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Vogue's Forces of Fashion 2021 event, titled "Fashion Goes Forward," took place virtually on July 7 and 8; the event, which is now in its fifth year, features panel conversations with designers, celebrities, stylists, and editors about all things fashion and style, namely what the fashion industry will look like as we begin to emerge from a global pandemic.
On its first day of programming, Teen Vogue's executive editor Danielle Kwateng moderated a panel discussion, "Moving Images," between Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter and stylist, costume designer, and wardrobe curator Zerina Akers. Carter was the first African-American designer to win Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards for her work on Black Panther. She has also designed costumes for films including Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and Selma. Akers is Beyoncé's go-to costume designer and created the looks on her film Black is King. Akers has also launched Black Owned Everything, a "comprehensive directory of Black-owned businesses spanning fashion, beauty, art, and homeware."
The group kicked off their discussion by talking about when each designer saw herself truly represented onscreen. "There was a breaking point where I realized that fashion played a big role in costume designing. I feel it was Mo' Better Blues, Denzel Washington on the Brooklyn Bridge playing the trumpet at night," Carter shared. "I felt like we were represented fashion in a huge way in film. I saw my work in that way."
Akers says that she, her sister, and their cousins saw themselves in the characters of the classic '90s sitcom Living Single. "We would identify with the characters because one of us was more into fashion and style, while my younger sister was more of a tomboy," she shared. "We all had those faces available to us and a lot really translated through their style."
Mentorship, especially in traditionally white spaces like costume design, was another discussion point the group touched upon, especially Carter's close working relationship with directors like Spike Lee and Ryan Coogler. "It was the time when everything was coming to a head in the '80s, rap was coming into the fold, independent filmmaking was really big," Carter remembered. "I was in the sweet spot. I was in the place where people wanted to see more representation behind the camera." Despite the fact that she worked with other Black directors, there was still a lack of Black talent behind the scenes, especially in costume design. "You could count the costume designers on one hand and those who were interested in film on half a hand." Carter said that her relationship with Lee, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Robert Townsend "was what we all wanted to see on camera that we weren't seeing in film at the time."
Carter herself played a mentorship role for Akers. "I reached out to her wanting to learn more about the film industry," she shared. "I remember she said, 'OK, come to my house we'll talk for 30 minutes.' I got there, we talked for 30 minutes, and she was leaving in an hour to catch a flight. Making that time for me to come and speak to a stranger and invite me into her home ... it meant so much. It was an awakening experience, making space and time for those coming up."
Both designers also do a great deal of prep before embarking on a new project, from considering designers to work with to which historical references to include. Akers said she likes to connect with people who are "on the ground" where she's working; if she's in South Africa, she looks for South African teams to partner with. "There are many cultures that, generation after generation, there's storytelling."
Carter recounted a story of prepping for 1992's Malcolm X. She wrote to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections asking to see Malcolm X's files from when he was incarcerated there and was granted access. "I sat in a cubicle [in Boston] and they planted a stack of files in front of me for the entire time Malcolm X was incarcerated ... booking files, you name it," she shared. "I just started copying everything. Why would that make a difference in what I was doing? The more you know, the better the choices that you make. The more you know about a person, you actually know what clothing choices to make for that character. You kind of dive into his world, his life, and then there's a magic."
If you're interested in pursuing a fashion career but aren't sure where to start, Akers explained how each realm — editorial, red carpet, commercial, or costume — differs. "With editorial, depending on the magazine it can get political, but you can be much more playful and artistic and have that creative outlet," she shared. "With commercial styling, it's product-driven. If you're doing jewelry, it's about the neckline, it's about the color." Red carpet dressing involves lots of thought and consideration; is your client comfortable? Is the look flattering at all degrees? "It's a very tender space and can be uncomfortable for a lot of people," she said. "These are still human beings and they can be very vulnerable and insecure as well." As for costuming, Akers said it's a passion she's been trying to explore more, and loves playing with color and texture.
Both Carter and Akers are passionate about using Black and brown designers in their work. "I've always involved Black designers. It was something that Spike instilled in me," Carter shared, adding that she used over 300 African designers for Coming to America. "Representation is important. I'm telling a story about people in Africa ... I should involve them." Akers's project Black Owned Everything was created to highlight Black designers and makers, but also to celebrate craftsmanship in all its facets.
"We have been hidden for far too long. Throughout history, you look at someone like Ann Lowe, a fashion designer who designed Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress, the dress Olivia de Haviland won the Oscar in, no one wanted to say that a Black woman made their garment," Carter said. "That practice continued for many years, and now the time has come that we retrain the eye and we retrain the mind to see beauty in many forms."
You can hear more from Carter and Akers in their segment, "Moving Images," including what they see changing in five to ten years, here. Also appearing at Forces of Fashion are musician Billie Eilish, designer Marc Jacobs, makeup artist Pat McGrath, global Vogue editors, and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue