The Fashion and Race Database Wants to Correct the Mis-Education of Fashion

The Fashion and Race Database wants to re-educate the fashion industry and tell all of the industry’s truths and histories — not just the Eurocentric ones.

While Kimberly M. Jenkins acknowledges the race conversation is decidedly less trendy than it was in 2020 (it’s “unfortunate that this momentum did not sustain from the industry,” she said) the founder, director and principal researcher for The Fashion and Race Database, an online library of diverse content and resources, is pressing on with a fundraiser designed to keep the education platform progressing.

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Tommy Hilfiger and parent company PVH Corp. are among the corporate entities on board and are matching any contributions to the platform (up to $20,000) through the end of November.

“Kim and The Fashion and Race Database are doing the crucial work of bringing much needed representation and diversity to fashion history, which is so important in creating a present and future that is inclusive,” said Randy Cousin, senior vice president of product concepts and People’s Place Program at Tommy Hilfiger. “We are proud to be collaborating with them on our research study, ‘The Unsung History of American Sportswear,’ where we will uncover the overlooked influences of Black American culture on signature Tommy Hilfiger styles and American sportswear overall. We’re incredibly excited to go on this journey of learning and utilizing the platform of our People’s Place Program to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities who have always been an integral part of fashion.”

“It’s been really great to partner with Tommy Hilfiger this year because it finally shows people that here’s a brand that sees us, sees the work that we’re doing and gets my mission of making this work accessible and working toward larger social justice goals, really,” Jenkins told WWD. “The phone kind of stopped ringing once 2021 hit, which is unfortunate, so making these cries for support and things like that has become an uphill battle now.”

Born in 2017, the result of collecting scarce and scattered materials for the Fashion and Race course Jenkins created and was teaching at Parsons School of Design, The Fashion and Race Database culls and curates articles (scholarly and otherwise), books, profiles, images and other relevant content that deals with “thorny” topics, as Jenkins notes, like “colorism, cultural misappropriation and where the construct of race comes from and how it impacts beauty, culture, discrimination in retail.”

Organized into six sections, the database has a library of content addressing the aforementioned matters, particularly as they pertain to fashion. It also features profiles on “racialized” fashion players, or those who have been marginalized because of race, as well as essays and news, a directory of relevant resources and a calendar of events and conversations that “will continue to evolve the discourse on fashion and race.”

Of particular note is the site’s “Objects that Matter” section, which highlights objects in fashion that most would be familiar with, like a huipil, the use of which ultimately saw designer Isabel Marant apologizing to Mexico and promising to “expressly pay tribute to our sources of inspiration” going forward.

“Once you click on [the Objects that Matter section], you’re able to look at the object and see archival images of the object in its original context, the history of the item or images being worn by the people who actually created the object, like if it’s a garment,” Jenkins explained. “Then there’s a side panel that tells you the culture, the time period, what it’s typically made of, how it’s constructed and how it’s supposed to be worn. And then at the bottom of each of those articles you’ll see sort of a list of images of how it’s been maybe appropriated in a positive way or appropriated in a not so positive way. So, it’s also kind of examples of do’s and don’ts in wearing this object or using this object.”

It’s information more in the fashion industry could benefit from by paying greater attention to, rather than asking for forgiveness after a flub and using what Jenkins calls putting “a Band-Aid over it with this diversity campaign, this kind of surface level campaign on social media and maybe people will forget about it.”

Funds from the ongoing raise will go toward helping Jenkins pay a staff for the database to maintain it, to add and create new content and to set the platform up for programming in the coming year.

“For 2022, I want to take it up a notch by not just having all of the resources you can have in the database, I’m wanting to have book clubs hosted, article clubs — because you can unpack just as much in an article, too — film nights, fireside chats with academics, just fascinating researchers, industry leaders, social justice leaders,” Jenkins said of the evolution of the project that began as a personal one and has evolved, for all intents and purposes, into a “full start-up.”

So far, there’s still “a long way to go” in the database reaching its funding goal, but the aim is to get beyond yearly raises to keep things afloat.

“One thing I’m also looking for is some sort of sponsor or donor, someone who wants to fund the database long-term or at least for a full year so we’re not having to do these small fundraisers where we’re relying on leaders in the public for this,” Jenkins said. “The dream would be a sponsor to come in and just give us that boost we need to really secure all of our operational costs and enable us to expand on my upcoming goals for the database which is bringing in programming now.”

For those companies that continue to rely on diversity marketing and diversity officers to patch up missteps once they make them, participating in telling fashion’s truths and reframing its histories — whether through sponsoring the database or making use of it — could be one form of propelling allyship beyond the performative stage.

“We are in a rapidly globalized economy and their consumers — the people who are watching their ads, buying their products — come from myriad lived experiences. So, it would be in a company’s best interest to do the internal work and preparatory work of educating your team and having resources at your fingertips to better understand the consumers that you’re serving and the ones you’re going to attract,” Jenkins said.

To the companies ready to do what she calls the “deep work” that “isn’t going to be pretty” to really force fashion to reckon with race and right its wrongs, the multihyphenate professor, who is currently assistant professor of Fashion Studies at Ryerson University, founded an education consultancy, Artis Solomon, to further support the effort.

“We are in the business of providing education services to fashion brands so that they better understand their consumer,” Jenkins said. “When they’re thinking of an ad or putting together a product and the words they’re going to use or anything like that, we can help kind of look over it and make sure we can do some preventative research where we can ensure you’re coming forward with this with confidence and understanding your consumer. We also can do a little history work so if there’s anything you’re inspired by, you’ll be sort of empowered with the knowledge of knowing the history behind something or the socio-cultural context behind something that inspires you at your company or your brand, so it just makes you more intelligent and stronger.”

Ultimately, the aim for Jenkins and The Fashion and Race Database — beyond bridging the gap between the fashion industry and its real-life multicultured consumer base — is to bridge the gap between industry and academia for fashion’s overall betterment.

“We don’t need to be two separate bubbles anymore where academics are always keeping their heads down and doing their work and speaking in a way that isn’t accessible to the rest of world and then the industry is just doing their own thing,” Jenkins said. “There’s so much rich material happening in academia that can benefit the industry and there’s so much insight and experiences coming in from the industry that could influence us over in academia, so I’m trying to build that bridge.”

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