Against the Odds
How the Best Black Fashion Designers Made It to the Top
Of the 63 designers featured on the New York Fashion Week site, only one is black—a damning statistic that makes the success of the black designers of the past even more impressive.
If there was any question whether the fashion industry has a diversity problem, all one has to do is visit the current designer homepage for New York Fashion Week (NYFW).
Of the 63 working designers showcased, only one is black, Public School co-founder Maxwell Osborne.
Missing from this main showcase list are other black designers with a presence at NYFW, like Kerby Jean-Raymond of the Pyer Moss label, whose show dealt squarely with racism and police brutality.
It is worth noting that there are more than a dozen designers featured who are of Asian descent. But the lack of black faces does reinforce a question that seems to have challenged the fashion industry for years: Why is it so hard to increase the number of black designers?
Three years ago an analysis by news outlets decried the fact that there were only two individual black designers showing at New York Fashion Week, B. Michael and Tracy Reese (both are showing at NYFW this week).
Just months ago a New York Times investigation found little improvement, noting that the number of black designers showing at the most recent New York Fashion Week stood at about 2.7 percent, mirroring the percentage in the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)—12 out of 470.
There have been noteworthy strides, however, in recent years, with the rise of Carly Cushnie of Cushnie et Ochs, along with the aforementioned Osborne.
Other prominent new faces joining Tracy Reese and B. Michael at New York Fashion Week include Deirdre Jeffreies of Espion Atelier, and David Tlale.
Any cursory glance at the makeup of those participating in programs like Project Runway would indicate that lack of interest in fashion—or those possessing finely honed fashion talents—within the black community is not the problem. So what is?
One of the most obvious culprits is that professions that tend to be glamorous and low-paying tend to become havens for those from privileged families, who can afford to take multiple internships in lieu of paying jobs, or live on next to nothing in places like New York or Paris.
In a phone interview, Bethann Hardison, the black former model manager who is considered the most prominent diversity advocate in the industry, explained that fashion is also a more expensive creative pursuit than others.
While people can struggle to make it as an actor or writer for years, and just worry about how they are going to pay the rent, aspiring designers also have to worry about being able to afford pricey materials and staging fashion shows.
“You have to have staying power,” she said, ticking off various designers of different races who toiled away for close to a decade before breaking through.
But often that decade was a financially perilous time for them. She also stressed the importance of being trained in the right way, and by the right people.
Even more so than other professions, connections play a significant role in determining who makes it in the fashion industry.
Someone who does not come from a certain background or attend a certain high-priced school is less likely to meet the mentors necessary to thrive in a competitive field that is almost entirely relationship-based.
But here’s another theory: The ’70s and ’80s were considered a breakthrough era for blacks in fashion—from models to designers. Then some of the industry’s brightest lights were dimmed by the AIDS epidemic, including three influential black designers.
If they had lived, one can’t help but imagine the doors they may have opened; the pipeline of influence they may have created for other young designers of color. We’ll never know what might have been.
But we can celebrate the diversity of black talent that has blossomed within the fashion industry. Enjoy our gallery of the best black fashion designers of all time here.