What does it mean to be black today? For Black History Month, Yahoo Lifestyle will explore this question in wide-ranging personal essays, video features, and Q&As that focus on the nuances of black culture. In this feature, we explore Shayla Hill’s journey as a woman of color navigating the fashion industry.
Shayla Hill is a stylist, filmmaker, activist, and the founder of Slay For A Change, a movement designed to encourage individuals to use their talents to challenge racism, sexism, and beauty standards in the fashion industry. During New York Fashion Week in September 2016, street style photographers snapped photos of Hill, her sister April Joi, and two friends — Kaye Washington and Labrea Gordon —wearing provocative, politically charged DIY garments. The act was meant to raise awareness about topics such as runway diversity and police brutality.
Hill wore a glitzy pink sequin jacket with the hand-painted phrase, “Vogue Doesn’t Care About Ebony Issues.” Emblazoned on her sister April Joi’s black tee were the letters “NWA.” It was a direct reference to the famous ’80s hip-hop group known for its controversial lyrics. The group’s members often made references to their own experiences with racism.
Following NYFW, the quartet traveled to Paris Fashion Week in March 2017 to continue to spread these messages.
Keep reading to learn how Hill is navigating the fashion industry as a black woman, her future goals for Slay for a Change, and what challenges she believes lie ahead.
Yahoo Lifestyle: At one point or moment did you feel you needed to become an activist?
Shayla Hill: Nina Simone once said, “As an artist, it’s our responsibility to reflect the times,” and that’s simply what I wanted to do. I never viewed it as activism.
Though I will say the death of Sandra Bland (who was a fellow alumni of Prairie View A&M University) struck the first chord in me to utilize my passion for fashion as my voice. After attending a memorial service held on my alma mater campus for her, I can recall sitting there feeling so sad and helpless. And, to be perfectly honest — scared for my life. I felt like I could be next, or my friends or family. It was through that time the idea for Slay for a Change began to formulate.
I just wanted to do something during New York Fashion Week to commemorate Sandra Bland. But I actually ended up not following through … until the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile that made me we want to take this fashionable stand. Another factor was the deafening silence from the fashion industry surrounding the issues the black community were facing.
Can you tell me about Slay for a Change, and your goals for creating this movement and now publication?
My goal is to continue to curate and create necessary dialogue. The kind of dialogue that invokes change. This is a movement and publication that will place emphasis on fashion, social issues, and female empowerment.
The website will not only be my voice. [But] we are seeking women from all walks of life to contribute their content, voice, style, and experience. The focus will not only be about holding the fashion industry accountable for their negligence to black and brown women, but also offering solutions and collaborating with brands to ensure everyone is represented equally. Encouraging consumers to support black-owned, small, and inclusive businesses. The African-American community alone has a $1.4 trillion buying power. We need to push those dollars into businesses that have the interest of all people.
In 2016, you garnered notoriety for your activism on diversity and race issues during NYFW. What have you done since then to continue to enact change?
Since September 2016, I continue to screen my documentary Fashion Weak, a film that not only captures the journey of Slay for a Change but brings racism and fashion to the forefront. Each screening is followed by powerful panel discussions. I launched slayforachange.com and I have began doing public speaking engagements to promote my unapologetic story and mission.
Most recently, I did a TEDx talk about Slay for a Change. I [also] created an interactive series entitled “Conversations,” which encourages authentic dialogue with influential people. It’s a series that targets black women and encourages thought-provoking conversations, not only about issues in the African-American community but women empowerment as well. I’m working on a podcast, [and in the] works of creating a nonprofit organization … and lastly, writing a book.
What do you think is the most difficult part about being a black woman in 2018?
Let me just say that firstly, being a black woman is lit. In this era of Black Girl Magic, women are embracing their melanin, natural hair, and features more than ever. Black women are increasingly becoming more educated and entrepreneurial. With women like my mother, Michelle Obama, Oprah, Issa Rae, Solange, Beyoncé, Angela Rye, Tracee Ellis Ross, Maxine Waters, and countless others, I feel more connected and vibrant than ever as a black woman. With all of that being said, that does not leave us exempt from difficulties.
One of the biggest difficulties as a black woman is seeing our culture and creations continually appropriated and called something else in mainstream media. Black women are naturally trendsetters and we move to the beat of our own drums. But when we were rocking cornrows; long, bright acrylic nails; embracing our curves, and using certain vernacular, we were/are deemed “ghetto,” “unrefined,” “unintelligent,” “unprofessional.” Hence, the phrase I created while in Paris Fashion Week: “Ghetto until proven fashionable.”
The Kardashians are a great example. While I admire their business endeavors, they have built an empire off of the aesthetics and style of black women. Many people feast off of our culture but turn their back to our issues — not just the Kardashians.
From the runways all the way to Urban Outfitters, they are flooded with styles that originated from black women. And to be clear, the issue is not that other people are being exposed to something we’ve been accustomed to for decades; it’s the lack of credit in which we receive. It’s renaming it, repackaging it, and presenting it as something new.
The term “angry black woman” is also another longstanding difficulty. It was purely designed to undermine our thoughts and beliefs. It’s meant to put us in our place. It’s a phrase that makes it easy to dismiss the black woman’s perspective. Leaving me to feel [that] if there is an issue — such as racism in fashion, which I’m very passionate about — I have to present my case in a pleasant and eloquent tone in hopes that my points are heard.
I have to use words like “culture appropriation,” “lack of diversity,” and “inclusiveness,” because if I lead with, “the fashion industry was built off of white supremacy,” I’m instantly labeled and my perspective is immediately disregarded.
What is the most difficult part about being a black woman working in the fashion industry?
One of the most difficult parts about fashion is that I’m so in love with it. I love expressing myself through fashion and I live for the glamour. But I’ve reached a crossroads with the overt racism. I personally feel people are far too polite when addressing the fashion industry.
People like to use textbook phrases like “lack of diversity” because that sounds much nicer than, “It’s a racist industry.” It’s important to understand that there is not a lack of diversity; there is a lack of equality. There is a lack of people with moral and ethics. There is a lack of compassion for the effects the media has on young girls of color. There is a lack of people of color in high places to make better decisions.
There is only a very small percentage of models of color on the runway because the industry doesn’t want us there. They don’t want to represent women equally. They know the studies of how important representation is, but they don’t care because it’s an industry that wasn’t built for us. How many more models [need to] come forward with their stories before the [fashion industry] will understand? But the power is in the people, and that’s what I love about 2018. We are not taking any s***!
Have you personally encountered any racism while working in the fashion industry?
I’ve carved my own path in this fashion world, so therefore I have not directly encountered racism. But institutionalized racism is very much real. Institutionalized racism shows up in the media that we consume. I respect the artistry of fashion, not the industry.
Blogger Courtney Brand of thebwerd.com said, “We have to create our own table instead of waiting to pull up a seat at one.” While I’m sure the venue and investors pulling out were devastating, it just means it’s time to re-strategize a new plan and align yourself with people who share your beliefs. It is the risk you have to take to stand in your purpose. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered for taking a stand for what he firmly and rightfully so believed in. What they couldn’t kill was his legacy and his integrity, which still lives on till this very day.
I’ll conclude with this quote: “There is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity,” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2016, you mentioned a few designers who are doing things “right” on the diversity issue: Zac Posen, Marc Jacobs, Mara Hoffman, Tom Ford, Tracy Reese, Christian Siriano, and Kanye West. Has this list changed since then? More added or any you would remove?
I would definitely add Rhianna, with her Fenty Beauty and clothing line. I think Gucci has really stepped up to the plate as well. They are a good example of “righting the wrong.” After replicating the Dapper Dan designs; they heard the response from the people and gave proper credit. Additionally, the brand recently announced a collaboration with Dapper Dan.
Do you think it’s the responsibility of fashion designers to create change? Or whose responsibility is it to change the culture and conversation re: race and diversity within fashion?
I believe it’s our responsibility as people to hold them to a higher standard. It’s not just in terms of race. I want to see a variety in sizes and height as well. I think models shouldn’t be referred to as “plus-size;” they should simply be models. I think all women deserve to be represented positively and beautifully. I always ask myself what [or who] will it hurt to represent women equally?
Overall, what do you think is or are the biggest challenge(s) that still face the fashion industry in regards to race and diversity?
In an industry that’s fueled by forward thinking, they hold firmly to this 18th-century standard of beauty, talent, and fashion.
At what point will you look back and say, “My work is done”?
When we are no longer celebrating the “first.” Example: first black model to [insert achievement]. It should be normalized [to the point] that it sounds foolish to celebrate. When women of color are not only on the cover of magazines, but in the boardrooms as well. [Lastly], when the fashion industry becomes more vocal about the issues of the black and brown communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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