racially profiling Black shoppers. “When I spoke to them about it, they were doing a lot of soul searching,” she said. “They talked about doing racial sensitivity training and how they treat customers. I hope we’re going to have more conversations.

“I don’t see Anthropologie being any better or worse than other retailers,” Reese added. “The shock is that it seems like such an inviting place, so it’s more hurtful when you find that you’re unwanted. Everybody’s surprised when this is brought to light. We don’t get the chance to move through life in anyone else’s skin.”

“There’s always this line I have to tow,” said Seun Olubuodun, who in 2009 launched Duke & Winston, a Philadelphia-based brand for bulldog enthusiasts, built around his charismatic dog, Duke. “My customers are conservative. I had to tell my assistants, ‘Say you own the company at trunk shows.’ I’ve sent my assistant into stores and the reception was fine. When I went, it was totally different. If you want a consumer base beyond Black customers, you have to feel comfortable. There’s a huge discomfort because white allies don’t realize how subtle [racism] is.”

Seun Olubodun, founder of Duke & Winston, sitting on the stairs with his bulldog, Duke.

Seun Olubodun with Duke, the namesake of Duke & Winston.

Courtesy Duke & Winston

At the height of the business, Olubodun operated three stores in Philly. Urban Outfitters picked up the brand. Then, the rents shot up and Olubodun closed the stores. After regrouping, he relaunched in November. “In 10 years of business, I’ve learned a ton,” he said. “I talk to a lot of kids to give them some insight. It’s a little hard to talk about the business without seeming like I’m complaining. I’ve kind of been accepted, but I’ve noticed that when I try to make the brand more inclusive of my own people, there’s aways a backlash.”

Olubuodun met with investors and venture capitalists who liked the brand, but there was often a racial element to the discussions. “At a lot of these meetings, they try to ‘home boy’ you,” he said. “The meetings never really went well. I went into them with a chip on my shoulder because it was all wealthy white guys. You walk away feeling more confused and feeling angry.”

The, there were the micro-aggressions. “‘Oh, Duke & Winston is yours?’ ‘Where’s your team?’’’ Olubuodun said, “They’d test you and see if they could get under your skin. There’s an intimidation factor. I had to tone down my confidence level a little bit. I would see my peers get funding, without having a penny in revenue, just a concept.”

“African Americans drive $1.3 trillion in spending power,” said Brandon Allen, a founding partner in TXE, a Dallas-based VC firm that’s working with Olubuodun. “We are in many ways the creators of American culture. There’s no American culture without Black culture.”

“In the case of fashion, minority designers are creating streetwear and white-owned brands appropriate it,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of debate here, and a lot of it is fraught. In certain industries, you have to know certain people and there are structural impediments keeping people out. We have accelerators that help entrepreneurs. One of my hopes for the current atmosphere is that people will be more intentional and give resources to young designers likes Seun.” 

Bree Clarke has no interest in venture capital or investments and loans “of any kind. We’re frugal,” said Clarke, who with husband, Carlos, launched The Iman Project, a multi-pronged Dallas-based company that showcases Bree through live and virtual workshops, podcasts, a pop-up market, blog, event spaces, and more. “When we got together we slept in our car,” she said. “We moved into my Honda Accord, took showers at a 24/7 fitness club and changed our clothes at Target. I have a tattoo of a little house on wrist to remind of us of where we came from.”

Bree Clark, founder and creative director of The Iman Project, arranging vibrant floral bouquets.

Bree Clark, founder and creative director of The Iman Project, uses Open Table workshops to teach … [+] the art of flower arranging, and talk about tolerance.

The Iman Project

In the beginning, Clarke targeted the wedding industry, marrying the Lavender and Mint farmhouse tables she and Carlos built in their garage with her love of flowers. “The wedding industry is about one look,” she said. “They wanted my farmhouse tables, but they wouldn’t credit them. They wanted the tables, but didn’t want me. The event planner, a skinny white woman, was getting all the recognition.”

“When I started making the tables, I was excited that we were going to be part of a magazine,” Clarke said. “It was me wanting that recognition and wanting a seat at the table. I’d go to workshops and no one spoke to me. I’m a big, 200-pound woman with big curly hair. I was told, ‘Your name will get bigger than mine.’ I couldn’t find a group to be part of.”

“A lot of the Black creators and Black artists kept on sending their stuff. I said the credits weren’t enough,” said Clarke. “I took away my tables, but gained my power. I created my own lane, but made sure everyone was welcome.”

At Clarke’s On the Table, Workshops with a Purpose and virtual Bree Blooms workshops, participants are provided flowers and vases and to make arrangements. “We create a safe place for uncomfortable conversations about racism, diversity, equality and identity,” Clarke said.

The Little House Project’s Little House on Routh and Little House of Bishop Arts are small events spaces lovingly restored by the Clarkes. “We open in areas that are gentrified. We make sure there’s a place for Blacks. The uptown location is predominantly white and the house used to be slave quarters,” Clarke said of Routh. “I thought it would be cool to take something that had so much pain and bring some light to it.

“In 2020, it’s okay to, say, ‘racism’ and ‘race.’ Diversity and inclusion are the safe words,” said Clarke. “My workshops launched nationally. Now, it’s not a local message, I’m reaching people all over. I’m able to create with my hands and my heart, and I’m bettering the community and society.”