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Examining Fashion's Absence of African-American Designers

Hood by Air designer Shayne Oliver. Photo: Getty Images
Hood by Air designer Shayne Oliver. Photo: Getty Images

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In her latest report for the The New York Times, Vanessa Friedman unpacks the lack of African-American designers in the fashion industry. According to the report, only three out of the 270 shows on the New York Fashion Week calendar are by African-American designers with global reach. Extend the pool to include brands with revenue under $1 million, and the number jumps up to just over 2.7% of the total shows. The Council of Fashion Designers of America mirrors the same lack of diversity: 12 out of 470 CFDA members are African-American. "There were more high-profile black designers in the 1970s than there are today," Bethann Hardison, a prominent figure in promoting diversity in fashion, told Friedman. "We're going backwards."

Friedman approaches the subject from a number of different angles, finding a number of different factors for why those numbers are so startlingly low. While the industry is heavily influenced by African-American style heavyweights (Rihanna, Beyoncé, etc.) designers like Tracy Reese and Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air are some of the few who have managed to produce and distribute their lines on a global scale. "My parents always said, ‘You're going to have to work twice as hard as a white person, so be prepared,' " Reese told Friedman. "It didn't hurt my feelings. I didn't focus on it personally."

The problem traces in part back to the education environment. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, 8% of fashion design graduates in 2014 were African-American. At Parsons, that percentage slid down to 3.31% and at Pratt only 1.9% of graduates were African-American. While some blame could be placed on the financial aspect of attending these top design schools (African-Americans's reported median income is $33,000 and Parsons and Pratt each cost around $60,000 per year), all of the schools do offer financial aid programs.

Friedman suggests that the problem may be more rooted in the fact that it isn't seen as a viable career among younger kids, because there are so few African-American designers who have found success in the business. And for the African-American designers who have "made it," there's concern that they are confined to acting like white designers because that's where the bar is set. "Playing by the rules of what a designer should be works against you as a black designer," HBA's Shayne Oliver told Friedman. "There's always a white face who plays the game better than you. You have to make your own rules."