Black Was Always "In": How The Fashion Industry Observes Black History Month
In the United Kingdom, we use the month of October to observe black history and remember important events and people of the African diaspora. Cathrine Ross, Editor and Founder Director of Museumand, has recently written about the importance of this year's Black History Month, as the “time to look forward and celebrate the here and now – and the future possibilities.”
Many companies tend to use this month to fixate on the history of the enslavement of black people, segregating it with black history prior to slaverly and the successful stories that follow in modern times. Fashion brands have previously obsessed over this period in time to influence their collections and events.
In December 2018, Prada released their $550 blackface keychains that were pulled soon after the release. We observed Balmain painting models black instead of hiring dark skinned models at the 2019 Paris Haute Couture Week. In February 2019, Gucci released a $890 blackface balaclava sweater during the second week of Black History Month in America last year, and in the same month Adidas released their white Ultraboost Uncaged trainers with subtle racist details on the grommets, suggesting its metaphor of how whiteness can disrupts commemorations of black culture. One week after Gucci's disastrous attempt at using a racially offensive figure in their collection, Burberry introduced the “noose hoodie” in its Fall 2019 runway. In February 2019, former Vogue Brazil Fashion Director Donata Meirelles hosted a colonial slave themed party for her 50th birthday. We have seen some shameful and racist action from fashion brands in the last couple of years, and little progress has been made.
Marie Claire reports that the fashion industry has a long way to go in embracing diversity, especially when fashion companies are only showing performative support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Early this year, PrettyLittleThing released an insensitive and ignorant illustration of a white person’s hand holding a black person’s hand designed with an unrealistically skin tone. Many perceived this to be a reckless and lazy perception of what black skin colour looks like.
On a brighter note, some fashion brands are welcoming the month of October by recognising the celebration of Black History Month. Depop, a peer to peer shopping app, unveiled their latest campaign #blackondepop in partnership with PayPal, to create a space for black sellers and allowing users to identify and support them. GAP introduced a global collaboration with four upcoming black artists to release designs specific to what black history means to them. GAP will also donate £10,000 to the CNBA Foundation and customers can show their support in store via till point donations for The Reach Out Project. John Lewis Partnership have observed the conversations raised following the unfortunate death of George Floyd earlier this year, which led the company to reflect on how they could ensure black voices are “lifted and listened to”. They have announced inclusion strategies to adhere to their goal of making black voices visible and acknowledged.
This year, we have also witnessed an increase in customer engagement for black owned fashion businesses as they gained positive public attention. Farai London went viral after Kylie Jenner was spotted wearing the cutout halter dress on her Instagram account. Loudbrand Studios also gained some popularity after Kylie created an Instagram post, posing in a nude-toned dress. In light of the Black Lives Matter events around the time of this post, Kylie caught a bit of heat as social media users were not happy that the company was not initially tagged. In May, Hanifa graced the internet with an innovative approach to presenting a fashion show during lockdown and we couldn’t have been prouder to see a black owned brand redefine traditional fashion shows.
The fashion industry has a long way to go in amending its history with black people, but fashion has been used by many, including celebrities, to make a statement. We witnessed Naomi Osaka being told to “keep politics out of sport” - as she wore seven face masks with the names of police brutality victims - and Formula One banning drivers from wearing clothing bearing messages, after Lewis Hamilton wore a top that said “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.”
It is important for fashion brands to recognise the Black Lives Matter movement and Black History Month because recognising their importance is an impactful way of bringing awareness and change for the black community. We continue to see this in the efforts made by celebrities, as Sterling K Brown was spotted wearing a T-shirt with the BLM logo and a black power fist, Alesha Dixon was televised wearing a BLM necklace Britain’s Got Talent, Regina King and Uzo Aduba were honoring Breonna Taylor at the Emmys with their t-shirts and Sandra Oh wearing a jacket on the same night with “Black lives are precious” written in Korean.
As consumers we can influence the fashion industry by purchasing from black owned businesses and supporting events such as Lagos Fashion Week. During Black History Month we should also engage with businesses that show meaningful support.
Written by Bethel Haimanot