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Symposium Review: “Black Fashion Designers”

Symposium Review: “Black Fashion Designers”

The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (New York), February 6, 2017.

Almost a week into Black History Month, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology hosted a fashion symposium to accompany the Museum’s current exhibition Black Fashion Designers (on view until May 16). The event was an important day-long exploration of and discussion about the intersections and contributions of black designers, dressing the racialized body, and conceptions of diversity and race in the fashion industry. As the symposium and exhibition emphasized, there remain large gaps within scholarship and mainstream discourse regarding the contributions and participation of people of color in fashion. Moreover, the discourses around the black designer continues to be stubbornly mired in racialized social and visual tropes. This rich one-day symposium sought to both cast light on and unravel these discourses, as well as to invite new contributions to this woefully underdeveloped field of scholarship.

The broad range of programming, which spanned both academia and “the industry,” included historical and contemporary analyses of blackness and fashion through scholarly presentations and interviews. Beginning to scratch the surface of this fraught, complex, and neglected subject, the symposium explored numerous themes such as performance and identity; cultural appropriation and visual/material representation; designers of color and designing for people of color; and the contributions and the various roles black men and women play in the field of fashion.

The discourses around the black designer continues to be stubbornly mired in racialized social and visual tropes. This rich one-day symposium sought to both cast light on and unravel these discourses.

In their respective presentations, the exhibition’s curators, Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way, each presented surveys of twentieth century black fashion designers and industry associations that were not represented in the canon of fashion history. Both presentations brought to light black designers such as Elizabeth Keckly, Ann Lowe, Arthur McGee, and Scott Barrie, among others, who have helped shape visual and material culture through design, as well as the institutions that were developed to support them, such as the Harlem Institute of Fashion. The presentations also reasserted a major theme of the exhibition, which reflects designers’ frustrations with their work being categorized as “black fashion,” while often their intent is to make clothing for all women.

Alphonso McClendon’s presentation on “Fashion and Jazz,” placed fashion and dress as a key performative tool for early jazz artists in the United States. However, even as African American jazz artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis grew in fame and esteem, they continued to face racial prejudice. McClendon argues that these artists actively dressed in clothing considered expensive and high fashion in order to “dress the part” and to visually represent their musical achievements and success. Self-adornment, in this case, was used as a way of revising the visual tropes of the black performer.

Using fashion as a performative tool for symbolically representing identity was also discussed in Dr. Victoria Rovine’s presentation, “Fashion in Africa and Beyond.” Rovine’s work focuses on trans-colonial exchange in the networks created by colonial rule in the African context in what she calls a “south-to-south” exchange. Specifically, she discussed the so-called “Ghana boy” tunic shirt, which was made of cotton and heavily embroidered with figurative imagery of modern city life—mixing fantasy and the exotic modernity of Bollywood films. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ghana was a major destination for both work and leisure, and Accra, its capital, was also influenced by trans-colonial exchanges with another former British colony: India. The “Ghana boy” shirt— with its representations of layered trans-colonial exchange and urbanity—therefore came to represent class and social achievements for Malian laborers who left the countryside for Ghanian cities. This presentation was an important inclusion to the day’s discussion. Rovine’s post-colonial exploration into the sartorial exchanges between Malian laborers and Ghanian popular culture through dress reminds us that the topic of black fashion manifests differently on the African continent, but remains distinctly tied to the performance of identity through symbolic adornment.

The conversation between Dr. Monica Miller and Eric Darnell Pitchard about the American designer Patrick Kelly explored the designer’s relationship to race, gender and his Southern roots. Kelly, who established his eponymous label in Paris incorporated racist iconography of the golliwog into his logo, which appeared on Patrick Kelly labels and shopping bags throughout Europe. Pitchard affirmed that Kelly’s concern with identity and self-representation was an attempted intervention to reclaim the image for his own revisionist purposes and to create counter-narratives about race and fashion. Interestingly, European customers were not alarmed by Kelly’s re-appropriation of racist visual tropes; however, the golliwog was deemed inappropriate for the American market. The re-appropriation of racist imagery of blackness in the context of a successful black designer re-affirms the ability of design to displace racialized discourses through the lens and experience of the maker.

Elena Romero’s interview with the legendary Harlem clothier, Dapper Dan, and Jeriana San Juan who is the costume designer for Netflix’s The Get Down discussed the matter of appropriation vs. accurate representation of early hip-hop fashion in contemporary visual culture. San Juan described her quest to accurately portray the emerging hip-hop musicians in the show and how her own experiences growing up in Miami in the Puerto Rican community informs her work as a costume designer. I thought it was quite interesting to have San Juan in the same conversation as Dapper Dan who owned a renowned boutique in Harlem and is credited with establishing the head-to-toe designer monogram look that was popular with rappers and hip-hop musicians in the 1990s. Dapper Dan explained how he started making custom clothing for his customers “organically” when he observed that with the rise of the popularity of the designer monogram in accessories by design houses such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci, he successfully surmised that if people were buying accessories heavily laden with monograms that they would want to wear the monograms from head-to-toe. Although Dapper Dan experienced push back from design houses that claimed he was infringing on their copyrights, there is an interesting dialectical turn of events where design houses then began re-appropriating the total monogram look made popular by Dapper Dan within the past decade or so.

June Ambrose in conversation with Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs of Cushnie et Ochs further explored the themes of “black fashion” through the lens of two designers who come from ethnically diverse backgrounds. As the major theme of the exhibition also asserts “black fashion” and/or the work of black fashion designers is not necessarily always a reflection of race, but the design and creative process necessarily includes a consideration of the experiences of race. Both Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs asserted that as women they are more conscious of designing for the female body regardless of its color, but that their individual experiences as people of diverse backgrounds informs their work.

Two important conversations about the participation of people of African American descent in the broader American fashion industry were focused on the media and modeling. Elizabeth Way’s conversation with Teri Agins, Dario Calmese, and Constance White explored how coming from racialized backgrounds informed their work as editors and critics of fashion. Fittingly, one of the most critical conversations about fashion and race closed the symposium. Ariele Elia’s conversation with the legendary model, modeling agent, and face of the Diversity Coalition, Bethann Hardison and her protégée Veronica Webb, explored the place of black models in fashion. Hardison, who is refreshingly frank and a staunch critic of the modeling industry explained how the lack of diversity in modeling reflects a systemic exclusion at numerous levels of the industry.

The exhibition and symposium asks the vital question, “What is black fashion?” Is it a reflection of the designers’ race and/or racialized experiences? Does it encompass designs with activist social and/or political messaging? Is it in the intent to design for people of color and/or ethnically diverse backgrounds? Or is it the establishment of styles and fashions that are considered “urban” or reflective of African American culture? All of these questions simplify how race and fashion actually interact through its cultural, economic, material and performative elements. The symposium and the exhibition successfully emphasize how broad and far-reaching this topic really is. The symposium worked to successfully reframe the conversation about fashion and race, filled in some of the many gaps in scholarship, while acting as a rallying call to researchers to continue further in this line of inquiry.

Luckily for all of us, the symposium was live-streamed and is available for viewing in its entirety here

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