Believe it or not, only about 1% of the collections reviewed on Vogue Runway (née Style.com), arguably the industry's leading source for catwalk recaps and commentary, are made by black designers, according to NYC's Fashion Institute of Technology. It's not for lack of talent to write about; it's that the fashion world has historically been quiet, awkward even, about addressing diversity. In its latest exhibit, Black Fashion Designers, the Museum at FIT showcases the work of black fashion designers exclusively — not because a singular style of black fashion exists, its curators are quick to point out, but because this category of creators has long gone unrecognized in the larger history of design, despite playing a pivotal role in the industry's history.
"We wanted to have this show fill in some of the gaps [in fashion history]," Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant of Black Fashion Designers and curatorial assistant at the Museum at FIT said at the opening of the exhibit last week. The dozens and dozens of pieces on display share only commonality: They were designed by someone who's black. That's it.
"'Black designers' is a label that doesn’t tell you anything about fashion," Way explained. The staff wanted to dispel the notion that their work all fits into one singular descriptor from the get-go. "There’s really nothing else that connects them in their style — they have so many different perspectives," she continued. It's an important distinction in how we talk about the work of black fashion designers, which was notably highlighted by The Washington Post's Robin Givhan in her review of Pyer Moss' spring '16 collection. (Givhan served as a consultant for the exhibit, which includes work by designer Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond.)
The garments on display span the 20th century, and they're grouped in themes. There's a section on breaking into the industry, and another one on designers working within big legacy houses; there are segments that highlight the use of African influence, streetwear, and activism in collections; there's also a spotlight on the 1970s, a crucial decade for both manufacturing in New York as well as black artists (finally) being celebrated for their culture, background, and experience. The exhibit includes work by names like Ann Lowe, Willi Smith, and CD Green, as well as commercial hits like Off-White, Cushnie et Ochs, and Tracy Reese. There are also pop-culture favorites, including LaQuan Smith, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, and Hood By Air. In fact, a lot of the pieces will make you reminisce about celeb style moments past: There's the Harbison coat Beyoncé and Solange Knowles have shared during Fashion Week's past, and the Laura Smalls red carpet dresses Michelle Obama wore during her epic Carpool Karaoke segment.
As an industry, fashion hasn't exactly been known for being inclusive. New resources have emerged to both support people of color working in the industry and hold people who refuse to get with the times and diversify accountable, like The Fashion Spot's seasonal runway diversity report, which keeps track of model castings across all four major fashion weeks, and Bethann Hardison's Diversity Coalition, which teamed up with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to draft diversity guidelines for designers ahead of their presentations. But still, there's been remarkably little progress. Yes, these measures have proven to be extremely valuable in keeping tabs on a wide-reaching industry, but they mostly address optics — and not the deep-seated issues that affect even the most successful and revered of designers, models, and public figures.
For a lot of the people featured in Black Fashion Designers, being pigeonholed as a "black fashion designer" is something they're actively work against. "They want to be identified as designers — as American designers, or French designers, or eveningwear designers, or menswear tailors," Wsy added. "Race is very important, because it helps shape their identity, but its not the defining thing that makes them a designer — and that’s one of the things we really hope to highlight in this exhibition."
Black Fashion Designers runs through May 16, 2017 at the Museum at FIT in New York. (Admission is free!) In case you can't make it to Manhattan in time, click through the slideshow, ahead, to check out some of the highlights — odds are, you'll recognize a garment or two.
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