In January 2018, as the then-burgeoning #MeToo movement reignited a spirit of activism across the country and thousands of American women took to the streets in protest, the writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall published an op-ed in The Business of Fashion titled “Why Aren’t There More Black Designers?”
“Time’s also up for fashion’s institutional exclusion and workplace suppression of black designers,” he wrote. The piece also laid out a challenge for the Council of Fashion Designers (CFDA) and Vogue to accept a reform program aimed at promoting and hiring more Black creatives.
“There was this very arduous process of attempting to meet with them in which they had a very specific ask of only meeting for half an hour, which I felt was inadequate to discuss this really macro issue,” Chase-Marshall told The Daily Beast. He says he was also asked to “not speak about the meeting afterward.” Ultimately, no discussion occurred.
Two years later, after the public murder of George Floyd and ensuing worldwide protests, brands in every sector have faced a reckoning on how to address racism in their own ranks. Some of these attempts—namely, mere posts on social media—are obviously more performative than productive.
On June 2, CFDA board members assembled to create “initiatives that will immediately be undertaken to create systemic change within the industry,” which included the development of a mentorship program placing Black fashion students and recent graduates in roles at established brands and donating to the NAACP.
Chase-Marshall, Campbell, and Gallina felt that more could be done—and they already had done some groundwork with their 2018 proposal. On June 15, they and 250 Black fashion professionals signed a letter to the CFDA. They called this new organization The Kelly Initiative, named after the late, legendary designer Patrick Kelly.
Designers like Victor Glemaud and Romeo Hunte added their names to the letter, as did celebrity stylists Jason Bolden, Patti Wilson, and Shiona Turini. Fashion directors at Garage, i-D, Bustle Digital Group, and Highsnobiety also signed. The organizers wanted to (digitally) meet with the CFDA on or by Juneteenth.
The Kelly Initiative proposes starting an Industry Census where brands, companies, and organizations opt-in to reporting the racial makeup of staff. This information would be published annually “granting informed visibility of the industry to the professional, consumer, and academic communities.”
The team also asks that recruitment agencies working in the fashion space “allow a comprehensive audit of their protocols and practices by a contracted third party,” and sign a “pledge of commitment to creating equitable inroads for Black talent via meritocratic recruitment practices.”
Along with that, the Kelly List would be an annual database highlighting talented Black creatives. “In acceptance of Kelly List-acknowledgement, honorees will sign a pledge of commitment to creating equitable inroads for Black talent within their future professional endeavors,” the letter reads.
Chase-Marshall added that the initiative was created with inspiration from separate strategies implemented in other fields. The NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for open head coaching positions. Top law firms in America have instilled a similar “Mansfield Rule,” to ensure diverse candidates are considered for senior partnership roles.
“While there’s no one rule or one solution to address certain industries, there is this precedent set,” Chase-Marshall said. “It’s not just about starting some internships. That’s not how you dynamically shift culture. You don’t do it from the bottom up, it’s top down. I want the community of Black professionals to continue to reassert that we want roles of influence, not just internships and brand partnerships. You’re going to have to redistribute power more equitably. ”
“A lot of these organizations are focused on mentorships or funding,” Gallina added. “There is still that governance that is fundamentally white and upholding structures that are problematic in place. Donating to the NAACP is great, and we’re not negating that, but now we need equity. That’s what makes The Kelly Initiative different from the agenda the CFDA set forth.”
As of press time, the CFDA has not publicly responded to The Kelly Initiative or made plans to meet.
In a statement emailed to The Daily Beast, a representative for the organization wrote, “The CFDA immediately began implementing programs outlined in the statement we issued on June 4th. Donations have been made to the NAACP and Campaign Zero. The CFDA is continuing its relationship with Bethann Hardison and Harlem's Fashion Row on diversity initiatives, and will also work with the Black in Fashion Council led by Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and publicist Sandrine Charles.
“Several organizations have recently contacted us following our announcement, including the Kelly Initiative. We have tremendous respect for all of these groups but at this time have selected a few key groups to work with so that we can focus our energy and fundraising abilities,” the statement read. The representative did not make clear if that meant the CFDA would ever meet or speak directly with the Kelly Initiative organizers.
The Kelly Initiative organizers remain hopeful that they can work with the CFDA in some way. “In all relationships, often the true test of commitment for both parties comes when there is a challenging moment, disharmony, or a difference of opinion,” Chase-Marshall said. “You’re not testing if you’re in a relationship, that’s a given, but you’re testing your individual commitment to it.
“We as Black fashion professionals remain so committed to this industry. No one is planning a boycott or a walkout, we’re just asking to engage in a conversation about our equity. For too long, people were resistant to that. [The CFDA’s lack of response] is elucidating some real lack of reciprocal commitment to the relationship.”
“More than a couple times this week, I’ve been faced with the question, ‘Why are you so insistent on doing all of this work and staying in an industry that clearly isn’t committed to you?’” Gallina added. “That was sort of an ouch moment. It’s almost like that moment of ‘he’s just not that into you.’ It’s something to be considered. I won’t speak on the future, but I do think that’s a valid talking point.”
As more Black professionals add their names to the letter (and allies submit their names to a separate support list), the Kelly Initiative continues to gain momentum, making the CFDA's hesitance to respond even more glaring.
“I couldn’t imagine the CFDA not wanting to work in good faith,” Campbell said. “We have no other agenda here but just to impact change. There is nothing convoluted about this; it is a very clear proposal. One would think that the CFDA, upon reading it and mobilizing internally, would extend a hand to have a conversation about our initiative. To keep it very amicable and hold each other’s hand in this move for change.”
When first reporting on the initiative, The Business of Fashion wrote there were “noticeably absent” names who did not sign the letter, including some CFDA board members like Virgil Abloh and Kerby Jean-Raymond. This, according to the trade publication, “[indicates] there may be different schools of thought amongst Black professionals as to how best push for change in the industry.”
“We feel very strongly about not harping on, belaboring, or giving any attention to divisive tactics usually reserved for the Black community,” Gallina said. “This isn’t a Tyra/Naomi moment. We remain united in our efforts to get equity. There is no single Black person who does not want that. If circumstantially, someone is not on the list, we all know that there’s nuance and context there. We don’t have everyone’s context, [but] there are a number of reasons [not to sign] that aren’t malicious.”
Gallina added that focusing on missing signees ignores the spirit behind the initiative. “So many people signed it in an allotted time,” she said. “It’s just the way the cookie crumbles. I really want to make sure that our energies and our focus are on the right things. This isn’t an angry moment or a fight.”
This week, Jean-Raymond spoke with Jian DeLeon of Highsnobiety about the urgency of defunding the police and his reaction to the CFDA’s “fucking watered-down, bubblegum-ass statement that didn’t address the issues.”
Jean-Raymond told the site he was at the CFDA’s meeting, and created a list of demands for the organization along with Virgil Abloh, Prabal Gurung, and Dao-Yi Chow. Those requests included “calling on all US retailers to train and instruct their employees to not make frivolous 911 calls for non-violent infractions,” and to stop hiring off-duty police officers to guard stores.
The team also wanted CFDA-affiliated companies to “commit to having 15 percent of their senior leadership staff be Black, the representation of what we are in the population.” In echoing the designer Aurora James’ “15 Percent Pledge,” they also asked U.S. retailers to allot that amount of shelf space to Black-owned brands.
Jean-Raymond called the CFDA’s refusal to implement those requests in favor of Instagram advocacy “fucking lip service to the movement.”
“Honestly, this is probably one of the biggest slaps in the face that I’ve ever gotten, and me and and Virgil [Abloh] are going back and forth on this thing like, “What the fuck do we do?” he told the site. “As far as the way that they conducted themselves and chose to omit specific language that can make Black people feel advocated for? A governing body like the CFDA holds so much prestige within the fashion space, and for them not to advocate in the proper way leads Black people to believe that there’s not going to be any help when we get here—or if we can ever get there at all.”
One of the the Kelly Initiative letter’s signatories is Edward Buchanan, a designer and founder of the knitwear label Sansovino 6. Though he’s worked in Milan since 1996, he strongly feels that the New York fashion industry can usher in global change.
“We are within this international spectrum,” he said. “What happens in America comes to Italy, what happens in Italy goes to London. The Kelly Initiative sets something of a precedent of how the other organizations have to work as well. Oftentimes these things get started in America and then move to different places, which I’m hoping will happen.”
Over the course of his career, Buchanan says he has gotten used to being one of the only Black designers in a room. “We’ve always discussed needing a system of checks and balances,” he said. “Why do I go into a head hunting office and know when I walk out of the door that I’m not going to get a callback? I can count on my hand the number of Black designers who are in the business in Milan.”
For Buchanan, the conversation is about “accountability.” “It’s not an argument,” he said. “We are skilled designers, merchandisers, artists, who deserve a fair space in the market and it’s unfortunate that we have to request that. That’s the real problem for me. But we’ve somehow arrived at that ceiling where we feel like we can’t go further without a proposal like this being applied.”
He added that “The Kelly Initiative isn’t the only group of people who are talking [to the CFDA about race]. That’s not a negative thing. We need a lot of people actually on the front lines. Am I surprised that the CFDA hasn’t responded? Kind of, but I don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.”
“We’re not talking about something that’s surprising to people,” Buchanan added. “This is a problem that has existed. But we can’t have a conversation about inclusivity only on the outside if it’s not on the inside first. These companies and corporations are not representing. That’s a problem and it’s going to be a problem in the future if this doesn’t happen. I am so concerned about the future.”