FACE Roundtable: Three Queer Fashion & Apparel Pros Discuss People of Color In Their Industry

We know that fashion and apparel present images of what beauty and attraction look like. From runways to magazine shoots to advertising campaigns to models and celebrities at every level, there is a lot of room for the fashion and apparel industries (as cousins in the world of framing our forms) to either aid in the progress toward representation, or hinder it.

With this month’s focus on the beauty of people of color, EFNIKS had a conversation with 3 people whose daily lives exist in these worlds, to gain insight into how we perceive beauty, and explore whether that world has room for people of color. They even offer some advice in the end.

Daniel is a queer Latinx fashion merchandiser for a worldwide brand based in San Francisco, working more than a half-decade in his current role.

Matthew is a queer Black fashion designer and entrepreneur, having worked in high-end retail for almost 20 years after formally honing his designcraft at San Francisco State.

Ryan is a queer Filipinx fashion and costume designer out of Los Angeles, having worked nearly a decade in the industry after graduating from the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York.

EFNIKS: I’m gonna dive right into this topic without all the leadup and pleasantries. You ready? Okay, the first part of my question is this: Does the industry allow for people of color as designers and folks on the back end? Second part: If it does, who does a good job of that?

MATTHEW: I think the industry is filled with people of color; designers and those behind the scenes. We know of Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang, Alexander Wang, Peter Som, Philip Lim, Dao-Yi Chow (Public School), Maxwell Osborne (Public School), Byron Lars, Tracy Reese, (the Legendary) Stephen Burrows, Kimora Lee Simmons, etc. There are also many POC who work as pattern makers, sewists, cutters, salespeople, marketers and the like. I don’t know exact numbers, so I can’t speak to percentages.

As far as who does a job hiring these people, I can’t speak to that. Yet, I believe we would see more POC of color in this field as entrepreneurs and indie designers if they had more access to capital.

DANIEL: Agreed with the points above. Also to consider: fashion centers are largely coastal metropolitan cities domestically, so they’re going to draw the more diverse groups we are familiar with now. I am sure working out of some of the big apparel companies based in the Midwest paint a very different picture.

RYAN: I think there’s different facets to this. I think job level plays a lot into it. For example, most of our sewists are immigrants, they make minimum wage, and they don’t necessarily need to speak English. The majority are Mexican or Chinese. If they learn English they can see more of a future then sewing maybe managing a studio, etc. For this level of work in fashion...it’s sort of limiting. It allows a lot of people of color, but they are hitting a wall at some point. I really care for my sewists and across the industry they aren’t being paid fairly.

We just dealt with fashion week we worked maybe four weekends in a row, sometimes 7am until 3am the following morning. I literally had to fight for them to get Uber’s home. I can complain all day long but the most crazy thing to me is that these sewists brush it off and won’t fight because they are so used to being treated like this. They are conditioned to put aside fairness because a) they are making money, and b) they aren’t working for themselves but the future of their children.

The next level up is designers and production people. They are mostly 2nd or 3rd generation, coming from all over the world, really. In PR and Sales, I find a lot of white women. They have the same disposition and delivery: the Valley girl, or girls living off an inheritance. They’re stereotypically pretty, because it’s part of their job.

Overall, I think technology has made fashion more global, and more accessible. I used to read magazines and follow style.com before Vogue took over. It wasn’t easy back then to get into “fashion”. And design schools were more picky back then--when I was applying, Parsons only accepted 200 applications total.

EFNIKS: So, to summarize your responses, we might be able to say that: 1) Yes, there are opportunities and plenty of PoC in fashion; 2) This is partially because of the diverse locations and the geography of fashion centers; 3) Technology has lowered barriers to entry and made the industry more democratic, which may help PoC; 4) MORE PoC would be starting their own businesses if they had the funding; and 5) But if we look deeper, then we see a “prestige position” vs “non-prestige position” breakdown in pay equity that is biased against PoC, and customer-facing divisions may be more lacking in diversity and reduced opportunity for PoC. Is that a fair read?

MATTHEW: Looks great.

RYAN: Yes.


EFNIKS: My next question stems right from this. But let me frame it first. People say that having people of color “behind the scenes” (having or creating opportunities for advancement and creative input, mean that what we see, the end products, that decision-making), will mean more visible PoC in this industry--the kind of customer that is marketed to, the names and faces we see in magazines, which celebrities get to wear which names and labels, and even down to the retail level customer that products are created for.

Is this happening? If we are seeing diversity behind the scenes, does this lead to seeing more PoC faces publicly, more advancement for PoC, more products for PoC, and better treatment of PoC overall?

DANIEL: It is happening, but I am not certain it’s as a result exclusively of the people that are behind the scenes. Controversy in fashion is always welcome. It gets people talking. If it’s an editorial featuring only Black models, a runway show featuring a few “curvy” models - what are you doing that sets you apart, will get you coverage? Does it help that this is a point of conversation now in other areas?

Apparel is a little different. Are you appealing to as many people as you can without appearing tone deaf? How can you be socially conscious in product and still drive revenue and volume? Do you at all? These are conversations that happen, and having voices in the conversation does help - but it’s still a new way of thinking/working.

There is a difference between fashion and apparel (I work in apparel). In apparel, you have to kind of be everything to everyone based on your scope. Your marketing should be as inclusive as it can to avoid alienating people. Ultimately, it’s controversy and trend that are big drivers in the fashion/apparel world. And race is at the forefront of both of those. It’s an interesting time.

MATTHEW: I see more diversity in fashion images and shows more than ever. One would hope that it’s a result of having more POC behind the scenes and in charge but I don’t think so. It’s about making money. Fashion and apparel by its nature must keep up with the times to be profitable and relevant. Due to social media, consumers are demanding to see themselves represented in ads, fashion shows and any other media. Not being inclusive results in profits lost or a possible PR nightmare. The customer's voice is more important than ever. What I hear from clients is that they don’t have to buy from brands that only feature white models. So, they don’t.

RYAN: I think it’s a combination of more and more PoC in fashion, but also I think fashion (and especially high-end fashion) it’s a reflection of the times and all the tension and social media attention on race. I think in America, specifically, race is being forced in everyone’s faces now and I think fashion is responding to it through more POC as models, or as key creative directors (who are basically celebrities now) to represent their brands. Look at other brands like Balmain and Olivier Rousteing and Virgil from Off-White. It’s nice to see diversity but it’s refreshing to fashion icons to respond to politics.

I think that’s when you really see who has the balls to do so. When Hillary was running, it was the first time Vogue ever endorsed a candidate. When Trump got elected, there was a wave of designers who spoke up, which were the first uncensored political remarks from this handful of icons. I think fashion has also been a home for those who didn’t fit in and still owned it. Don’t get me wrong, there is still work to be done--always--to be more and more open to PoC.

EFNIKS: Moving the discussion forward (we’ve got plenty more to discuss), how can aspiring PoC, and especially queer & trans PoC, be mindful of representation in fashion and apparel as they move through? Do they have to silence themselves for a seat at the table? What would you recommend to them as far as education or training or otherwise pursuing a career in these industries? And that goes for front-end and back-end. What do you say to the children following in your footsteps?

DANIEL: I don’t know that I can really speak to this through a PoC lens, specifically. As a QPoC myself, with only former corporate experience behind me and no formal education in what I was getting myself into, I knew it would require busting my ass, being likable, and confident in the talent I had to bring to the table. I think what I had that worked in my favor was that “work hard” mentality my immigrant dad instilled me - I knew that was literally part of my DNA and was so thankful for it, as it definitely aided me in getting to where I am.

I’d say I have not had to silence myself, dilute myself, none of that. So I’ve been very lucky in that regard. I think in a creative space, being able to bring your actual self to a table pays off. Insincerity or posing can be sensed from a mile away, reducing your credibility.

RYAN: Some advice for PoC wanting to get into the industry: OBSERVE AND LISTEN, use that to get yourself to where you want to be. Keep learning--that part never stops. Have intention. Even if you fail, it’s a stepping stone. Don’t make the same mistakes.

There’s a Kelela quote that I can’t ever forget, and I would tell it to PoC who are scared to jump into any industry: “For me it’s not fearlessness. It’s having fear and doing it anyway. Being scared is courage.”

MATTHEW: Regarding what queer and trans PoC should do to have “a seat at the table”: they should be themselves, be prepared, be informed and and be respectful. In all professions, these attributes are necessary. In fashion, retail or apparel, these things are more important.

Be your authentic self: there will always be an audience, customers, or an employer who will want you because of your unique “brand,” personality and opinions. One should also be prepared by doing their homework. Every project or task is an opportunity to show off your talents. Whatever you present should have been researched thoroughly. Be informed: fashion, apparel and media are directly influenced by what’s going on in the world. If one is selling a product—which we all are—one must understand the current state of mind of one’s customers and potential new customers. Be respectful: Manners and common courtesy will open doors that being a prick won’t. The world doesn’t owe you anything, act as if you’re grateful for every opportunity.

To add, wherever you’re from, wherever you are, there is opportunity to be creative and learn about your craft or skill.  Build your résumé by working the events in your town or city. PoC must have more experience, more drive, more determination and more education to be successful.

And I personally think education is vital: college degree is necessary; your GPA matters; go to the best school you can get into; move away from your hometown; if you’re going to go to art school or study a creative art, minor in marketing, business management, finance or economics (understanding how the less glamorous parts of the industry work, is crucial); your education isn’t just in textbooks and syllabi but also in magazines, online publications, documentaries, newspaper and other media; there is money to go to college--look for every grant and scholarship that is available to you (it takes time to research but there is so much money that isn’t distributed because many people don’t apply).  

EFNIKS: Who do you follow, what sites or magazines or people should our readers follow?

RYAN: I read Business of Fashion and Vogue Runway

DANIEL: I’ll have to be honest - I’m extremely lazy when it comes to following specific blogs or publications around fashion. Since there are so many accounts, newsletters, or websites that kind of serve as aggregates for most major info, I generally rely on them. For moments of discovery, I actually love to use my Explore page on IG - once I get through the drag queens and dudes wearing no clothes, I can find some fun and interesting stuff. Maybe my colleagues might be better on specifics. However, I am excited to see what Condé Nast is going to do with their new LGBTQ endeavor, called Them. So far, they are coming across in a way that is young and inclusive, which is super exciting.

MATTHEW: For fashion and style, I regularly read and follow Vogue.com, Business of Fashion, WWD, The Curvy Fashionista, CFDA, Fashion Bomb Daily, and a plethora of other fashion, beauty, and political influencers.

EFNIKS: In both style and fashion, who are some PoC who are killing it right now, who wears "it" best among us?

RYAN: Peju Famojure - she styled my show back 2011. She styles Solange now. Matthew Henson is a friend and A$AP Rocky’s stylist. Kelela she’s a musician but she’s very fashion relevant, sits front row at Vuitton, etc.

MATTHEW: Definitely have to look at Gabi Fresh, Sir John, Monique Robinson, Jazzmine Carthon, Liris Crosse, Yara Shahidi, Jason Bolden, Law Roach, and so many others.

EFNIKS: What are trends for PoC coming through, what would you tell PoC to look for?

RYAN: I can’t tell people to necessarily look for something to refer to for style. That’s something you discover on your own. It’s about authenticity.

DANIEL: Similarly to Ryan, I don’t know that I can point POC specifically to any kind of trend for them, per se. Authenticity breeds confidence and all that shit is sexy - do you.

MATTHEW: As far as trends? The ‘90s are back, and the ‘80s are coming back (see the Spring 2018 shows).Gender neutral clothing will be a growing market. Look for statement dressing, and color, lots of Color. But in the end go for individuality - it’s always important!

EFNIKS: We are a space for queer and trans people of color: if you had to say anything at all, give any life advice to the children, what would you say?

MATTHEW: We are community: a community of individuals with different life experiences and points of view. This makes us strong. This makes us powerful. The only way to use that strength and that power is to work together. Racism, bigotry, sexism, transphobia cannot exist in our community. We must lift each other up. We must protect each other. We must learn from one another. We must love one another. Authenticity and individuality are everyone’s right. We must respect it. Resist anything and anyone who tries to limit your greatness and take away your civil rights. We, as queer & trans PoC, have come a long way. But the fight continues.

DANIEL: My advice would be to remember that there is a such richness to your own life experience, and to never be ashamed of that. What we see out in the world today (in trend, media, etc) is a direct takedown of things we grew up with as PoC - I personally love the storytelling fashion lends itself to, and being able to have a voice in that has been vital to building the confidence I now have.

RYAN: I always ask myself that about my future children, what would I say to them. And I would say fuck the haters and tune out the noise.

EFNIKS: Thank you all for this conversation, and sharing your expertise and perspectives. You’re all very dope humans--keep on keepin on, fam.


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