The Fashion Industry Has Failed Black People—Here’s What Needs to Change

Leah Faye Cooper
Photo credit: Courtesy

From Harper's BAZAAR

(Pictured clockwise: Brandice Daniel, Mecca James-Williams, Amanda Murray)

We can’t do it anymore.

This was the resounding sentiment that came out of a conversation I had with Harlem’s Fashion Row founder Brandice Daniel, stylist and branding consultant Amanda Murray, and stylist and editor Mecca James-Williams. On the video call, we discussed how Black people who work in the fashion industry are feeling amid the current social unrest—sparked by the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor—but that’s been brewing for centuries as racism and oppression have pervaded this country.

“It,” in this case, refers to allowing the fashion industry to capitalize off Black culture while not welcoming Black talent through its doors, or providing those of us who manage our way in with opportunities to grow. Collectively, we’re tired of the systematic disenfranchisement that exists within the fashion industry, tired of not seeing any Black people in executive roles, tired of being tokenized, tired of being undervalued.

This frustration is compounded by seeing brands and publications that have historically excluded and marginalized Black people share messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Where was this solidarity when we were applying for jobs, advocating for promotions, and pointing out the lack of diversity—and at times outright racism—within the industry? These messages mean nothing if they’re not backed by action to dismantle long-standing practices that have stifled Black people in the fashion industry.

Ahead, excerpts from my conversation with Daniel, Murray, and James-Williams—highlighting our experiences in fashion and the changes we want to see.

I know this is an incredibly difficult time for all of us, so I first want to thank you for taking the time to talk. To start, I’m curious to know what initially drew you to a career in fashion.

Amanda Murray: I was born in the Caribbean, and I wouldn’t say that the Caribbean is very fashion-centric. Growing up, it was very clear to me that I was connected to fashion and that is what I used as a medium to express myself. In the Caribbean, fashion aligns with the way of life there, which is simple. It isn’t driven by brand names or luxury companies. Seeing the drama, the colors, the flair … it called me. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.

What are some of the obstacles you faced getting into the industry? For me, it was a lack of connections. Even with my great education and talent and ambition, trying to get a job at a fashion publication was really hard. And the more research I did, the more I found that breaking into a lot of professions, who you know in fashion is paramount.

Brandice Daniel: I started my fashion career in allocations, and there was not one person of color who was in a position of leadership at the company. To move from allocations to buying, I had to do two jobs at one time—one which I didn’t get paid for—because I needed to grow and I didn’t see a clear path. I would come in early to help the buyer, then do my regular job, then stay late just to finally get an opportunity to go into buying. We’re always having to work twice as hard, and that’s the norm. It’s exhausting.


Mecca James-Williams: It’s lack of access, and then when you get that access, you get disenfranchised. Your voice gets silenced. So, yes, I’ve been a senior styling editor and a deputy styling editor, but when I got these roles, me using my voice got me disenfranchised. I then got tokenized. I’d be explaining why something was wrong, and instead of people understanding, they’d create conflict and stereotype me within this one construct of what a Black woman is.

AM: For me, it was representation. When I started reading magazines and trying to find out who the Black editors were, the only person I ever saw was André Leon Talley. And I didn’t see Black women outside of Essence magazine. Not seeing enough of us in that space, that’s been my biggest obstacle. Because psychologically, I felt like fashion wasn’t going to be a safe space for me if I didn’t see other people who looked like me.

The Black Live Matter movement as we know it today started in 2013. Do you remember having any conversations with colleagues in the fashion industry at that time? My experience was that my non-Black colleagues were uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say, so they just didn’t say anything at all.

BD: I had been talking about race in fashion since I started HFR in 2007, so this was a conversation that I’d been having, and one that was very uncomfortable for anyone to have, Black or white. For Black people, because we’re conditioned to stay quiet, keep our heads low, and just keep trying to get ahead. And then, I had white people flat out tell me, ‘Brandice, I don’t want to talk about race.’ In 2013, in terms of Black Live Matter, the fashion industry didn’t budge. This is the first time I’ve actually had brand partners reach out to me to talk about it.

MJW: In the beginning, people saw Black Lives Matter as a political statement, not one that was about our humanity. So within fashion, brands, and publications, we’re saying, “We don’t speak about politics.” They didn’t see the value in it.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been this pressure for brands to come out with statements of solidarity and support for Black people, and so many of them are glaringly performative. You read them and you think, “Are you kidding me? We know the demographic of your staff. We see the models you cast and the content you produce. How can you possibly say that you care about the Black community when everything you’ve been doing up until this point shows that you don’t?”

AM: After [Lindsay Peoples Wagner’s] article about what it’s like to be Black in fashion came out in The Cut—because it sent such a ripple of waves through the industry—I thought, Okay, things are going to change. But then they just went back to normal. At this point, I don’t know whether or not I should be hopeful, but I don’t want to hear any of the empty statements. I want to see work being done. Just now coming out with initiatives to implement, that to me is such an admission of what has been going on, of what we’ve been saying has been going on, and these companies have been denying it. We carry these burdens of racism daily—being called aggressive, being held back from promotions and career development opportunities—and you’re doing a story on your Instagram? That doesn’t mean anything to me. What are you really doing to help Black people? How are you using your presence and your platforms? Because your silence kills us.

I think it’s often lost on people that, like you said, we’re coming to work every single day carrying all of this grief and stress and frustration, and we’re still showing up. We’re still working hard and doing amazing work, and a lot of people are oblivious about how hard that is.

BD: And what’s really happening now is that non-Black people have realized that we have a big problem. I’ve known we’ve had a big problem, and so have you guys. This has been happening for hundreds of years. We’ve finally had enough.

MJW: If these brands are going to say that Black Lives Matter, they need to ensure that the Black lives within their institutions matter. Franchise them. Have them in leadership roles. This needs to happen now. The people who were disenfranchised and fired over racism, brands need to be paying them. We will not support them otherwise. That’s the stance that I’m taking.

BD: I think we’re all holding back our tears, because honestly, this is painful. The only thing I would add is that I think brands have to look at this in terms of a long-term plan. My concern is that everyone wants to make quick moves and quick decisions and quick solutions. [Michael] Jordan is going to give $100 million to Black initiatives over the next 10 years, and I think the only way for brands to approach this properly is to also make a 10-year commitment. If things blow over and everyone’s feeling good by next year, I don’t trust that brands will keep this same momentum that they’ve got right now. And if a brand doesn’t have a solution, we honestly need to not spend a penny or waste any time with it.

MJW: Right. Franchise us now, or we will not continue to franchise you. This is a human rights issue. This is a crisis. We need to be franchising Black businesses, Black brands, and Black creators, because honestly, fashion capitalizes off Black culture in every capacity.

AM: Our culture moves the world, and people know this, which is why they monetize it. We’ve had enough. As Rihanna said, “Pull up.”

Brandice, you recently founded the nonprofit ICON 360 in response to COVID-19, to help support Black designers. Given that the launch coincided with the mounting protests against racial inequity, have you changed course at all to address both COVID-19 and the current social uprising?

BD: When COVID-19 happened, I was so inspired by how fast designers were pivoting. They didn’t have the money to scale their business though. That’s why I started ICON 360, and even with everything that’s happening right now, the goal to support Black designers hasn’t changed. But I do think these initiatives are more important than ever, because now people are saying, “If I’ve got $100, I don’t want to spend it with a brand that couldn’t care less about me and isn’t speaking up for me. I’d rather spend it with a designer of color.” So I need to make sure those designers are set up to manage the business they’re going to get, and that’s what I hope this fund does.

A lot of Black people have been more outspoken and unfiltered recently than they have in the past, myself included. That comes with a risk—a risk of being blacklisted or upsetting an employer or brand or colleagues. Do you feel conflicted about speaking out against disparities in the fashion industry? So many of us want to be vocal, but at the same time, we’re thinking, If I’m too critical, does that mean I risk a career I love and don’t have a voice at all?

BD: Honestly, I’ve been conflicted ever since I founded HFR. I have my personal feelings of hurt and anger, but I also work with brands who are trying to do the work. So because they’re trying and they’re partnering with us on opportunities that benefit Black designers, I sometimes want to say, “This is great, but look at your leadership—there’s not one Black person on your leadership team.” So I’ve been having a lot of side conversations, because I also can’t be quiet. I don’t have it in me anymore to be quiet. I have to be strategic, though, because I don’t want to mess up an opportunity for a designer. That is my challenge.


MJW: Every Black person has a story about racism within every company they’ve worked in, and fashion companies need to hear that, understand that, and settle the past history. Then we can move forward. The future that we’re seeing is liberation within these companies. So if they want to be a part of the future, they need to be encouraging and supporting Black people now. Are they going to be on the right side or the wrong side of history? It’s really as simple as that.

AM: Once you speak out in the fashion industry it’s just like your head is gone, and that doesn’t just apply to Black people. We’ve got to change that entire philosophy, because if we don’t speak about things, how will things change?

How do we come to terms with the fact that so many brands and publications don’t have Black people on staff in full-time positions, but now they’re turning to us now for our voice and perspective? Michal Arceneaux recently tweeted, “Black writers: a lot of people will be approaching you, but only for your pain and grief. … I know this economy is what it is so do whatever you have to, but flip those narratives on their head if you can. And say no if you can.” We haven’t been top of mind for opportunities in the past, but now our contributions are in high demand. So how do you reconcile that with needing to support ourselves and wanting our stories to be told, but also acknowledging how problematic that is?

MJW: For me, I’ve reached my breaking point. The industry needs me, I don’t need the industry. So I will be asking every brand that wants to work with me, what have they done and what are they planning to do? And if that aligns with the greater good of humanity, I will align myself with that brand. If it doesn’t, I won’t. At this point, it isn’t a hard decision to make. I’m going to be holding this industry accountable.

The fight for racial justice continues. Among the many organizations working toward that, and funds set up to support those most in need, these are a few Daniel, Murray, and James-Williams are supporting: Color of Change, Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, Innocence Project, NAACP, Official George Floyd Memorial Fund, Justice for Breonna Taylor, Know Your Rights Camp, Run with Auhmaud, and Until Freedom.

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