Reflections from New York Fashion Week, and the importance of inclusivity
When I was a kid, I begged my family to watch “The Devil Wears Prada” over three times a month. The scenes where the main character, Andrea, transformed into a highly fashionable woman who wore beautifully tailored and curated outfits are seared into my brain. That movie first sparked my interest in fashion. From then on, I would flip through magazines to see the new collections designers debuted for the season. I even asked my grandmother to teach me how to make dresses with our 1980s thrifted sewing machine. I was in awe of how glamorous the industry looked and how much thought seemingly went into every piece of clothing. I longed to be a part of that world even just for a second. However, that dream felt largely unattainable. I never saw a Black woman who I felt looked like me on the red carpets or sitting in the front row of fashion shows. I just assumed that there was no space for me, and that I would always just have to look on from the outside, or in this case, from my childhood bedroom drenched in pink and covered in magazine clippings.
The feeling of being excluded is an experience shared by many Black people working in fashion. According to an honors thesis from DePauw University by Re’Nae Dillard, Black women are incredibly underrepresented in the fashion industry. Due to systematic oppression and centuries of racism, white and light-skinned female bodies are often associated with beauty, desirability, and attractiveness while dark ,black-skinned female bodies are not. In the industry, a lot of Black models are tokenized and used as props. Even in magazines, white women grace the cover, while Black women can scarcely be seen throughout the pages. Racism and discrimination are also extended to Black creatives. In a Forbes article , Sharon Edelson explains that Black designers and fashion editors fight for the same resources and opportunities daily. However, without the proper connections, which are often gatekept from them, they lack the funding and resources to debut and launch their work.
Despite the lack of accessibility, I wanted to meet Black women who were making strides in the fashion industry. So, my goal was to go to New York Fashion Week in September. Months prior, I sent out emails to designers and companies so that I could cover press for their shows. Luckily, by way of my perfectly, meticulously worded emails, I was able to secure press passes for select shows. As the weeks went by my anticipation only grew; I started to plan my outfits on Pinterest and create a moodboard for my trip. On Sept. 9, I took an Uber across town to the train station with my overly-packed carry-on. As the hours waned, I found myself watching as we passed lakeside towns and green thick marshes full of cranes and other wildlife. As we pulled into New York City the sky was mixed with hues of blood orange and lavender purple. I had been to the city countless times, but when I arrived and walked into the Moynihan Train Hall, it felt different. People in neon pink feathers and heeled metal boots rushed past me on their way to shows. I made my way to Ninth avenue and into my hotel. I nervously waited for the morning when I too could join the spectacle of New York Fashion Week.
In the morning, I set my intentions, I told myself that I was going to be present and seize the day. I set out to the “Black in Fashion Council’’ event in SoHo, which was a showroom organized by Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles to represent and secure the advancement of Black individuals in the fashion and beauty industry. Each room had a different designer highlighting their newest collection. I walked around and got to talk with them one on one. I asked them what advice they had for Black women who want to be in fashion, and the overwhelming response was: “Just do it. Get out there and be yourself even if that isn’t always comfortable.” The designs were magnificent, dresses full of crimson pleats, yellow linen pants, reworked denim jeans, and draped silk fabric. Many of the designers said that they were inspired by Black women that had shown them it was okay to be themselves, their moms and grandmothers. As I made my way out of the showroom I found myself taking one big, final look. In those rooms were women who endured years of hard work and sacrifice and carved their way into an industry that doesn’t cater to them. They were inspiring and allowed me to see fashion in a new light; it wasn’t just about the glitter and the red carpets, it was about all the little moments and dreams of a more inclusive and brighter future.
Later that night, I made an outfit change and headed to Manhattan for a “Small Boutique Fashion Show.” I was already a bit late due to the traffic and I had to haul myself up four flights of stairs. As I made it to the third floor, I got a glimpse of the backstage production. The room was full of models and stylists making their final touches; hair was being sprayed, bracelets and earrings were being thrown on. I took my seat in the front row, and as I looked around I saw Black women in chic clothing. They mixed and matched patterns and fabrics and they had locs, braids, or voluminous afros. The song “I’m That Girl” from Beyonce’s “Renaissance” album started to play and the models took their first strides on the runway. As each outfit glided in front of me, I saw Black women of all different shapes and sizes. They walked with confidence, like they belonged there without question. I saw myself that night, on the runway for the first time. All of those doubts I had as a kid suddenly washed away; it was magical seeing their dark skin gleam against the bright colored clothing.