There’s a lot going on in fashion when it comes to inclusion for Black creatives — there are the challenges of securing financing, issues tied to corporate America’s role in diversity, the risk of being pigeonholed as a Black creative, and grappling with ensuring ongoing support for Black-owned businesses.
At Fashion Group International’s “Rising Star Dialogues” event Tuesday, the aim was to unpack some of these issues.
The event was held in honor of Black History Month and featured Apotts’ Aaron Potts, Jerrimiah James’ Jerry Buckner, You Go Natural’s Monique Little, Nyakio Beauty’s and Thirteen Lune founder Nyakio Grieco and Epperson’s Rodney Epperson. Writer and author Constance White moderated the 75-minute discussion. All of the panelists have been recognized by FGI as Rising Stars.
As White noted, less than 1 percent of venture capital funding goes to Black-owned businesses and that could even be lower in the fashion industry, she said. As for whether the interest in Black-owned businesses will continue beyond the current moment, Potts, for one, has gone the way of self-funding, but is open to other funding and aims to create a legacy brand that is connected to Blackness, as Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly have.
In response to White’s question as to why there hasn’t been a Black luxury brand that is doing well since Smith or Kelly, Buckner said, “The problem with guilt and just doing enough for a particular group of people happens to be just enough to keep people quiet. That’s what the bigger issue is. There’s a problem with providing equal opportunity to everyone. Until the system is dismantled and we’re just looked at based on our talents, our gifts and our abilities, there will always be a lack of proper representation as it relates to all things, not just sustainability and fashion from a retail perspective but cosmetics, designers what have you — across all industries.”
Without adequate funding to go the standard manufacturing route, Little said starting her business required hiring local seamstresses and having them make the product to order. That has allowed her to provide opportunities to other people in the community who might not otherwise have been able to work outside of their homes. Now, with 30 to 40 employees working in a new facility in Texas, Little said many of them are being taught the skill of constructing garments.
“Even though it was a challenge for us, the ways in which we have created solutions have also added to the tapestry that we are building. That is a really beautiful thing,” she said.
Potts addressed “the resounding issue of funding,” but said the biggest obstacle was in his head. Having been a career designer at other companies before starting his own, he said, “I functioned so much on what the merchandising plan had to look like, what the salespeople said, the changing tide of what your boss said. I realized that when I started my own brand I had to divorce myself from that kind of thinking. The promise I made was that creativity would lead this brand.”
In the process of seeking funding, Little described the challenge of convincing investors who may not understand that the market for pre-tied head wraps exists, as it is “a fashion and function product that serves the needs of Black women.” After five years of being in business, people often don’t believe the numbers, she said. “It’s definitely a cultural disconnect.”
At times, there’s a disconnect on the sustainability side, too.
“There’s this idea that people who care about the planet and the impact fashion has on the planet don’t necessarily look like me…the images that I see are men or women, who are white or lighter in complexion,” Buckner said, noting that sustainability is not marketed to people of color, based on his research.
Having just finished a friends and family pre-seed raise in financing, Grieco is now dealing with the seed raise. While the world has changed since the Aughts, she said much of the language being used in the VC spectrum hasn’t changed.
“I’m still getting a lot of the same pushback. There’s still this need to hold onto this old paradigm. The VCs are at the helm and they look the opposite of me — white men, who were often funding other white men. Even with their dedicated diversity dollars that are meant to help to change the narrative and help to build generational wealth, those dollars are still being held onto pretty tightly,” Grieco said. “Fifty-one percent of babies are multicultural. In 2041, these babies are going to be adults and they’re going to look like us.”
Encouraged by the nontraditional thinking going on at some of the larger banks, family offices, smaller funds, women-led funds and syndicates comprised of Black or Brown people, Grieco said she was also hopeful about the financial literacy being taught in different communities. Little to no investment in Black-owned businesses will not work, since Black and Brown people have “incredible buying power specifically in beauty. Latinx, Latina, Black — we buy more beauty than anyone,” she said.
There appears to be a more concerted effort to hold corporations accountable and to support Black-owned businesses. The Black Dollar Index, which launched Tuesday, is a consumer index that scores companies based on their investments in Black America — from hiring practices to supplier diversity.
“Across the board, we are a people of needs, [that] have not been met,” he said. “If that means largely supporting people of color, I am happy to meet that need.”
From Epperson’s perspective, the industry also needs to be wary of pigeonholing designers by race.
“First of all, I consider myself to be a designer who happens to be Black, not a Black designer. When I had a shop in Brooklyn, I was known as a Brooklyn designer. I had to strip myself from being considered a Brooklyn designer,” he said. “I would hope that it would just continue and they’re amazing designers and they’re Black, not Black designers or designers who were picked up at that time so let’s continue to support them.”
Adding to that, Potts said, “It has never really scared me to be considered a designer who is Black or a Black designer because I know what I’ve produced has been on the backs of people of every shape, color, size. I try to come from a place in my heart where I just speak to people and connect with people — no matter what they look like. My brand is really rooted in this idea of inclusion, acceptance and self-acceptance…but it has been very important for me to show an elevated vision of Black style and beauty. The world has been inspired by Blackness in a way that a lot of people, who consume [fashion] don’t really realize.”