Black by Design
Three participants in The Museum at FIT’s “Black Fashion Designers” exhibition discuss race, representation, and the industry.
By Shyam Patel and Antwan Duncan
February 1, 2016
Just before the opening of “Black Fashion Designers” at The Museum at FIT, designers Kerby Jean-Raymond, LaQuan Smith, and Eric Gaskins sat down with Surface for a roundtable discussion. The candid conversation covered their work, cultural appropriation in fashion, and the show, which looks beyond the physical work of black designers and examines the modus operandi behind the clothes.
We also asked the participants to take a quick survey and give us a taste of their perspectives. Their handwritten responses are in the slideshows below.
Can each of you introduce yourselves?
Kerby Jean-Raymond: I am the designer and founder of Pyer Moss.
Eric Gaskins: I had my own luxury women’s day and evening collection for about 30 years that just closed in the last five. But I’m a lifer—a retired lifer.
LaQuan Smith: I’m a New York-based designer—womenswear. I founded my brand in 2010, and I’ve been pretty much going strong since then.
How has your race affected your careers?
Smith: I think we’ve all experienced probably the same things, or maybe different things, at particular times. At some point it [race] has definitely helped my career as far as embracing who I am and where I come from.
I remember being 21 years old and André Leon Talley from Vogue was really into my work. He read my story in The New York Times and he became someone that opened up a lot of doors for me and really embraced me, embraced my culture, and embraced my story. Something similar that we had is that we were both raised by our grandmothers, and ironically enough they’re from the same town. It was those things that really helped cultivate a relationship from the beginning. Being under André’s umbrella helped cultivate other relationships in the fashion industry for me.
Gaskins: When I started my business it was in the mid-’80s. It was a really different time. It was sort of the end of the golden age of fashion, before the whole system changed. Design houses were design houses, and not considered brands. Branding was in its infant stage. It was all about design. At that stage, it was, for young designers—which I was then—more a competition about who had the most interesting, creative design that was also salable. In the stores, you were judged more on your work than on your identity. At the same time, because they were luxury stores, I would run into resistance from some buyers because they had a preconceived idea about who would be a luxury designer. They thought that black designers were too marginal, not sophisticated. That was a strange barrier to have to deal with.
Jean-Raymond: I started this business in 2013, and prior to that I had worked in the industry for 13 years. I started when I was 14. At my first couple of jobs, I would do full design work from conception to pattern-making to everything, but I would always be paid at the intern level. After a point, I got discouraged, and I quit the industry for a little bit. It’s kind of weird to hear, but I was 19 and retired. I changed my major. I went to law school and then dropped out. I eventually decided that I was going to come back to the industry, but only if I could own everything vertically.
I’m coming into it in an age when the only thing that seems to be clicking off the shelves is streetwear. The hottest streetwear designers right now are black. I don’t necessarily identify with that, but you tend to get lumped in just because of what you look like. I’m unfairly categorized as a streetwear designer, even though I started off as a women’s evening wear designer. And I tailor. I’m actively figuring out my role and my place in this industry, but I know what has been working for me lately is actually speaking up about the things that I don’t find to necessarily be right.
Did you ever feel like other people’s expectations limited how you could work?
Gaskins: It initially helped because it was an unusual item on a résumé. I was able to get a lot of interviews because designers were curious to hear what the experience was about. I saw everybody, but it didn’t seem to be the thing that would get me a job. At that point they seemed to have this idea that I wasn’t an American designer—that I designed in a way that was strictly suited for Europe, which was really not the case. I came back and I worked in a bookstore for two years while I came up with new ideas and had more interviews. I basically found my own voice, which is I guess the thing that any of us would have to do in order to be considered valid for the marketplace.
According to The Museum at FIT, only one percent of the designers on Vogue Runway are black designers. How do you think the industry can be changed to work for more people or to recognize more people?
Jean-Raymond: The best way for me to answer that is to say that the culture of black people and minorities is often appropriated, but [they are] often not included in the process—for a lack of better words. I feel like we are the trendsetters when it comes to music and fashion and everything. Behind the scenes there are people who are copying this, watching this very closely, and including it in their work, but they are not giving us the credit for the things that we create, for the things that we contribute. Whether that’s because of a widespread misunderstanding of what it’s like to work with a black person, I don’t know. I can’t speak to that. I just know that there is no shortage of black creatives. There’s just a shortage of black paychecks.
Gaskins: Lots of design houses are filled with black assistant designers and different players in the process of creating clothes. Rarely are there black designers that are creative directors. That’s always such a strange question to try to answer because it’s slippery. Companies seem to have a preference for creative directors that are more like them, which usually means not people of color. If you look at all of the companies in this country—and in Europe—it must be the case. It’s sort of an invisible barrier. So many black people working in the industry have really great jobs as parts of design teams, but not at the absolute front of the company.
Smith: I think that when you go into the industry, you can go into the buying world or you can go into the editorial world, and you do find us. You find us in the workings of what makes something really great. But we’re not at the forefront as far as creative direction and gaining that level of respect. What I want to be able to see, what I envision, is equal representation. I want to be able to have a collection viewed for its craftsmanship and innovation, and not for my skin color, or what I look like, or who I’ve dressed and how that association goes with my brand. I experience that a lot. It’s very tricky because I have to be very strategic on who I’m dressing as far as public figures, because that puts a label on me or a stamp on me. I’m a womenswear designer, my price point ranges from $295 to $1,300. I think that the quality and the craftsmanship that I’m providing is on a progressive, contemporary level. I feel like it doesn’t matter how many amazing embroideries I do, whether they’re from Italy or wherever, I still sometimes get typecast as an urban designer or a black designer. That is not an introduction for any designer who’s Asian or who’s European. For me, it’s about equal representation and how we can continue to progress is to support each other from within. It’s going to take someone really powerful to do that and make the stamp of approval and set that trend.
Because black designers are not at the forefront of the industry, do you feel there’s more pressure on them to deliver a certain kind of product?
Jean-Raymond: We walk on eggshells. Like [Smith] said, it’s the celebrity thing. Everyone is constantly looking for ways to validate us that have nothing to do with our actual work. He can be better than Gaultier. He can be better than Margiela. But has he dressed Rihanna? Or did he go to this party? Or is he amongst the CFDA?
Those ways of validating you are saying,“have you crossed over, or have you done enough to appease the other side?” It’s hard for me to explain, but essentially that’s what it is: Constantly looking for other ways to validate me, as opposed to looking at my work. Why do you need to see a picture of my face? Why do you need to know what the color of my skin is? It’s a weird balancing act that we have to do.
You’ve mentioned that it’s limiting to constantly be described this way. Do you mean in the press, or is it also in other circles?
Jean-Raymond: Even coming here was a fight with my publicist. I don’t want to be grouped in, and I’m a huge proponent for black rights and one of the biggest faces of Black Lives Matter, but that’s separate from my work.
Models tend to be an archetype of slim, white, very young, cisgendered people. Has that limited the way that you can present your work?
Jean-Raymond: I think the amazing thing that I’ve seen in the past few years, ever since I’ve started, is the status quo of models has changed. It’s an amazing time because you’re seeing people from all walks of life. You have really diverse castings like the Yeezy collection, and you have smaller runways that are showing in New York. Bigger runways in Milan and Paris are still using tall, skinny models, but they’re black, Puerto Rican, Native American, whatever. It’s an amazing rainbow that you see nowadays. It’s part of the industry that was slow to progress, but it’s at the point where there is an opportunity for everybody who genuinely wants to model to do it now.
Smith: It also feels like the modeling industry is not as hard as it used to be. It feels like the modeling industry back in the day was so elite, and now there’s so much room for opportunity—especially with designers like myself. I love diversity. I love to cast a girl that’s extremely shapely and has body. My clothing requires shape.
Jean-Raymond: With social media you’re getting to see these models on a real-life level, and you get to love them before you cast them. I found half of my runways off of social media, and just DMed saying, “Hey, do you want to model,” and they’re like, “Oh, I never modeled in my life.” The days of Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford are behind us, and it’s more about who looks the most like your customer. I think it’s a better way to sell clothes. If you’re a shapely girl from Nebraska and you see Christy Turlington, you can never imagine what [the clothing she is wearing] would look like on you. But if you see the girl next door, it can help you visualize yourself in that garment.
Eric, could you talk a little about what modeling was like when you were first starting in the industry, and what it was like to show clothes then?
Gaskins: It was really different. There were very few models of color. It was always the sea of blonde, skinny, very thin, usually white models. Sometimes a few Asian models for diversity and then two or three or four black models who were actually represented by agencies. It was really rare that you could have much of a choice.
The funny thing was, before that, it was the age of black models. It was Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Givenchy, and all of these really influential designers in Europe that were setting the tone for the United States and the world. Their whole passion was very exotic black and North African models. It was two-thirds black models and one-third white models. Then very suddenly it changed, and models of color—there were Latin models, South American beauties—and then suddenly it switched. It has never really moved back in that direction. Except for very recently. It seems like now the doors are open for women of all shapes, ages, and sizes, which is refreshing.
Do you feel like the stride for diversity is genuine in the industry or is it contrived?
Gaskins: I think it’s contrived. It’s something that always comes up every five to seven years. There’s a big outcry and everyone has a guilty conscience for about three seasons, and then it’s forgotten.
Jean-Raymond: I think when you start having more representation, more black creative directors, more creative directors that are minorities, then that opens up diversity in all of those other channels. For me, I just get whoever looks good in the clothes. I can’t speak to whether or not it’s contrived for anyone else, but me and for you [gestures at Smith] it’s who is beautiful to us. That’s a white girl, that’s a black girl, that’s a white guy, that’s black guy, that’s a Puerto Rican, a Samoan. It doesn’t matter. It’s just who looks good in it.
Do you feel there’s a sense of camaraderie or a sense of community among black talent in the industry?
Smith: I think that there is a community of black designers that exists. Do I think that it could be a lot stronger, that there could there be a stronger bond, could we help each other more? Absolutely! Speaking personally, it’s not intentional for me to not reach out. I think living in the heart of New York City, everything is a grind, everything is a hustle. You only happen to hit up someone if you need a contact or something like that. I think that it’s so important to really build up a strong foundation, a strong team of supporters. Just people to lean on if you need a fabric agent, if you need a model, or whatever the case is. I definitely feel that’s something that can be worked on as far as being a lending hand, being a support system to my peers in the industry. Absolutely!
Jean-Raymond: It’s a weird expectation. I don’t expect Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger to be friends. I don’t expect Raf Simons and Rick Owens to be friends. It’s a weird expectation, but at the same time I think there is a lot of camaraderie there, but I don’t think it should be expected. Me and LaQuan know each other. Me and Shayne from Hood by Air know each other. We all know each other because we all went to school together or we all worked in the industry. This Garment District is like ten blocks big, you have to run into each other at some point. You become friends that way. We all go to the same parties. We’re all the same age. It’s a weird thing to expect from us. I don’t expect every Chinese woman in New York City to know each other and have a network.
Smith: I hope that’s not how I came across. For me it’s an organic way—
Jean-Raymond: It’s organic and when it’s organic—he’s right—we can support each other more. But I think it’s a weird expectation from the outside world for all black designers to know each other.
Smith: And to help each other.
Jean-Raymond: We do. Most of us do, because we went to school with each other, we know each other since we were young, and we’ve been doing this for a while. But it’s a weird expectation.
In the exhibition there’s a section on African influence and the African diaspora. I don’t assume that any of you dipped into any African influences, but how do you feel the industry portrays different types of black culture? We all know there isn’t just one kind of culture in the African American community, and also we know that there are black people all around the world with many different kinds of cultures. How do you feel the industry represents those various types of cultures, or does it not?
Smith: I think sometimes when I look at editorial stories it’s like mockery. It’s like acting out the culture, but you didn’t do your research. Especially when you go all the way down to West Africa and Senegal and really, truly try to understand the history behind it. There was so much pain and agony and struggle. Why is it that you’re giving me zebras and giraffes? It’s too stereotypical. If you’re going to give a hood street story it’s like we’re playing house. The stories are not being told in the most authentic way they can be told. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a fashion story or a documentary, or even a collection that has really touched me in deeper way. When I do see a feature that showcases a type of black culture, I’m not sold at all.
Gaskin: It seems like there are really two stories that are considered interesting. One is something very African-centric, super exotic, tribal—or it is a gritty neighborhood. It’s hard, hip-hop culture or a menacing gang vibe. That’s what people expect and that’s what magazines think is the whole story to tell. That’s a very limited and narrow-minded way of presenting black fashion, black design.
Jean-Raymond: That just gave me the best editorial idea. We should do an editorial and make it the Huxtables, a rich black family somewhere in the suburbs and really throw everybody off. I don’t have anything to add with this one. They hit it right on the head. It’s always very stereotypical, and people think that Africa is the size of Brooklyn. It’s not just one tribe. It’s not just Mandingo tribe. There’s Kenya. There’s Mauritius. There’s Egypt. There’s Morocco. There are different parts of Africa and they all have their own different cultures. Even within those countries there are cities that have their own cultures. To use leopard print and put someone in a toga and call it African is very racist. It’s stupid and racist. It is what it is. You kind of just have to watch people burn.
It must be frustrating sometimes to present your clothes in the way that you want to on the runway or in your lookbooks, and when it goes out to publications for photography you can’t control that anymore.
Jean-Raymond: Who can’t control that? I can, I definitely control my imagery. I don’t play those games. I’ll have your whole legal team. A few seasons ago—and if you know fashion I don’t need to name any names—but this designer put on a step show and had all of his models come out in du-rags. I just can’t tell you how absurd it was. The absurd part for me is not the fact that they used the step show and the du-rags, because they appropriate a lot of cultures. Black is not an endangered species that you can’t appropriate like the way you appropriate everything else, like, I expect you to. It’s equal opportunity appropriation. What’s absurd to me is that shortly after that show we started to see these eruptions of violence across the country, which sparked up that Black Lives Matter movement, and you heard nothing from these designers who continue to prop up black celebrities in their front-rows like dolls so they can get press. And then you get these appropriative gestures, but you get no support when it comes down to the issues that really matter.
Gaskins: It’s always just business. It’s absolute business and it’s run by a small group of very powerful editors and publishers. It’s a tight club and it’s a very white club. They have very clear ideas of what sells and what doesn’t. Until their minds change, it will remain a narrow view. It’s always been a narrow view. This conversation has been happening for generations of people in the design business, in the arts, in literature.
What are the next steps? How do you move beyond this conversation into action and, like LaQuan was saying, equal representation?
Jean-Raymond: It’s happening right now. We’re doing the right thing. We’re doing the right work. We’re getting up everyday and we’re putting out the right collections. We’re speaking where it matters. We’re bringing up other designers that aren’t given the opportunities like us. We may not have all the money in the world. We may not be able to offer them $100,000 a year, but we can offer them an internship and get them a foot in the door. We’re doing the right thing. We’re going in the right direction. We might be moving at a glacial pace, because we don’t have the financial backing, but we are doing the right thing within the industry and outside of the industry. When it comes to young black people, the Black Lives Matter movement that’s happening all over the country and all over the world, frankly, what it is essentially is this new train of thought. Black Lives Matter could be a lot of things, but to me it’s a reminder to oneself that we matter. You have these same people who were enslaved for hundreds of years, and Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement, and mass incarceration, and then the crack era, and then these same artists that are born from this generation of oppression sort of has Stockholm syndrome. So much that we create art around it, and we create music to glorify the crack era, and all of these things that are detrimental, like the projects. And now you have those same people who were rapping about that, making music about that, making art about that and glorifying that, now saying Black Lives Matter. It’s a revolution of thought, it’s a revolution of understanding. You have Solange’s album, you have Luke Cage on TV. Everybody is doing the right work. It takes more and more of it, until it becomes a way of life, until it becomes a habit. They say that 29 days makes a habit, we’re going to do it for 29 years and just make this thing into habit.
Smith: Stay on the course and continue to work hard. I’m a very spiritual person. I come from humble beginnings and I have no problem getting on my hands and knees praying for what I want. I think that when I talk about equal representation, when I talk about acceptance and diversity, I am a testimony to my own success. Things have happened to me, as far as what I thought was impossible. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone else, especially as a young, black kid from the hood who just wants to be in fashion. It just takes more. It’s going to take more power players including us in features, researching us, learning about us. I would hate for it to be a trend or a wave where black designers are in. Remember that wave when it was all Asian designers, I wouldn’t want that. I am very true to being authentic and standing true to my identity. It goes back to looking at the product and looking at the craftsmanship, looking at the innovation. Who’s the wave and what’s the future? That’s what is all about. Not the color of my skin, not where I’m from. Those things add to the story, to the brand people are buying into. Typically they’re just looking at a product that you’re developing.
To conclude this, what are you guys looking forward to in the New Year? What’s inspiring you at the moment?
Smith: I had the craziest dream the other night. I didn’t dream that I died. I dreamt that there was a congregation of people crying, mourning in celebration of my life. I didn’t see me lying down in a casket, but the only thing that I could think when I woke up was that I dreamt of death. I googled it and it was actually a sign of rebirth, a sign of a new start. I’m really inspired by that idea and that dream. I’m looking forward to so many partnerships, and growing as a designer and as a business. I’m really ecstatic for the future and what’s to come.
Gaskins: I want to speak to your question before about the future of black designers. For every designer, especially for black designers, the most important thing is to continue to work and do your best work and focus as much as you can on the product, what you’re selling. Make it the very best that you can. So much opportunity comes by way of attrition. It’s a very competitive business. Bit by bit, over time, companies that you consider your competition, or that are limiting the possibilities of you being able to sell here or there, bit by bit, these barriers slip away. Fortune comes to those who persevere. When I was starting my business, a lot of the greatest things that happened really happened simply because I refused to stop. When times were great, they were really great. When times were difficult, it was really a slog. As long as you were contributing and trying to develop and make what you do better and better, that’s when opportunity would come.
What are you looking forward in this coming year? Or what’s inspiring you?
Gaskins: I was just saying to Kerby and LaQuan that I have just finished my career after 30 years, and they’re technically at the beginning of theirs. They have so many exciting things to look forward to that they have no idea are even coming. For me now it’s a chapter that in a way has closed. I write a lot. I write about fashion, I write about the industry—truths about the industry. I’m someone who’s retired and free, traveling a lot, and seeing all sorts of really interesting places—which is really a pity because I’m not working. So many of these places and cultures you experience are so inspiring for design, but I still take it in and get a thrill from that.
Jean-Raymond: Maybe you can help me [laughs]. I’m looking forward to continuing. I don’t think I’ve created my best collection and I don’t I think I will soon, but each one is getting better. I am my own biggest fan, so I’m looking forward to my next two runways. I’m looking forward to traveling. I’ve been spending half of the year in Italy, which I hate. Milan is the Kentucky of Italy, but I have to be there twice a month. I’m looking forward to making new friends. Every year has been a real surprise since 2013. I’ve completely changed my life around.