Time’s Up: Facing the Reality of Black Talent in the Design Industry

Trinidadian-American Kibwe Chase-Marshall worked as a designer and journalist for years before he decided to take action against an urgent problem he witnessed in the fashion industry: a lack of support for Black designers. Last year, he began to craft a social media campaign, #BreakSilenceBreakCeilings, to tackle the issue. Now, as America celebrates Black History Month, his petition on Color of Change has reached over 23k signatures, and his Business of Fashion Op-Ed has brought his plea to the industry. We chatted during New York Fashion Week.

PUBLIC SCHOOL FW17 show in New York. Photo by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION.

How has your experience in the fashion industry led you to launch this campaign?

I worked for over a decade as a designer and realized that there was a disturbing contrast between the professional instability that my Black colleagues and I endured and the relative security that our non-Black colleagues often enjoyed. We realized that we weren’t being equitably considered for positions, and that once we landed a job we didn’t get opportunities for growth within those companies. Often, though we were strong contributors to teams, we realized that we weren’t being extended the opportunity to access higher level of design positions. We also found that we weren’t being equitably presented to potential employers by headhunting and recruitment firms, and that made it virtually impossible for generations of Black designers to secure upper management and executive tier design roles. To top it off, while you were outperforming your colleagues, you’d usually find out that you were being laid off under the guise of budget constraints.

How do you explain this reality?

I don’t want to be too speculative about the myriad of motivations that inform discrimination. My concern is less about doing away with prejudice and more about mitigating discrimination. I am not fixated on reprogramming everyone.

While diversity is a buzzword these days, there is a difference between picking Black models for a show and having Black designers at the top.

An industry that consistently brands itself as progressive and inclusive must not just enjoy the glamorous side of diversity discussions (patting itself on the back for more equitable model casting, for example) but be committed to realize inclusion behind the scenes. This ultimately contributes to creating more thoughtful, authentic, and resonant representations. Those are the kind of representations that also generate the most revenue. Black designers aren’t consistently present at the upper management and executive levels and that too often results in consumers being advertised to thoughtlessly, as we saw in the H&M advertising of a young Black boy wearing a sweatshirt that reads, “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Ideologically it’s a problem because Black people consume so much product and represent an important market for these brands, but those selected to guide design teams don’t represent Black consumers.

WALES BONNER menswear FW17 show in London. Photo by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION.

The first step in your proposed program addresses the issue of fair opportunities in design studios. How can we implement this change?

I am asking for transparency in the industry. The first proposed step in the program I sent to the CFDA and Vogue is the disclosure of race data at upper management and executive levels of design studios.

Are you monitoring the number of Black designers organizing shows and winning awards?

This program is not focused on stimulating entrepreneurship in the Black design space. That is valuable, but until Black designers are nurtured in the industry by getting the chance to first pursue growth within established brands, they will continue to find themselves often underprepared, under-resourced, and under-supported for successful entrepreneurship. I’m not most concerned with the glamor and the glitz of awards and photo-ops, but rather with Black designers getting the opportunity to consistently work and grow within mainstream industry. You have people enrolled in school for years, or working in entry level posts for years, and then an industry robs them of their ability to realize their potential and pursue their professional aspirations. As designers leave major houses, are talented, trained Black designers being considered for creative direction roles? For example, I don’t think someone like (2016 LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers) Grace Wales Bonner has quite gotten the support she deserves.

How can Vogue support this cause?

Vogue has been in publication since the 1892, but only the last seven years or so have seen Black people factoring into the content in an equitable manner. There were generations of Black people who were extremely important in American culture that remained overlooked in key ways by fashion media – someone like Diana Ross has never had a single Vogue cover. I’m not stuck on rehashing the past, but I’m insistent that we acknowledge and not erase it in order to authentically get things right going forward.

How do you explain the resistance within the industry? 

One of the realities of dismantling discrimination is that those in positions of privilege will have to relinquish some of that privilege.

PYER MOSS FW18 show in New York. Photo by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION.

What is the purpose of your social media campaign?

I initiated a petition using the #BreakSilenceBreakCeilings created for my Instagram post in partnership with Color of Change. The petition quantifies for CFDA and Vogue that I am not an isolated individual with this opinion. We sent letters to both companies requesting a meeting to discuss the implementation of the initiative, but we have yet to receive a response from either the CFDA or Vogue. I hope they realize that the sooner they move to implement the proposed initiative the sooner they will be recorded as standing on the right side of history in regard to this issue.