Regarding the installation of the “Black Dress: Ten Contemporary Fashion Designers” exhibit currently on display at Pratt Institute in NYC, curator and professor Adrienne Jones says the key issues Black designers face today are funding and marketing.
“Fashion Week can cost well into the millions of dollars,” Jones told TNJ.com. “From the beginning of the collection to getting it out there and marketing it…Black designers are not getting the same amount of funding and publicity as other designers.”
Success in the fashion industry is hard to attain. The whole business is a gamble. One day, a style is hot and then suddenly, it’s not. Consumers are fickle, especially with clothing; and so anyone preparing for a career in fashion design should do their due diligence and learn the odds. But Black designers face a tougher road. On March 5, in conjunction with the exhibit, the topic was debated at a panel discussion on the contributions of Black designers.
“Everybody had a story to tell, but mostly, we were trying to go in the direction of solutions,” Jones says of the discussion, moderated by fashion guru Walter Greene. “So many designers were there…Norma Jean Darden (former model and restaurateur), John Higgins, one of the first designers I’d ever met…they stated that this was a conversation they had over 20 years ago and now, they noted, we are having the same conversation. The question is: ‘What can we do to open the doors [for Black designers] and keep them open?’”
According to Jones, one solution the panel identified is access. “Elaine [Welteroth] is one of the few Black editors at Conde Nast. Through her job as an editor, she says she is able to put the work of more Black designers on her editorial pages as well as hire more Black models. When we talk about opening doors, that’s the kind of access that’s needed,” shares Jones.
She continues, “We also talked about buying more from Black designers. There were a lot of people under the age of 25 in the audience that did not know the wealth of Black designers that are out there. They were really excited about finding out more about these designers and supporting them.”
Panelists included Michaela Angela Davis, a former executive fashion, beauty and culture editor at Essence and advocate for women’s and human rights causes; Constance C.R. White, author and former editor-in-chief of ESSENCE; Harriette Cole, author and former editor of Ebony, Essence and Uptown magazines; and Elaine Welteroth, beauty and health director at Teen Vogue.
On display until April 26, the exhibit showcases the work of 10 contemporary New York-based fashion designers: Jeffrey Banks, Samantha Black, Stephen Burrows, Donna Dove, Epperson, Michael Jerome Francis, Byron Lars, Tracy Reese, Omar Salam, LaQuan Smith. The selection, Jones shares, was strategic.
“Our original list was over 200 and we had to keep bringing it down due to space restrictions. We only had 2,500 square feet of space to work with, so we finally had to bring the number of designers down to 10. I then chose a cross-section of designers who offered a different aesthetic. For example, Donna Dove repurposes all kinds of shirts whereas LaQuan Smith has sold all of his ideas and designs on the Internet. Everybody brought a different piece to Blacks in design and showcased how it worked for them,” she explains.
Jones says she also had to consider the meaning of a ‘contemporary designer’ and the context in which a contemporary designer would fit into her show. “Although it’s a contemporary show, it was important to me that we recognized the time period that represented ‘contemporary’. So, I decided to take it back to the 70’s and then bring it up. I wanted designers that would represent the past, present and future as far as when they started,” she explains.
She says her original concept for the show was to include everybody who came under the umbrella of Black design – not just the designers. She continues, “I wanted to showcase the models, the journalists, the stylists and the hair & makeup people, too.”
Jones credits her godmother’s work as the inspiration for “Black Dress.” “My godmother, Clara Branch, worked at F.I.T. She has a collection of scrapbooks spanning the past 50 years of Blacks in the fashion industry. Sitting and going through those, not only were there people I had not heard of, but there were things about Blacks in fashion that I didn’t know.”
* “Black Dress” is on display until April 26 at The Pratt Manhattan Gallery – 144 West 14th Street in NYC.