Friday, 24 September 2010

Fashion Takes a Trip to Post-Racial USA

This past Friday, September 17th, was the last day of New York City fashion week. It was also the day that a small number of industry professionals--young, old, mostly black, and mostly women--convened at NYU's Institute of African American Affairs for a state of the union, as it were, of the industry. I found out about the Clutch Magazine-sponsored event thanks to Jezebel, and since I was home anyway for Yom Kippur I decided to go.

The discussion, titled "Fashion Takes a Trip to Post-Racial USA?", was prompted by two events: Essence, the popular black woman's magazine, hiring its first-ever white fashion director. With this hire, no major women's fashion magazine currently has a black fashion director. (Nina Garcia is the only woman of color fashion director at a major magazine.) Michaela Angela Davis, former fashion editor at Essence and founding fashion director of Honey, along with blogger Quan Lateef, organized a silent protest (pictured above) in which the walkers marched from Essence's office to Lincoln Center. The other issue at hand was Gaboury Sibide's unfortunate Elle cover, where her hair looked bad, her skin was too light, and her body was cropped out.

The talk itself was hosted my Michaela Angela Davis and Esther Armah. Ms. Davis pointed out that while some might welcome Essence's hiring decision as a welcome change that embraces diversity, the fact is that "fashion is an entry-point to image and image is power." Now that there are no black women in major positions of power at the editorial end, black women have less of a chance of controlling their image in the media. Esther Armah pointed out the utter hypocrisy of a "post-racial" environment, who shared what Cornell West said to her in a private conversation about the industry: "Everyone wants to be egalitarian at the black table but the rest of the industry is apartheid." Could there be any clearer indication of the hypocrisy of "post-racialism"? This hideous term was invented during the '08 presidential campaign, as if the fact that Americans feeling comfortable about voting for one black man could begin to erase the entirety of systematic racism. The old guard attempts to diversify using this ideology, and we find ourselves expecting the niche magazine to diversify while the mainstream magazines see no need to budge. Glamour hired a new fashion director the same week that Essence did but that story did not need receive any buzz--the new director was white, the same old story.

Harriet Cole, a former Essence fashion director and a current fashion correspondent for BET, discussed her experience in the industry. By all accounts, she's a veteran, but she constantly has to fight her way from standing-room only to seating in the front row. As Essence fashion director in 1990, she represented 12 million readers but she still had to fight for invitations and seats. She also discussed the power of the Internet--she estimated that 1 in 4 people in the tents were black. When she asked how they got invited, they said they were bloggers. While this is a fantastic change, bloggers don't actually have a lot of power within the industry. It's the hierarchy of writers, editors, stylists, and advertisers that need to change. Ms. Cole also discussed the Gaboury Sibide issue--she did not believe that Elle acted maliciously, but carelessly. As a young actress, Ms. Sibide does not know how to control her image. Joe Zee stated that the hair Gabby wore on the cover was the hair she had come with. Someone with more experience with black hair would have known that Gabby needed to change her hair. They also would have known that the photographer's lights were too harsh for black skin, which needs to be lit differently. When Ms. Sibide shot a cover for Essence, Ms. Cole and her team had spent a lot of time making sure the actress looked her best. Had Elle employed more black women (or women of color for that matter), these mistakes could have been avoided. 

For the first time in my life, I finally understood the strong connection between "mainstream media" and "white, heterosexual" media. Vogue and Glamour will show models of color from time to time, but the brand is unequivocally white. Edward Eninful is a prominent black stylist, but until she retires, we will always associate Vogue with ADubs. I didn't know who most of these people at the talk were before I read the Clutch article or attended the talk. Yet they are some of the most talented workers in the fashion industry. Until media-makers begin to examine their hiring practices, most people will not know Harriet Cole, Kevin Stewart, or any of the other professionals present. As long as black professionals remain unknown, they will not get first row at fashion week. Their publications will not get necessary advertising revenue. Investors will not want to support a "niche" market. Unless those publications are represented by a white face.

Many members of the audience shared their opinions but they're too many to mention here. At the very end, Marcia Ann Gillespie, one of the founding editors of Essence and current editor of Ms., spoke briefly. She stated that the next generation of writers (us!) need to publish high-quality content with a social message. Let's get started.

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