As New York Fashion Week opens, a glaring near-absence stands out: why are there so few black models and designers at the pinnacle of the industry? For that matter, is there such a thing as black fashion, and should black designers feel the weight and responsibility of their history and heritage?
A symposium held by the Fashion Institute of Technology this week and a major exhibit open until May have launched the debate on a more public scale. The events seek to celebrate dozens of black designers who, the FIT says, are often under-recognized and under-represented.
African American designers account for just one percent of those covered by VogueRunway.com, the main website for following fashion weeks around the world, said Ariele Elia, co-curator of the Black Fashion Designers exhibit at FIT.
"Discrimination still occurs in the fashion industry, both with designers and models," Elia told an auditorium filled with academics, students and designers.
'A sad thing'
But many say they are tired of being seen as "black designers" and want to be considered designers -- period. Some say they do not even think about race when it comes to thinking up beautiful, innovative clothing for men and women.
"It's a sad thing" that there are not more black designers at New York Fashion Week, which opens Thursday, but it is even more surprising that there are so many men and so few women, designer Carly Cushnie, of the Cushnie et Ochs fashion line, told AFP.
"I am not sure what the real reason is for it," said Cushnie, who hails from London and is of Jamaican heritage. Her partner, Michelle Ochs, grew up in America and has Filipina and German roots.
"I think there's been more talk about it in recent years than there ever has been. So I am hopeful that that will change," said Cushnie, 32, who will show her latest collection during NYFW.
Cushnie shot to fame when then first lady Michelle Obama wore one of her designs -- a forest-green crepe dress -- for a Christmas event in 2011. France's Olivier Rousteing, whose contribution to the exhibit is a gown drawing on the hand-woven raffia used in Cuban chairs, is one of the most famous black designers anywhere in the world today.
But he is more the exception that the rule, said Elia. When he was named creative director at Balmain at age 26, Rousteing said, the fashion world was stunned not by his age but rather by the color of his skin.
The FIT exhibit looks back at dozens of black designers, such as Obama favorite Tracy Reese, Stephen Burrows and Willi Smith. It highlights in particular Ann Lowe, who is considered America's first black designer at the haute couture level. It was she who designed the dress Jackie Kennedy wore at her wedding in 1953.
Lowe managed to study fashion in New York but she was in the only black student at her school and her classmates refused to sit next to her. She had to charge less for her designs than her white peers did. Lowe died poor and forgotten at the age of 82.
But the first first lady to choose a black designer was actually Mary Lincoln, around 1860. Elizabeth Keckly, a slave, was her designer and confidante.
And just as some black designers opt not even to think about race, others delve into the roots of the American South or African tribes. Some, such as Kerby Jean-Raymond, a New York born designer for the Pyer Moss line, are activists. He has created clothing inspired by Ota Benga, a Congolese man displayed in a cage in the Bronx Zoo in the late 1800s, the Black Lives Matter movement, and blacks killed recently in police shootings.
The US designer Patrick Kelly, who died of AIDS at age 35 after being wildly successful in Paris in the 1980s, drew heavily on his southern roots and dealt with race and racism with a touch of humor that raised eyebrows. For instance, he would give his aristocratic clients brooches in the form of shiny black babies to wear on their lapel.
And his logo was a golliwog -- a black rag doll that became a symbol of racial stereotyping. "I think there's more of us than the one percent," said Alphonso McClendon, author of the book "Fashion and Jazz" and assistant professor of fashion design at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
"I was designing for somebody else for 12 years. We don't get the credit because we design under someone else's name. We have to look at the totality, not only the African American designers that have their own house with their name," he added.
McClendon expressed hope that racial diversity in the fashion world will increase via online sales, especially for smaller designers who will not need to rely on contacts and big-name fashion magazine editors in order to succeed. (AFP)
Photo: The Museum at FIT, website