Abloh and Beyond: What Black Leadership and Legacy Means for Fashion

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Kings and queens of the reigning fashion monarchy, the people have a message: the days of uninclusive rule are numbered.

That was the cry heard ’round the virtual world last week at Fairchild Media Group’s Diversity Forum, in a talk nodding to the late Virgil Abloh and his contribution to increased visibility of Black creatives in luxury fashion. And the aim was to see that his legacy — and those of others injecting energy and innovation to the industry — doesn’t fall victim to the same erasure that has left so many Black designers out of fashion’s history books.

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With fashion, as panelists in a session titled “Abloh and Beyond: What Black Leadership and Legacy Means for Fashion” agreed, it’s fear that’s really keeping the industry back from a full embrace of the inclusivity it has been promising for the last two years.

“I think what fashion is afraid of, it’s losing control and power,” Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing said. “Sometimes fashion I could call a monarchy, where you have the queen and the king and after that, the crowd. But the reality is that fashion now opens the door to what we call inclusivity, and there, at that point, it starts to be an entire revolution of questions of doubting the power of people, and why do they have these powers and what that power’s going to mean in the future.”

Though Rousteing was at the helm of Balmain before Abloh’s Louis Vuitton days, the former still credits the latter with championing the Black contribution in fashion.

“Virgil clearly opened the mentality of fashion in many ways, not only with the idea of color, obviously, but the idea as well of bringing art to fashion and say[ing] that the artistic world, the art world is not a white world,” he said. “And this, for me, was really important because I think sometimes, decades ago and still today, this world is so associated to one color and I think Virgil made it clear that the art world has no colors.”

While he’s been at Balmain for 10 years, Rousteing’s color was often not part of the conversation at the fashion house, a fact that made pushing for diversity and inclusion all the more challenging.

“People [only] started to realize that I’m Black since maybe three or four years,” the now very visible — from his social media to his “Wonder Boy” Netflix documentary — creative director said. “It’s been 10 years since I’ve been appointed at Balmain, and every time that I was trying to bring the topic of diversity of my skin color, I didn’t have the chance to.”

Rousteing, leading design at one of the foremost fashion houses in France, said he still had to fight for his right to express his more diverse vision — including diverse casting for shows and campaigns.

“When I was doing my campaigns, some stylists or let’s say some photographers, they refused some of my propositions because it was not respecting what they call a French luxury house….It’s really hard in France to say there is racism because the French people will say there is no racism in the country,” he said. “I had to fight to explain my background, what I was pushing for.”

Victor Glemaud, chief executive officer and creative director of his namesake brand, is familiar with the fight. For Black creatives, he said, it’s often a fight to validate their work, their brand, “so we can sell to these department stores, so we can dress these celebrities, so we can be a part of the system.”

“And fashion is very much a system and it is about network, it is about access,” Glemaud said. “And as someone who has worked in fashion for a very, very long time, my brand is still quite new. People are still not sure of what it is, and whether they know me or they don’t know me, they still want to ‘wait and see.’”

What the world would have seen in Glemaud’s recent fall 2022 ready-to-wear show, was a parade of entirely Black models, a vision he said was inspired by the Senegalese film “Black Girl.”

“Having the opportunity to show this — and I am not the first designer to show an all-Black cast of models — but it was personal,” Glemaud said.

Things have changed to create a world where Glemaud can populate an all-Black cast for a runway show where, 10 years ago, Rousteing said agencies didn’t even have the models to suggest when he sought them. But there’s a reason progress has been so slow and credit for Black creatives’ contributions so sparing: erasure has had its part to play.

It’s among the reasons Jay Jaxon, once the head designer for former French fashion house Jean-Louis Scherrer, isn’t mentioned in the house’s historical timeline in the biography “Jean-Louis Scherrer” by Jeromine Savignon, and likely to blame for the little recognition of Hylan Booker as one of the first Black couturiers in Europe, having helmed design at the House of [Charles Frederick] Worth in the late ’60s.

And, according to Brandice Daniel, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, erasure is the reason Ann Lowe’s name won’t register for many recalling designers of the past. Lowe was the first African American to become a noted fashion designer, dressing high-society women from the 1920s through the midcentury.

Most notably, as Daniel pointed out, “She did Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, and when the press asked her ‘Who designed your dress?’ she said [‘a colored dressmaker’].”

“She wasn’t able to even leverage that moment because [Kennedy] didn’t give her that moment. What they’ve done in America is they call Black designers dressmakers for years to diminish their contribution,” Daniel said. “For so long, the word we use for Black designers has been dressmaker, so many incredible Black designers have been left out of American fashion history.”

And it’s because, she said, of “who’s telling our stories.”

“The stories are written by white men and as long as our stories are written by the oppressor, you won’t hear from the people who were oppressed,” Daniel said.

The reality and the aging-yet-heavily-relied-upon story line of there not being enough Black designers to hire/work with/highlight/buy from is a narrative Daniel and Harlem’s Fashion Row are actively working against.

“There’s no lack of designers. We have a database of over 2,000 designers of color,” she said. “So there’s no lack, there’s no lack of talent — I want to say that over and over again. They exist. And Virgil was proof of that. He was an untraditional talent. I think this industry, if you want to really open the doors, you have to consider untraditional talent.”

That means examining portfolios, work and ideas as proof of credibility rather than solely leaning on which elite (read: costly) fashion school served this talent up, a prohibitive pipeline when there’s still unequal economics at play in the world.

“I think it’s about what we’re going to do for Black creatives of the future because we have to rewrite this history, we have to get this right. And one of the ways to do that is to make at least a 10-year commitment to this work,” Daniel said. “We didn’t get to this place in two years. Brands have made several commitments that they’ve only kept to 2023 and there’s programs that are going to last until 2025. I’m really encouraging brands to renew those commitments.

“Four years of doing the work and focusing on Black creatives and designers is not enough when we’ve had decades of this group being totally left out,” she continued. “One of the things that Virgil did was he opened the door, so one of the things that I’m asking the fashion community to do is open the door.”

But if you ask Rousteing, the door has already opened, whether the gatekeepers are willing to accept and acknowledge it or not.

The reality that fashion couldn’t continue to exist with a prized Eurocentric focus — helped largely by the public displays of social media, Rousteing said, “happened really three or four years ago when people started to realize that fashion is not just controlled by magazines, but people that buy those magazines that are young, that are a new era and they want to break those codes. [It’s] not just living on the last decades.

“When you start to listen to those people, you realize that the world is much bigger than the few kings and queens from fashion that have been there for decades,” he said. “Fashion, we can say one thing, it’s not so avant garde. It’s always living on old stereotypes.”

So where does the industry go from here? It’s about focusing on future opportunity so the mistakes of the past don’t repeat, and that the contributions being praised and glorified now by those who weren’t paying attention before don’t fade into the background when the heat of the post-George Floyd era cools.

That means building the pipeline from the ground up and feeding young talent information on fashion and providing opportunities for them to access it, something Rousteing is working on at Balmain.

“If you ask me, we should start from scratch and from fashion houses, press, starting to help, not only fashion schools because…those schools are really expensive, which starts to create another kind of topic, which is more politic[al] and trying to understand the condition of Black people in your own country,” he said. “So, there we open a conversation with my president and with my government, but this is the beginning of a real conversation, when your color will not define your salary. When your color will not define the studies that you can do tomorrow. This is the beginning of a real conversation.”

And real conversations will require an honesty around where things are and where they need to be, a relegation of the reign of homogeneous power and a willingness to see talent anywhere it manifests.

“There’s a whole slew, globally, of Black creatives that have the talent, that have the agency to create and build long-lasting brands and to go in-house and really reinvigorate existing brands. And that needs time, that needs commitment and that needs true partnership. It’s not something that happens in a season or in a year,” Glemaud said. “It’s about the future, it’s about the new generation and it’s truly about the powers that be, the king and queens, the C-suite, people who control the money, understanding and investing the time and energy.”

As Rousteing said, “Sometimes fashion, they love repetition and they love to feel secure by what they know. So when you start to shake it, that is where fashion starts to be interesting.”

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