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Black Women and Fashion Week: The Real Creators

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As New York City Fashion Week rolled around again, the city’s pedestrians found themselves running into the likes of Solange, Kim Kardashian, or Addison Rae. As celebrities strolled the streets, they showed out and showed off — but what happens when witnesses take the time to think about where these fashion and beauty trends came from? Some light digging would reveal roots in iconic looks from the Black community, specifically around the height of early Hip Hop in the 1990s.

While fashion week is technically about the shows, street style is the real barometer of what fashion royalty is up to. Every year, the same players — the Hadids, Kaia Gerber, and the likes — parade around, both on and off the runway. It’s hard not to notice the thousands of dollars dripping off their clothes and think maybe they’re eccentric or avante garde. The industry still remains incredibly white and restrictive to a very specific body type.

The fashion world has always had an air of exclusivity, but this functions on an even deeper level than is noticeable at first glance: Efforts to exclude the average citizen from high fashion creates an opportunity for erasure of the looks’ histories.

In honor of this year’s fashion week, Vogue published a list called “The 8 Biggest Beauty Trends.” of the season. On this list, you’ll find elaborate themes such as “sooty, deconstructed gazes” featuring “nocturnal” looks, “statement-making ponytails,” “glass-like complexions, and “gravity-defying updos.” Each of these looks — except for the one which explicitly signals to some kind of nefarious quality — features a model of color, but fails to address the context of these statements. The “statement-making ponytail” is just a Black woman with her hair slicked into a low ponytail and “gravity-defying updos” are far from new.

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While some may consider this an attempt at granting visibility to oft-ignored aspects of Black style, this kind of thinking doesn’t address who’s getting the credit for a fun new updo on the New York runways. By removing the history of how Black women have worn their hair in various creative and elaborate styles for decades, institutions like Vogue ostracize Black women from the roles of creators completely.

According to Zippia, only 7.5% of fashion designers are Black or African American. Comparatively, white designers make up almost 60% of the designer population. This statistic is staggering not only because it’s so small, but because Black people make up almost 15% of the U.S. population, meaning that fashion has about half the representation in actual creators that it should.

To fully understand how absurd that is, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. In the 1990s, female rappers like Lil’ Kim, Eve, Missy Elliott, and Queen Latifah represented a spectrum of Black female fashion — ranging from the fabulously colorful and revealing looks of Lil’ Kim to the more androgynous style of Queen Latifah. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but examples that only scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of Black female artists in the ’90s.

Through her clothes, Queen Latifah created a space for queer women in a male-dominated space, not just because she wanted to make a statement, but because her own identity was at stake. Through skin-tight clothing and the bright colors that mainstream fashion would shy away from, artists like Eve and Lil’ Kim took ownership of their sexuality and pioneered the style that we see in female rappers like Nicki Minaj or Latto today (See: Lil’ Kim’s poster for her 1996 album “Hardcore.”

Tragically, it’s hard not to see outfits that Lil’ Kim did earlier and better reflected in the style choices of the likes of Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian. Furthermore, their hair and makeup choices aren’t just inspired by Black trends, but co-opt them. Just last month, Kim came under fire for her Vogue magazine cover, which bared a few too many similarities to Naomi Campbell’s signature slicked long hair and, let's be honest, Black skin. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the first time the Kardashians or other white celebrities have been called out in this way, but maybe deep down society knows they can’t be expected to change because the entirety of their image is entrenched in claiming Black culture. Thanks to this active erasure, mainstream media acts like the Kardashians are the first women in the world to have big butts and be better off for it.

Fashion Week is a microcosm of the effort to detract from the creative capability and reality of Black beauty and fashion. Only when it’s worn by white people and the historical context is removed do these looks become popular in mainstream culture or celebrated as successful. The consequences of this are catastrophic. Black women are not only further excluded from desirability or agency, but they also miss out on the economic gains that accompany their exploitation. It’s far beyond time that Black women are given their due, but in an industry rooted in their marginalization, it’s unclear if this grace will ever be extended.

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