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Denim as an Ally: How the Industry Is Taking Steps to Right Its Wrongs

George Floyd was killed by police on May 25 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. And while this moment in time may appear to have little to do with the denim industry, his death served as a social turning point for virtually every community—fashion included.

News of Floyd’s murder ricocheted through the social media feeds of a world audience suddenly held captive thanks to quarantine, shifting individuals’ and corporations’ attention almost entirely to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Throughout fashion, Instagram feeds went dark, brands postponed scheduled product drops and global corporations made sizable contributions to diversity programs and outlined their initiatives to do better. Even those that had never previously taken a stand on current events were catapulted into the conversation or met with extreme backlash because of their silence.

In the wake of Floyd’s murder, it was no longer enough to simply not be racist—individuals and companies alike are being called on to be actively anti-racist.

“I think it can be very jarring for a lot of these big brands to join the conversation,” said Zoey Washington, author of The Zoe Report’s “The History of Denim and Black Activism: America’s Uncredited Fashion Revolution” and former fashion director of Brit + Co. “I think the more silent brands are, the wider the disconnect becomes.”

Looking back

Considering the Black community’s contributions to fashion, it’s especially problematic for a brand to stay silent on a conversation surrounding a group from which it benefits—and upon which it was built. As Washington noted in her report, denim is largely known as a classic American fabric, but rarely as a Black creation.

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It’s a lesson often left out of the denim narrative, but one that Miko Underwood, founder of denim brand Oak & Acorn—Only for the Rebelles, addresses with her brand. “The history of the American jean is a very diverse one, and it begins with indigo being a commodity of the slave trade,” she said. “In order for me to make an authentic product, I felt a cultural responsibility to share the American blue jean origin story within the denim space.”

Miko Underwood
Miko Underwood Courtesy

During the African slave trade, indigo-dyed cloth was extremely valuable—so much so that it was used to “purchase” an individual to enslave. It was known as “negro cloth,” a lower-quality, indigo-dyed material, and was sewn and worn by slaves as workwear, often in the form of blue jeans and overalls. Over time, these pieces were worn by the Black community to show respect for their ancestors, and were viewed by some as an act of rebellion which formed the foundation for denim’s revolutionary reputation.

Knowing this, Solomon Russell, owner of vintage store Lefthand Twill (LHT), also called out the denim industry’s failure to address its origins. But he didn’t attribute the omission to malice. Instead, he chalked it up to a shared sense of discomfort.

“When I started LHT, I put forth a lot of research into vintage and the history of denim alongside building up my archive, and I quickly realized a lot of brands excluded the history of cotton,” he said. “I know slavery can be a painful topic, but in terms of vintage denim, those two things are bound together.”

But times are changing, and people are now engaging in more difficult conversations regarding race and history. According to Underwood, the momentum fueled by BLM and the outrage over the killings of unarmed Black people has universally opened people’s eyes to the Black experience.

“The harsh reality of these incidents, coupled with the ongoing pandemic, has pushed our culture to viral engagement,” she said. “As a result, many Black Americans are using this space to speak to direct experiences within industries, including fashion where we’ve felt marginalized, unseen and unheard.”

Being Black in denim

Despite American denim’s Black roots, the industry lacks sufficient representation throughout the supply chain, which, in turn, has created a breeding ground for both conscious and unconscious bias.

“There are so many things I can talk about in terms of how challenging it is to work in our industry, how hard it is to get upward mobility, or how I’m discriminated against either blatantly or subliminally,” said Edwina Kulego, vice president of men’s wear trade show Liberty Fairs. “I was mistaken for the help or the intern back when I was a director of the company, for example.”

Solomon Russell
Solomon Russell Courtesy

Kulego added that, as a Black woman, she has to consider details such as how she wears her hair and the ways in which her Blackness will be perceived when she travels internationally. Despite the fact that she has lived in multiple countries, travels frequently for her job and speaks six languages—Swedish, Danish, English, Ga, Twi and Spanish—Kulego still has reservations about “fitting in” abroad.

And she’s not alone in considering geographic reactions to her skin color. Donwan Harrell, the mastermind behind premium Japanese denim label Prps, intentionally left the U.S. to launch his brand in the early ’00s. Harrell unveiled the now-globally recognized label in London where he felt people were more likely to welcome new designers regardless of their culture. Still, he made it a point to operate quietly in the background.

“For many years, the industry assumed Prps was designed by some remote Japanese fellow living abroad,” he said, adding that he intentionally took a backseat role at the beginning to let his product speak for itself. “It’s unfortunate that as a Black man in the industry, we have to pursue preemptive strategies to succeed in a biased market.”

Now, as Harrell shifts his sights to his latest denim venture, ArtMeetsChaos, he’s showing more of a presence in his brand to set an example for younger generations. “Today, [I’m showing] my face so that the Black youth who are into fashion can appreciate my involvement and contributions to the industry and hopefully be inspired to pursue a career in fashion as well,” he said.

And leading by example is just one of the ways Harrell hopes to elevate the Black community. His long-term vision is to launch an incubator for young minorities to learn the ins and outs of the industry and provide them with a platform for creative experimentation.

The power of allies

Harrell’s vision of mentoring Black youth with similar experiences to his own is an effective strategy for boosting diversity—and Kulego, who previously worked under Sharifa Murdock, Liberty Fairs’ co-owner, is proof of that.

“I don’t think I would be a vice president at a company unless I had someone like Sharifa who pulled me in and taught me what she knows,” Kulego said. “We need more of that, and not just from other Black people. We all need it from each other.”

Maurice Malone, founder of the Williamsburg Garment Company and once referred to as the “Steve Jobs of denim,” also does his part to help level the playing field for young Black adults aspiring to a career in fashion. In partnership with online education company Yellowbrick, he created a Black History Month Design Scholarship that’s awarded to five Black individuals under the age of 23 with a household income of less than $50,000.

Maurice Malone
Maurice Malone Courtesy

But promoting inclusivity and accessibility is one thing. Actually implementing it—especially in an industry built on exclusivity—is another. Fashion has gone through an accessibility evolution of sorts, first in price point, when designer goods became available at a discount; then in body type, when brands began offering inclusive sizing. Now it’s happening in demographics. But it will take work.

In order to make fashion more diverse, there must be allies at every stage, from supply chain partners who provide the groundwork for garments, to designers who make the products and fit models who literally shape the pieces, to photographers and other creatives who work on campaigns, and members of the media who cover them.

Most importantly, according to Justin Broxton, founder of apparel startup Broxton Denim, there needs to be capital. Despite lacking any previous fashion experience, Broxton launched his denim brand in 2019 to appeal to athletic and ethnic male bodies. He noted that, in addition to hard work and dedication, he was able to succeed because he had the financial means to do so: The entire time he was building his business, he was employed full-time as an engineer at Google, where he still works today.

“Clothing is a capital-intensive business, especially when you get to the larger scales,” he said. “You need to either come from money or have access to money to get started. And the way to move up often involves being like the people at the top.”

While there are always outliers—Black people have been able to move up without having access to funding, mentorship or diverse leaders—Broxton explained that the industry needs to look at the average as opposed to the exception.

“Just because Barack Obama became president doesn’t mean the average African American will become president,” he said. “Until you shift the dollars and have brands that get mentorship and ownership, I think it’ll be very difficult.”

Shifting the dollars

So that’s exactly what some in the industry are doing. Brands like Third Love, Pepper and Spanx are offering support in the form of grants, mentorship and promotion opportunities to Black female entrepreneurs. Tech company Resonance also launched beResonant, a program that, in addition to providing financial support, helps Black designers launch their brands.

Universities like the Fashion Institute of Technology launched ongoing scholarship funds and mentorship opportunities for Black students enrolled in select programs. Notably, Harlem’s Fashion Row launched the Icon360 initiative, which received recognition—and most importantly, $1 million—from Vogue and A Common Thread to help financially support Black designers. As a result of the global shift, the Black community now has access to funds like never before.

But according to Eric Brown Jr., owner of vintage denim company BackTrack SD, some of the most effective long-term strategies for helping Black-owned businesses are those that offer more than just financial support.

Erin Brown Jr.
Erin Brown Jr. Courtesy

“Initiatives to support Black businesses are great, especially in the short-term, as they’ve been able to provide life-saving capital to some of these businesses that have never had access to capital before,” he said. “I think the best programs are the ones that provide mentorship alongside an infusion of cash. If we never learn how to manage our money for our businesses, it makes it hard to pass that knowledge and wealth down to future generations.”

Enter other organizations like the Kelly Initiative, which exposes the lack of diversity in the industry, and the Black in Fashion Council, which supports and advances Black professionals within fashion companies. Similarly, the 15 Percent Pledge is an initiative that calls for multi-brand retailers and corporations to shift 15 percent—which is the size of the Black population within the U.S.—of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

Though many helpful initiatives emerged from the BLM movement, many serve just a small fraction of fashion’s supply chain. Michelle Branch, Markt & Twigs, Inc. creative director, saw this as an unfortunate exclusion of certain groups.

Michelle Branch
Michelle Branch Courtesy

“The problem is that a lot of these organizations are geared toward design, but there are a myriad of Black-owned companies and professionals in this industry beyond designers looking to start a brand,” she said. “There are development and responsible practices consulting firms, marketing companies, graphics companies and retail outlets, to name a few, that would welcome opportunities to grow their businesses and maybe even lend their areas of expertise to these start-up design houses.”

Immediate effects

It’s still too early to measure the efficacy of many of these new initiatives, but the global conversation surrounding diversity triggered a number of immediate changes within the fashion industry—each carrying its own set of issues.

Brands doubled down on—or, in some cases, began—featuring Black models in their campaigns, and Black industry professionals were being inundated with interview requests and job opportunities. And, perhaps most commonly, online publications flooded their homepages with headlines including some variation of “Black-Owned Fashion Brands to Support Right Now.”

While intentions were likely good, some took issue with the latter, noting that the act of lumping Black designers with unique experiences into one monolithic story contradicts the entire point of diversity. Others explained that the issue was not with the lists—in fact, they consider the lists essential—but rather that, for many, inclusion efforts stopped there.

Even those who benefitted from the industry’s now-notorious “diversity lists” explained that it came at a price. “I was put on a few lists that kept circulating on social media, and my Instagram following spiked, as did my website traffic,” Russell said. “That’s all fine and good, but I was weary of it because I felt like this reckoning came from the death of a Black man.”

Seemingly overnight, social media swiveled the spotlight on Black creatives. “It wasn’t like one day people caught on to what LHT is trying to accomplish or provide to the denim world,” he said. “Instead, it was like people woke up from a slumber and hit the ‘follow’ button because social media, for a brief moment in time, made the mass majority aware of what Black creatives are doing.”

Regardless of intent, brands’ activity on social media matters. Younger consumers with a reputation for making purchasing decisions based on ethics are using their dollars to show their support or distaste for a brand depending on its response to the BLM movement. A study from global data intelligence company Morning Consult revealed that 66 percent of Gen Z shoppers feel a company’s reaction and expression to topics such as BLM will permanently influence whether or not they buy from them.

Moving forward

Now, what matters most is how the industry sustains this momentum. Continuing to have difficult conversations and offering support for people of color is crucial to BLM, which its supporters have famously described as a movement and not a moment.
But continued progress isn’t just in the best interest of the Black community—it’s also essential to fashion’s livelihood.

Even the biggest players in the industry aren’t immune to the repercussions of discrimination—Anna Wintour, undeniably among the most influential fashion figures of today, fared heated criticism at Vogue after several employees spoke out about racial discrimination in the workplace.

The industry’s sheer size and influence gives it the opportunity to drive worldwide change. According to Russell, fashion must rally around racism the same way it has for the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and other global issues.

“In the denim industry, we talk a lot about sustainability, about saving the planet from completely falling apart,” he said. “I love to see it, and it’s important. However, it’s hard for me to talk about sustainability when Black people on this planet haven’t been able to sustain a decent life without the fear of being killed by those who swore to protect us. When Black people are fighting for their literal lives just to be here, that should be the rallying cry for people to come together to combat racism.”

For Black creators, maintaining faith that the industry is heading in the right direction, albeit slowly, is key. Branch suggests those who are new to fashion look to their ancestors for the strength to push forward.

“Remember that you come from a long line of creators and tastemakers,” she said. “Hang on to that knowledge when things get tough. Instead of going above and beyond just to stay on par, go above and beyond to honor their legacy.”

Read more from the latest issue of Rivet magazine here.