What it’s really like to be black in the fashion industry?

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Troy Fearn, casting director

I grew up in Nottingham which is a hugely diverse city. Everything I am comes back to home – I was blessed to go to a school with a majority BAME attendance and I was blessed to have friends who came from a range of diverse backgrounds. We’d casually speak about our lives, teach one another our customs, talk about how our mums disciplined us, laugh at the differences – and it’s these exchanges and an interest in other people that inform my life and work today.



‘It makes sense for me to represent the faces I see around me. It’s all just second nature’: Troy Fearn, casting director

Being constantly asked about “diversity” makes me feel like I’m always being typecast as someone who only casts people of colour, but at the forefront of my work is a meaning and message of constantly pushing for change. Whilst this is somewhat true, and diversity is always present in my world, I’m actually only really doing my job. I live in London, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, it makes sense for me to represent the faces I see around me. It’s all just second nature.

Ideally, we will get to a place where diversity isn’t such a buzzword and fair representation is a given, but for real change to happen, these interviews and questions need to be directed at the bigger institutions, publications and fashion houses.

We need to be questioning diversity and inclusion across their boards, committees and within their recruitment processes. Let’s unpack the systemic oppression of people of colour and the hierarchal nepotism that leads to a lack of opportunities for people of colour. So I yield my time and put it to the fashion industry to not ask me what I am doing in my work, but to look within itself and ask what they are doing.

Bemi Shaw, stylist

Fashion has always been a wonder to me, by the age of 14 I would buy the new glossies every month and study the cover all the way through to the back of the book. So you could imagine my excitement when I got accepted to study fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion.

Bemi Shaw.



‘I learned the hard lesson that fashion wasn’t necessarily ready for someone who looked like me’: Bemi Shaw. Photograph: Misha Megna

However, at 18, I learned the hard lesson that fashion wasn’t necessarily ready for someone who looked like me. At university, I was one of a handful of black girls on my course and I was often made to feel othered. Now I have to add at this time the prejudices I faced landed on a social-economical side as opposed to racism. I wasn’t racially abused outright, but my use of colloquial language and my style – of a working-class black girl from a council estate in Oxford – was often sniggered at during lectures.

After university, I interned and worked for free as many of my peers did. Soon I landed my first job at a national newspaper. My old classmates referred to me as the ‘token hire’. Often as a black person in this industry, you constantly have to prove your talents and worth. Unfortunately, I often feel like a token hire. This isn’t because I lack talent, it’s because of the lack of people that look like me when I step into these spaces. I am often the only black woman, and if I am not, then somewhere down the line, I will be mistaken for that only other black woman. I could relay to you horror stories about things I’ve faced in this industry. I’ve been asked if I wash my hair – people have touched my hair out of the middle of nowhere! Models I’ve selected have been called too dark. My style is constantly put into an urban category. I get typecaste for certain jobs and looked over for others. Editors have stolen my ideas of representing blackness and presented them as their own. The list goes on.

However, we have gone past the time when I think black people need to relive their trauma in a way to educate. If you open your eyes, you can see that systematic racism is prevalent in fashion. I ask you to look at your teams, do they reflect how multicultural the outside world is? Do you support black designers? Do you cast more than one black model? Do you have any black senior members of staff? If you answer no to any of those questions, then now is finally the time to change. I’m hopeful for change, but I hope it comes soon. It’s exhausting working for an industry you love that doesn’t love you.

Mata Mariélle, makeup artist and founder of Mata Labs

Mata Mariélle.



‘I’m often the only black person in the crew’: Mata Mariélle

Working in the industry, I realised that as a black woman, and a young black woman at that, it was harder for my work to be taken seriously because I was considered inexperienced, despite my wide range of clients and a multifaceted body of work, I would still find challenges to be heard. Marie Claire wrote of me in an article: “At 21, Mariélle already has a resumé – shoots for British Vogue, Fenty and Nike – that rivals those of industry veterans twice her age.”

Reading this, I felt conflicted, whilst proud of my resumé, and the work I have achieved, what is not seen are the emotional difficulties that I have had to push through. From feeling like I don’t belong on certain jobs, to being the only black person in the crew, or being put in a box: ‘She can do black makeup so let’s get her.’ I know black creatives will know the experiences I speak of. We all know. I won’t dwell on these points. These are difficulties, however, that I continue to push through to continue doing what I love.

What I want now is for real change to happen. No more performative black squares, I want real change from these big corporations who are heavily influenced by black culture. Existing cosmetic brands need to start catering to black skin and not wait until there’s an uproar because they’ve decided to create 20 shades of beige and two “medium-deep” shades. Black skin cannot be an afterthought any more. Include us in the process.

Sienna King, model

I know I am not the only black model to have experienced agencies stating that they already had enough black girls on their books or the idea of not wanting many that ‘look the same’, resulting in a particular favouritism for models with the look of the moment. Being 3 of 12 selected for a runway with these dynamics in mind, makes it more difficult for a genuine shift. These factors attached to token gestures of inclusivity are features that stagnate any real change or space for growth in an industry capable of presenting an array of black faces, if it felt compelled to.

‘The industry is slowly diversifying, however, there are structural issues’: Sienna King



‘The industry is slowly diversifying, however, there are structural issues’: Sienna King

Being stereotyped is something I have experienced in my career and on occasion, over the years, I have censored myself in certain situations out of fear of being perceived as the aggressor, the diva or rude. Which is uncanny, as an action will cause a reaction. I was told that ‘I should shave all my hair off so I can look like the other black models’ which would ‘help my career’. At the time I couldn’t believe what I was being advised to do in order for me to succeed. I politely said I will never cut my hair because black girls look beautiful with or without hair. In order for me to get work, to survive, I found myself conforming to ‘fit in’ with industry standards. But as time moved on this acceptance became more tiring and uncomfortable. A lack of knowledge of black skin tones and black hair has meant that for me not to look ashy – or have my hair damaged – I have had to bring my own products to shoots, in order to not be seen as ‘difficult’ which hurts when other models can just turn up to the job, without having to exert any additional labour.

The industry is slowly diversifying, however, there are structural issues that still need to be addressed, especially, if we are going to work in an environment that does not present constant micro aggressions. The need for more black managers, directors, editors-in-chief, creative directors and more, in permanent positions, offers a way to create a systemic impact.

Iremide Ife-Alabi, Strategic partnership executive, Matchesfashion

I have carried the weight of being one of the very few black women in an office throughout my career, conscious that my mannerisms, outfits and work could either positively or negatively influence another black person getting the same role – because why else are there very few like me here or even in senior positions? I had experienced situations in which I had been overlooked for permanent positions, shielded from duties that would enhance my skills and sometimes when it came to pay was offered less. It hurts, as not only did I feel that I’d worked hard, I had more experience. Often when I began to consider the details, the only real difference was the colour of my skin.

Iremide Ife-Alabi.



‘The only real difference was the colour of my skin’: Iremide Ife-Alabi

However, I’d soon come to find a seat at the Matchesfashion table starting my journey in the company as a PR intern in 2015, supporting both the womenswear and menswear teams, looking after UK, Europe and international press. While my experience may not echo that of others who have worked at Matchesfashion I know the love and support I have received from my team is unique to the industry that we are in, not in a ‘we know you are black so feel we have to be nice to you’ way but one based on opportunities guided by meritocracy and genuine love and care. Importantly I feel like I have been listened to, my voice is always welcomed, and I’ve been given the opportunity to develop my ideas and plan events both local and international.

I hope that my story shows that there are allies that will support you, and people who are willing to mentor and advise. I do hope that one day a young black person can see an industry where they are welcome, where their ideas are listened to, are employed and promoted not to fit a quota but because of their talent and experience. To know that diversity is more than just a headline.

Junior Choi, model

Junior Choi.



‘I like to look at the positives’: Junior Choi. Photograph: Ekua King

Racism in fashion is more passive, so a common experience I have is being the token black guy or a choice between me or five other guys that ‘look like me’ as designers don’t like to include ‘too many’ PoC in their projects. I’ve had an interesting experience as a black model working in the fashion industry. I like to look at the positives in things so the fact I can inspire others with the things I’ve done is something I appreciate.

It has been challenging and it does test my patience in many ways, but it gives me the feeling of accomplishment when I do things that were pretty much impossible for black models not so long ago. Diversity is an important term in fashion and it is necessary. Models need to represent all backgrounds in these clothes they’re on the runway in as there isn’t just one type of customer who purchases these pieces.

I just feel that sometimes designers use “diversity” for marketing as its due to be featured in press and that’s something I don’t support. I hope the fashion industry refreshes their mind on what diversity really means and start seeing people for people rather than what audience they might trigger or their closed-minded definition of beauty.



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