Home Fashion Black Designers in Europe Urge Action on Racism, Police Brutality – WWD

Black Designers in Europe Urge Action on Racism, Police Brutality – WWD

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Black Designers in Europe Urge Action on Racism, Police Brutality – WWD

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Europeans have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and mobilized, with tens of thousands joining demonstrations in France, Italy, the U.K., Germany, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Hungary.

Racism is a particularly complex issue on the continent. In some countries — like France, for instance — it is illegal to collect statistics on people’s race, ethnicity or religion.

But the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has heightened awareness of police brutality and institutionalized racism, and deepened commitments to enact change.

Black creatives can feel isolated in Europe. Milan-based Stella Jean bills herself as “the first Black Italian stylist, member of the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, and unfortunately currently the only one.”

Here, Black creatives in the region share their experiences, challenges and hopes, while illuminating the unique situation of each European nation:

Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, Paris:

Olivier Rousteing

Olivier Rousteing 
Franck Mura/WWD

How do you feel about France in terms of its record on equality?

I think it’s hypocritical to say there is no racism in France. At least in America, they actually fight against it a lot whereas in France, we only started not so long ago. I think racism in France is more underlying, which means that maybe it’s less seen, but it still exists. It’s less obvious to people, but it’s still really present.

Because in France there is something that is unfortunately really strong as an idea and a vision of what is French: the generational aspect. So everything that has a background, that has a long family history — so the racism is more about where you are coming from in terms of family origins. America is such a new country, in a way, so the racism is completely different. It’s a fight between American citizens, whereas in France, sometimes they don’t acknowledge you as being French. You are always a guest. It’s really complicated.

That’s why I went to the demonstration because I think people need to acknowledge that there’s a lot of racism, but people don’t talk about it in France, that’s the difference.

When we speak about diversity in casting, look at a lot of fashion shows in France. And Paris is a city that is so mixed, so how come it came so late?

I can also say there’s a lot of racism in the press. When I did my fashion shows and there was a really strong diverse casting, I can tell you that some people from the press criticized me.

What’s your dream for the industry, especially here in France?

I have two hopes. The first hope is that this is not a trend, that this is not a topic that people love to talk about just to feel relevant because they have nothing else to say. Because there is something happening, right, which is really important — people are starting to have an awareness of their lack of reflecting the way the world is today.

But we need to be careful of who is doing that move, to make sure they believe in it, or are they doing that move for business purposes, or just for the relevancy of a brand in fashion?

I wish for the future, that when people are loud about it, it’s because they believe in it, and not because they are scared.

My second hope for the future is that [race] is no longer going to be a topic. Because I’ve been at Balmain for 10 years and people have been asking me for 10 years, “How do you feel to be just one of the few Black designers in the fashion industry?” In a weird way, I hope that in 10 years this is no longer going to be a question because there will be so many more.

Sometimes what I feel in fashion is that they love to put you in a box — depending on your background, what you can do. Here we need to be really careful, because skin color doesn’t define the style of your clothes.

You always insist a lot on the French-ness of the brand, and your French-ness as well.

When I got appointed at Balmain as creative director, people didn’t mention my skin color and I think you can see that two ways: Either you see that there’s a lack of color in the country and you don’t want to mention it, or maybe you don’t see it. And this is a question that I never had the answer to.

It’s complicated in France, because there’s the ideal of the Republic — and that all are equal under the Republic. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and racism is present.

People are scared to talk about it in France. It’s really the elephant in the room.

It was good to be at the demonstration because you could see it was the movement of a new generation. It was not only skin color demonstrating, it was every color of the world in Paris. That was so beautiful to see that an entire generation now wants to change the world. And I think COVID-19 helped as well in a way because the sense of togetherness is something that we went through with COVID-19. We realized we have one world. We have one Earth.

Now with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a moment where we seize this feeling of togetherness and we all fight together against racism.

Kithe Brewster, designer, Paris:

Kithe Brewster

Kithe Brewster 
Courtesy

How would you rate your country’s track record in dealing with racism and inequalities? Do you think the BLM movement will have an impact?

America has definitely had a spotty history where inequality is concerned. Firstly, I have lived most of my adult life in Europe. However, as an African-American, my finger is always on the pulse. It’s important to stay connected especially when living abroad. I feel like we have made a lot of progress, but then we all stopped working on leveling the playing fields. In my vision, we as a country, and even globally, have to reach a point where the anger dissipates, then we can all work together to move forward. I understand the anger, and watching it from abroad makes me very angry. Yes, America can do much better. As for the BLM movement, it has already brought about so much dialogue. It has changed the entire world. We will be different from this point on. What’s important is, how do we move forward? How can we bring about a solution? Which I think is simple: we must start with the basics, improve the living conditions and the basic economic situations across America. Why is it OK for people to live that way? I want to go into impoverished areas and build up these areas. Look at the Lower Eastside Girls Club — it’s an amazing example of empowerment.

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?


I believe history will show that I have had to leave my country on two occasions, in order to get a chance to be judged solely on my talent. At age 19, I decided to change career direction and become a fashion editor. I have had an incredible career. I honestly believe I would not have had the same success, had I not had the wherewithal to go to Paris to start my career. I was then sought after, as a European artist, to return to America. Having looked at the careers of Josephine Baker and many other African-Americans, I knew that in my own country, I would not be given a fair chance. Sadly, 20 years later, as I launched my design career in NYC, after four seasons I found myself in the exact same position. Seven years ago when I launched my company, I was one of very few African-American designers showing in NYC. And there is no reason I should not have been covered by the major fashion publications in America. I came out of the gate with forward innovative designs that were completely ignored by Vogue and Bazaar, and the other mainstream fashion publications. After features in WWD and The Washington Post, the others just never got around to covering my shows. As the only American for four seasons to attempt to show haute couture in Paris, and one of five Americans to ever show here in the 150-year history of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, I have again been ignored and not covered. I am, however, thrilled that in the four years since my relocation, there have been so many amazing African-American designers who have gained exposure.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?


The huge houses that have the money to invest in charitable organizations must use their resources to empower the African-American communities by being a part of things that show the communities: “You matter to us.” As far as police brutality is concerned, it’s about the power of huge corporations standing up and saying, “We are against this and we demand change.” It’s been so powerful to see so many companies stand against racism. This is empowerment.

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Like many people right now I feel tearful and I feel tired. I don’t want to comment on the anger, grief, frustration and everything else I feel. I do want to say that it is time for for the entire fashion industry to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with their black family, friends, employees and customers. Every designer, every shop, every corporate group, all press – everyone who loves black culture, who has been inspired by black culture and who profits from black culture directly and indirectly (and that really is everyone) needs to speak up now, state their position and demand justice against systemic racism. Our industry is one of immense wealth, influence and power – often adjacent to the people and institutions that run our countries. This has never been an issue for black individuals, community activists and those fighting for decades for change to resolve alone. For those of you outside the black community who have in the past watched similar events unfold in horrified silence, uncomfortable with your position in this struggle, worried to offend or unsure of how to help – know that your black friends need you now to hear us, take action, and step up. @ldnblm @naacp @aclu_nationwide

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What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

I think seeing us, and seeing all races, is a great start. Just seeing in their vision an inclusive creative team. If you want to reach a diverse audience, then you have to be able to envision a diverse casting. One thing that bothered me in my career as a stylist was the cliche that the inspiration of the show is a certain period, and the designer did not see certain races in the casting. Whether it’s historically accurate or not, we have the power to rewrite history and envision a casting where everyone is reflected. These companies must hire more designers and creatives of African descent and other races that are not represented. It’s time to present a world view. True story: I remember working at Ralph Lauren and fighting for a young unknown called Liya Kebede, then with Pauline’s models, to be included in the show. The casting team had confirmed two other African models. I kept going to Ralph as her card was removed to say, “We must have her.” Ralph agreed, and he personally loves African models. But ultimately, the designers have to say to casting, “I want beauty of all shades to represent my brand.” And this has to reflect in all aspects of products and advertising.

What role can the media play?

The media can play a very significant role by really looking for talent. There has to be more diversity in the levels of profiles that are featured. Just do the work, really look, and you will discover brilliant talent from all races.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?


I’m beyond excited about restarting work post-COVID-19, and post-racism awareness. It’s a wonderful post-war feeling of moving forward. We all have a responsibility to care and to just be kind and to disregard habits that we all know now are harmful.

Edward Buchanan, founder and creative director of Sansovino6, Milan:

Edward Buchanan

Edward Buchanan 

How would you rate your country’s track record in dealing with racism, and inequalities? 

Out of one to 10, I would say two. There are no checks and balances here In Italy. It’s almost as if the majority of Italy has no idea of Italy’s history of colonialism. Racism has a history here and the conversation is heavily avoided.

Do you think the BLM movement will have an impact?

Absolutely. It feels as if there has been a collective howl that has been boiling up for almost 300 years. BLM is a way for us to organize our activism: The organization also represents in a way the digital age we live in, which has been pivotal in telling our stories that were not always heard.

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race? 

Where do I start…from unfair job placement opportunities, to having to consider making others comfortable in public spaces. l am reminded daily that I am a Black man living in Milano.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

Pushing for legislation. Laws protect. If there are no laws which are clear cut and defined, Black bodies are not protected.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products? 

The fashion industry has to be taken to task. We first have to offer educational opportunities to disadvantaged communities to encourage them that they are welcome into this industry. Executive recruiters have to be controlled and assure fair placement opportunities. Schools need to recruit from within Black communities. Companies have to realize that you cannot have a conversation about inclusion from the outside if you are non-inclusive on the inside.

What role can the media play? 

The media has saved lives and also exposed lost lives. We have to safeguard journalists and use the media intelligently. Collective non-biased communication has far reach.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

Being actively involved in educating and not being silenced.

 

Stella Jean, founder and creative director of Stella Jean, Milan:

Stella Jean

Stella Jean 
Andrea Benedetti

How would you rate your country’s track record in dealing with racism, and inequalities? Do you think the BLM movement will have an impact?

If you are asking me if #BlackLivesMatter in Italy, I would answer that legally, yes. Article 3 of the Italian Constitution of 1948, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, makes sure that systemic racism doesn’t take place in Italy. In reality, we constantly face a wall of indifference and denialism. I realize and can rationalize the extreme fatigue of my country in admitting that there is a racism issue in Italy. But it doesn’t justify constant denial. Nowadays I read very good suggestions and passionate advice of my compatriots, directed toward certain aspects of the critical situation happening now in the U.S. I think that a portion of this passion and blame should be used to target what’s happening in Italy because we also have a critical situation when it comes to the integration of minorities into the society, and the incongruity with which they are treated. These are things that are happening in total indifference of certain stakeholders. I believe that we should start tackling these issues that are local. To begin with, what happens here under your noses, in your own house every blessed day in a different form than what is witnessed overseas, but with a shared hateful matrix. About the BLM’s impact, I’m terribly afraid that last-minute activists, and the ones who used to act like nothing was wrong and now jump on the bandwagon, will not be there tomorrow when the spotlight fades and the indignation returns to its familiar custom of distance and daily indifference.

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race? 

I’ve had to deal with multiple insults and aggressions; what still affects me today is indifference. It’s the most redoubtable of enemies. I share the point of view of Gramsci: “Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life.…That what happens, the evil that weighs upon all, happens because the human mass abdicates to their will.” Being Black in Italy means learning how to deal with racist speech from the early age of seven years old. To tame the pain and resist until you react, to first of all insults, then to blackmails, lastly to aggressions. It’s a routine of normalized barbarism that builds a path with obstacles, where you inherently learn how to constantly be alert. Even the safety you might get because of who your family is doesn’t represent a safe haven. It might be written on a piece of paper that you are Italian, yet you – with the dark skin – simply are not Italian, and you simply cannot be. That’s why, back in February during the last Milan Fashion Week, I decided not to showcase my collection, since the situation I was facing was no longer acceptable. And I could not fathom holding a fashion show as if nothing serious is happening. We chose to realize a social awareness project instead: “Italians in becoming.” The new multicultural Italy is highlighted through the portraits of 20 women: Italian beyond all prejudice, Italian beyond every shade of skin tone, and regardless of physical characteristics or beliefs. I spoke out about our struggles in a campaign that featured 18 women who fought and did not bend, I opened the door for you to get a glimpse of our reality in Italy. This projects aims to portray these women not as victims, but as active agents of a change that is, willingly or unwillingly, already well underway. We have felt racism on our skin and in our soul, and we offered our voices to reach out to you. We did it with smiles because we do not let ignorance pull them down. Yes, we have always been here and will continue being here until a cultural change takes place.

 

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

Discrimination in Italy happens through multiple and diverse shades, many characteristics of it are different to discrimination in the U.S., yet the source and impulse of racism is the same. We have to work on different forms of brutality occurring in Italy.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

I’d ask the Italian fashion industry to stand by us with the same determination and emphasis they had when they had to post black squares, trendy hashtags and beautiful declarations on diversity and inclusion. This would demonstrate they not only adhere with the message of the highly performing hashtags and their strong statements, but that they also understand the implications, allowing them to be coherent with their intentions and, consequently, their actions. The bridge of multiculturalism necessarily needs shoulders to bear the weight. Therefore we need them as well, we need real effort and consistency to allow this path of communication to flow. I’d ask to not turn their back when minorities talk about how they cannot breathe here, suffocated by local indifference.

Let’s start passing the mic, amplifying the voice of men and women of color. Allow young Black people to be part of your teams. Skin color shouldn’t be the reason for which you hire someone, yet it shouldn’t be the reason for which you don’t either. I’m not asking for extreme measures to be taken, but valuation of merit can never be subordinated to color. I’d also remind to those with generous hearts that in Italy there also are organizations of African-Italian youth who would highly appreciate support and could use funds to sustain their fight for survival in this country.

What role can the media play?

It is important that intentions and statements are supported by the noble practice of information divulgation, which includes highlighting racism in Italy. I am well aware that the first step is the hardest one and the most uncomfortable, but if we don’t start opening our eyes and acknowledging the existence of the problem, we will never get to a solution.

There is a need to take a break on talking about us — it’s time to talk with us. Exactly like what you are currently doing. By doing so you are inviting people to research, learn about our history, hear our voices and inherent desire for justice. Hopefully, you will understand us better and will take action to amplify our voices because we, Italians of different backgrounds, feel the same way as Americans: we can’t breathe. I hope this conversation, which finally highlights our voices in the media, will exceed the mystical realm that is a trend and a simple click, and will stick to your realities from now on, promoting understanding, the embrace of multiculturalism and acceptance. I hope you wish to stay determined, anti-racist and I hope you will continue manifesting when facing injustice.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

When I intervened during the protest in Piazza del Popolo, the plaza was packed with youth of all shades of the world, and I was able to see the magnificence of my country — its strong multicultural roots. Everyone was united. Far from political colors and idealist opportunism. We were screaming together, and after going through childhood and adolescence as the only Black girl in school, in my neighborhood and during swimming lessons, for the first time in my life I realized that: I am not alone. We aren’t alone anymore. I ask to everyone: please stay here when the lights fade. Help us to lead the fight against prejudice, as fighting apathy is a complex battle indeed! I am certain that the only way to overcome this is together. Otherwise, we will have all lost.

Leni Charles and Cherelle J, designers and founders of Kids of the Diaspora, Vienna, Austria:

Leni and Cherelle J Charles

Leni and Cherelle J Charles 
Marko Mestrovic

How would you rate your country’s track record in dealing with racism and inequalities? Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement will have an impact?

Leni Charles: When we talk about Austria, we have to differentiate between Vienna, which is a cosmopolitan capital, and other cities in more secluded areas. Until recently, a right-wing populist party was part of the governing coalition and racism and inequalities were not a priority on the agenda. But this year, it was replaced, so that’s a hopeful sign. Ignited by the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., 50,000 people showed up in Vienna for peaceful protests against racism. This definitely is a game changer for people of color. This momentum creates attention and space to make other people listen to our stories. It’s a chance for us to create unity and equity together. Its a matter of the heart.

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

Cherelle J: One of the biggest challenges is to learn to understand we do not need anybody to validate our worth — we carry it within. It was also a struggle to find balance between accepting to nurture a system that doesn’t represent you on the one hand, and creating your own definition of beauty, body and success on the other hand. Finding our own answers against all kinds of mainstream standards is the proof of the unique strength we have developed.

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ALL OF THE ABOVE! Make-Up Artists, die mir sagen “Ach, du bist ja nicht so dunkel, das bekomme ich hin.” Oder “Oh! Mir sagte keiner, dass Sie Schwarz sind!”… Produzenten, die mir verbieten mein Natural Hair zu tragen, weil es “zu viel” für den Zuschauer sei und “nicht ins Bild passe”… Beleuchter, die das Licht „ausnegern“ (einstellen wenn’s zu dunkel ist und angepasst werden muss, das „hat man früher so gesagt“)… I know, all of us können Stories rausholen. Meine größte Errungenschaft ist die Tatsache, dass ich diese Dinge ansprechen kann. Dass ich mich traue zu erklären, warum meine Haare beispielsweise so bleiben wie sie sind und warum unser Haar nicht „unprofessionell“ ist. Und es mir egal ist, ob ich den Job dann machen „darf“ oder nicht. Trotzdem schminke ich mich meistens lieber selbst, wenn ich die Visagistin vorher nicht schon kenne, damit ich diese möglichen und super unangenehmen Momente umgehen kann. Damit ich nicht grau aussehe und erklären muss, dass das Make-Up einfach wirklich zu weiß ist. Und ICH mich dann schuldig fühle. Für mich ist es absolute Normalität mit gemachten Haaren ans Set zu kommen. Darüber denke ich nicht mal nach! Dass Magazine mich explizit wegen „meiner Persönlichkeit“ anfragen, ich keine Zeit habe und dann nach Absage eine andere Mixed Frau mit Afro sehe… Und ich mich dann frage, ob ich jetzt der Diversity Token war oder ob’s dann doch die Personality ist? 🧐 Kleinigkeiten, die auf Dauer nicht nur nervig sind. Kleinigkeiten, die weißen Models oder Moderatorinnen bestimmt nicht so bekannt sind wie uns. Just think about it. Und 4: wichtig zu verstehen: meine Mutter ist eine weiße Frau und mein Vater ein Schwarzer Mann. Ich also für viele Menschen „nicht zu dunkel“. Look up mixedrace / lightskin privilege und achtet mal darauf, wie die erfolgreichsten und sichtbaren Schwarzen Frauen aussehen. Wie Rihanna, Jorja Smith und Beyoncé oder wie Lupita Nyong’o? Genau. Thanks for the slides to @themerrymary

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What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

L.C.: The fashion industry should stop using any kind of discrimination to their advantage and sincerely help promote true natural beauty in diversity. Not only by showing inclusiveness in magazines or runways, but also in their internal structures. By now, companies should have realized there are more goals to achieve than just Black numbers. A long-term goal of any company should be to ban social injustice. New doors and new worlds will open when people finally meet at same eye-level.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

C.J.: They could actually give us a call. We have done enough research over the years and are more than ready to help promote inclusion and change from within.

What role can the media play?

L.C.: The media is so powerful in making people look at things differently. If this power is used to really make a change in perspectives, as in coming from a good place in the heart, the changes will come faster than we think. It is important to take away people’s fear of change, by focusing on solutions rather than problems. And that’s where the media can kick in in helping to educate people and in shaping the mood.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?


C.J.: The kids of the future. Stay tuned!

Buki Akomolafe, designer, Berlin:

Buki Akomolafe

Buki Akomolafe 
Leonor von Salisch

How would you rate your country’s track record in dealing with racism and inequalities? Do you think the BLM movement will have an impact?

The situation in Germany is not comparable to the U.S. We don’t have the same history of oppression and segregation. But here, too, capitalism is based on a certain degree of exploitation, so there is structural racism, albeit much more subtle. I hope the Black Lives Matter movement will have a lasting impact. While it appears more like a trend for me at the moment, it spiked conversations in Germany. Our president just met with members of the Black community and, for the first time, white people really listen to what I have to say about my experiences. White people are starting to reflect on race-based privilege, and this awareness is new. Berlin just passed an anti-discrimination law on a federal level, something that still needs to be enforced nationwide. It’s coming late, but things are happening

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

As a Black person, I’ve experienced microaggressions in school, in public offices and in the streets. People are asking me whether I can speak German — some are surprised that my German is good. Random people touch my hair without asking me for permission. In the past, in school, I needed to prove more and be better than my peers to even be seen. When I talked about experiences of discrimination, white people would accuse me of being too sensitive, as if my feelings of being marginalized came out of nowhere and shouldn’t exist or weren’t allowed. This is the first time I get validation for my feelings.

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I TOOK a PAUSE I needed to process what to FEEL and THINK, as I was too exhausted by the past events that happened to the BLACK DIASPORA. I was exhausted by my emotions, anger and frustration. I have cried and have been holding so much the past weeks… I was way too tired to THINK about continuing the ‚actual work‘, concentrate and FOCUS on my VISION of a SUSTAINABLE FUTURE. WE can only create an IMPACT if WE actively REST, RECOVER & HEAL ourselves and each other first. I choose to FOCUS on the SOLUTION and not on the PROBLEM anymore, cause it’s distracting the MIND. The fast fashion supply chain is full of discrimination, racism and unfair treatment. It’s based on it and BIPOC are the most affected. As a Black Designer with crosscultural roots, I want to build bridges between two contrasting worlds. BUKI AKOMOLAFE stands for DIVERSITY, FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, CULTURAL EXCHANGE, FAIR & ETHICAL TRADE. . #BIPOC #blacklivesmatter #blackbusiness #bukiakomolafe #blackfemaleentrepreneurs #blackempowerment #melaninass

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What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

The fashion industry is based on exploitation. Producers prey on cheap labor in countries where human life is regarded as less worthy. Fashion companies need to rethink their production processes and the treatment of workers in low-income countries. Big brands with a broad outreach need to speak up. They need to really address the wrongs and not just make generic hollow statements. I haven’t seen more than superficial phrases, yet. They have to use their privileges to raise awareness and engage actively by calling out to their governments and by creating public pressure and taking responsibilities.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

First of all, brands need to look into their internal structures: How are we producing? How are we treating our employees and environment ? Then, they need to show diverse beauty in their campaigns, not just for a season, but always. They need to include BIPoCs in their staff to change perspectives. And they need to speak openly about mistakes and create transparency.

What role can the media play?

In Germany, the media can create visibility. It’s not just about getting one non-white person as a token to prove that racism exists, but about giving Black Germans and people of color a platform and let us discuss current social matters from our perspective. The editorial planning and staff also needs to become more diverse to reflect the changes in society and induce a shift towards more respectful and  inclusive language.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

I can see that especially white people are starting to reflect on themselves and their privileges. They have started to become more open and interested in experiences that don’t affect them directly. With the movement, Black people started to connect and empower each other, and that’s happening globally. Movements like Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future are growing, and it all connects. There’s a feeling that something is moving. This makes me hopeful.

XULY.Bët RTW Fall 2020

XULY.Bët RTW Fall 2020 
Courtesy Photo


Lamine Kouyaté, founder and creative director of Xuly.Bët, Paris:

How would you rate your country’s track record in dealing with racism, and inequalities? Do you think the BLM movement will have an impact?

France’s colonial past, and the justifications it had to devise to preserve its interests as a major power, remained anchored within institutions and the collective imagination. A centuries-long relationship of vassalage, installed by military violence and lasting through today, following the independence achieved in different ways by African countries, contributes insidiously to the complex that fosters racism. All the institutional and media imagery — which tends to reflect a very poor and negative image of the Black population and former colonies (poverty, underdevelopment, overpopulation, immigration, crime etc.) — contributes to clichés and the system’s inertia.

The mobilization set off by BLM is taking on a global scale and now unites people, whereas for a long time it was stigmatized and concerned only the Black community. It is finally shedding a light on the ghastly death toll. It is exposing the arbitrariness and the inhumanity that strike the Black community.

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

Ignorance. Ignorance erected as dogma, clichés.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

The fashion industry could leverage its power of attraction worldwide to be a place of resilience, a place of reconciliation, a place for shared humanity. It could be a place for dignity, by portraying an inclusive image of communities and their hopes.

What role can the media play?

Media plays a big role in exclusion (we all remember how Michael Jackson had a hard time getting on MTV) and often portray minorities only in a negative light. You would need to change the paradigm and elevate the debate by contributing to cleaning up minds and relaying the aspirations of minorities.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

The youth of the movement, its universal scope worldwide feed the hope of a better world founded on freedom, universal love, peace and justice.

Kenneth Ize on the catwalkKenneth Ize show, Runway, Fall Winter 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France - 24 Feb 2020

Kenneth Ize on the catwalk in Paris. 
WWD/Shutterstock

Kenneth Ize, designer, Lagos, Nigeria:

 

How would you rate your country’s track record in dealing with racism and inequalities?

I lived in Austria for the most important years of my life. And I mean, if I would have to rate the scale of racism there, I guess it would be 100.

That’s just the reality. It’s still my country. I love it so much. But then when it comes to representing inclusivity, it’s just zero. For example, I was the only Black child from secondary school all the way to university, and that was just 10 years ago. In Austria, you would hardly ever find a bus driver that is a Black person, or a person of color. It doesn’t exist. It’s just a white country.

I guess that’s also the reason I moved back to Nigeria, because I was just sick of it. In Nigeria, racism is systematic, some like to call it corporate racism. White people are still exploiting Africa ’til this day and this is why we have not grown.

Do you think that the Black Lives Matter movement is going to have an impact?

If people are talking about these things, every time it’s a discussion, then things are going to change. I definitely agree that the Black Lives Matter movement is making an impact.

What unique challenges do you feel you have faced due to your race?

Oh my gosh — going to school was the worst. Someone spat on my face once, and the teacher didn’t do anything about it, they laughed. Even at university, I experienced too many uncomfortable instances that still haunt me ’til this day, it’s just all so messed up. I’m just trying to understand why people are like this? Who teaches people to hate like this? It is so unnatural.

Do I even understand racism, truly? I was only able to make Black friends eight years ago, when I would travel to London and back to Africa. Through my Black friends, I started learning about myself, started understanding the world around me. Making my friends gave me the realization that I had experienced really harsh racism my entire life without knowing how to navigate situations. Now when I look back at my former life, I am overwhelmed by how normal racism was to me back then, I didn’t even know there could be another way. This is why I work so hard and celebrate my heritage and culture. I was taught to be ashamed of it for so long.

What should the fashion industry be doing now to fight racist policies and police brutality?

Give people a platform to tell their stories, support them with your influence and power. Racism is a humanitarian issue. Hire more people of color, give them opportunities to build wealth. It’s important for us to be included in everything, not take over everything, just be included! And it makes the work easier.

Even from a business perspective, it’s actually going to make you more money because then you have access to a wider audience. I don’t understand why it’s so arduous to do this.

We people who don’t have the power, who are working with those that have the power, now really need to start having these uncomfortable conversations.

We need to stop pretending racism is a POC issue. Racism is a white issue.

What should brands be doing to enact change from within, promote inclusion in their workforces and in their imagery and products?

Brands should educate themselves. They should listen, they should study. There are many resources available. They can even hire people to educate them on these issues. Once they have understood the situation, they will know what to do. Hiring more people of color is not the only solution if the company’s ethos has not shifted to accommodate them.

I remember handing out my portfolio to study. And the professor was like, “Why do you have a Black model here? Because they’re not going to buy the clothes.” That was the first day trying to get into university. And coming from a background where I really didn’t know much about my own race, I just thought, “OK. Wow. Really?” And then I started using white models. It’s just a lot. I was trying to just express my own culture in just one image.

What role can the media play?

I feel like the media should tell fair stories, they should not gaslight situations and continue to oppress the oppressed. Racism is not political, it is not economical, it is not social, it is life and death. People are dying, just the same way the coronavirus is killing people globally, racism is doing the same. We don’t side with the virus, so why should we side with racism. The media needs to lend its voice to the voiceless and amplify their cries.

What makes you feel hopeful at this moment?

If I am being honest, I don’t have any hope. I want to believe that this time will be different but people are still dying on the streets every day. I can only have hope in myself and my community, and make sure we are the change we want to see in the world. I am proudly Black, proudly African, I truly believe in what I do. I am thankful for my heritage and culture for being a constant source of inspiration. Why is it a topic that only three African designers are joining Paris Fashion Week? That’s an insult. That doesn’t make me feel good. The continent is full of talent, yet only room for three on the global stage — why?

We all just need to come together and change it.

See Also:

Voices of Fashion’s Black Creatives on the Work to Be Done

Voices of Fashion’s Black Creatives on the Work to Be Done, Part 2

Voices of Fashion’s Black Creatives on the Work to Be Done, Part 3

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