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Behind the Black Lives Matter Protest at Men’s Fashion Week

The Black Lives Matter protest outside NYFW:M. Photo: Eliza Brooke

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On Tuesday at New York Fashion Week: Men’s, models stomped down runways and stood in formation for presentations at Skylight Clarkson Square, a show venue on the west side of Manhattan.

Outside the brick building, another group stood quietly in two rows with their hands up. By the time they dispersed at the end of the day, they had been out there for six hours.

Throughout the day, passers-by stopped to take photos of the demonstration, a Black Lives Matter protest following the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and then the deaths of five police officers in Dallas, all last week. The choice to stage it at Fashion Week was no coincidence — the protest was intended to draw attention to the fact that much of the fashion industry responded to the latest acts of police brutality against black men and women with deafening silence. Silence, and buoyant Instagrams celebrating Paris couture week, which also took place last week.

Hannah Stoudemire, who orchestrated the protest, works at Lanvin’s men’s store on Madison Avenue. Speaking outside Skylight Clarkson Square in the late afternoon on Tuesday, she said it hurt her deeply that many members of the industry — from major brands all the way down to her colleagues — failed to acknowledge Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths last week, particularly when the Paris terrorist attacks last November and the Orlando nightclub shooting in June had elicited impassioned outpourings from the industry on social media.

“I’ve been loving [fashion] ever since I was four years old, and to realize that it didn’t love me back hurt me. That’s why I’m here today, to bring it to their front door, so they can acknowledge us,” said Stoudemire, who wore a black T-shirt reading “Stop Killing Us.”

Stoudemire isn’t alone in that sentiment. As Complex reported last week, designer Jamila Mariama and Hari Nef, the model and actress, expressed their frustrations with the fashion industry on Instagram and Twitter.

**these comments are on behalf of my own personal opinion

A photo posted by Jamila (@fashionistamila) on

There’s a painful irony in the fact that while fashion has a track record of displaying a noticeable silence when it comes to racial violence, it also has a well-documented history of appropriating elements of black culture without giving credit to their originators. Take Valentino’s long-standing enthusiasm with styling white models in cornrows, for instance, or Givenchy (and numerous other brands’) models rocking baby hairs.

In advance of Tuesday’s protest, Stoudemire emailed all of her contacts in the fashion industry urging them to join her outside the men’s shows, and asked them to forward the note to everyone they knew, too. Between 15 and 20 people showed up, though that number grew intermittently throughout the day. A photographer who was shooting the shows joined, she said, as did some reporters.

Some of the security and production people working fashion week brought out water — first individual bottles, then a whole case — for the protestors. Others came out with candy and pastries.

Stoudemire says that while the day was positive on a whole, a number of showgoers met the sight of the protest with apathy and derision.

“I saw a lot of people with [looks of] disdain, automatically, like, ‘Why are you here?’ A lot of head shaking. A lot of people were arrogantly walking past us, intensely ignoring us,” she said.

“The thing that caught me off guard was when black people ignored us and didn’t want to be associated with us and didn’t even look at us,” she added. “All people should acknowledge it, but I would think that the very people I’m standing for, you should acknowledge it. To try to detach yourself from it and act as if you don’t see us while walking with your white counterparts, that hurt.”

One model walked up and hugged every member of the protest. His friends hung back while he did so.

For Stoudemire, a big win came when the Council of Fashion Designers of America posted about the protest and the trade organization’s CEO, Steven Kolb, came out to speak with her and give her a hug.

An important reminder no matter how busy the week. #blacklivesmatter

A photo posted by cfda (@cfda) on

“It’s a domino effect,” Stoudemire said of influencers and industry power players like Kolb acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement. When one person takes a stand, those who admire them or follow them or buy their products very well may fall in line.

She plans to protest again in September, during the women’s fashion shows. In the meantime, Stoudemire hopes that demonstrations like the one she held on Tuesday will encourage companies and individuals to recognize what’s happening in America today.

“Say ‘We are aware of what’s going on.’ Just admit racial injustice is happening. Black lives do matter.”