Designer Virgil Abloh. Photo credit: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images
A gospel choir sang as the first model to walk the runway for Pyer Moss’ Spring/Summer 2019 collection emerged in an ethereal white silk gown styled with teal eyeliner and an afro. She walked hand-in-hand with a young black boy wearing a FUBU by Pyer Moss sweater as the rain fell. The collection, designed by the 2018 winner of the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Kerby Jean-Raymond, debuted at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
By the end of his latest preview, 48 black models had displayed Jean-Raymond’s work, including a dress featuring a black father soothing his baby, a green silk set with multi-hued-black faces, and a white cummerbund with “See us now?” embroidered across it. Jean-Raymond is no stranger to weaving social commentary about the black American experience into his work—the designer screened a short documentary he’d produced about police brutality at his spring/summer 2016 show. To too many, black bodies are a threat, and black culture is expendable.
In Jean-Raymond’s case, his show was rightfully celebrated as a step towards diversity of perspectives in fashion, but inclusion in the fashion industry is hardly discernible. The runways of the latest New York Fashion Week featured 44.8 percent models of color, more than any other year according to The Fashion Spot. But while the runways have diversified exponentially, the number of black designers has not. “People still like to sit across the desk from people who look like them,” said Mark-Evan Blackman, professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
A small number of the more than 500 members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America are black. The Cut reported that, “Less than 10 percent of the 146 fashion designers who showed at the major fall 2018 shows for New York Fashion Week were black.” The fashion industry has been slow-moving to embrace designers of color, but a handful of young black designers are using their platforms to incorporate their identities and experiences into their offerings.
When designer Recho Omondi held her first show in Chelsea, a cast of all-black models carried her designs down the runway. “For me, it felt like the natural thing to do,” said Omondi, whose identity informs her eponymous womenswear brand. “When I did that show four years ago, no one had done that.”
Born to Kenyan parents in Oklahoma, Omondi, who received her B.F.A from the Savannah College of Art and Design, isn’t shy to the fact that she’s among a handful of black female designers in the industry. The Brooklyn-based designer releases one thoughtful collection a year. So far, each has been shot by a black photographer and presented on black models. The latest collection, photographed by Micaiah Carter in an abandoned locker room overrun by shrubbery, features hyperbolic proportions, romantic silhouettes, tulle, and mostly muted colors.
“When I refer to my identity or my culture, it’s not so unique what I’m doing, it’s just a different perspective,” she said. Omondi, who counts Solange Knowles and Issa Rae as admirers, has demonstrated that there’s always been a place for black women in an industry that has historically been interested in exploring their identity, but not in its entirety.
Today almost everything on the designer’s site, from her best-selling sweater with “N*****” hand-embroidered in the corner, to her cashmere trousers, is sold out. “In the past, fashion narratives have been very bourgeois because it was very aspirational and exclusive,” said Omondi. “Now we’ve entered this time where more people can participate.”
Even so, no black designer has comparable name recognition, financial investment, or fervor to the Donna Karens, Diane Von Furstenbergs, or Alexander McQueens. Carly Cushnie and Tracy Reese, both black designers, have created modern feminine clothes for more than a decade. Olivier Rousteing is the creative director of Balmain. It’s Virgil Abloh of Off-White, who recently debuted his first collection as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, who’s come closest.
“We historically haven’t had access to that access and resources,” said Julee Wilson, fashion and beauty director at Essence. “It’s important for me to do my part as far as getting the word out there about designers of color that are awesome, but I can’t get them into a factory necessarily, or floor space at Bergdorf’s.”