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Iconic Black Designers Left Behind in Streetwear’s Move to Consumerism

Though the fashion industry now widely accepts streetwear as a commercial apparel category, that wasn’t the case in the ’90s. The style was rooted in Black culture and formed by iconic streetwear labels such as Phat Farm and Fubu. But as time went on, the style evolved and distanced itself from both its roots and the very designers who created it.

In a webinar hosted by Denim Dudes founder Amy Leverton and moderated by Simone Berry, vice president, design merchandising at Velocity Brands Group, some of streetwear’s founding members discussed the role of racial bias in the style’s evolution, calling attention to conscious and unconscious appropriation.

“[Fashion has] turned streetwear into consumerism,” Berry said. “It’s no longer culturally based.”

Streetwear is now one of the most promising categories in fashion, dominating the runway and generating widespread appeal from all demographics. However, despite being formed by Black American designers, the labels that make up today’s streetwear scene lack diversity.

“For a space that we created, it’s so unfortunate to see so few Black-owned brands and independent boutique stores,” said Donwan Harrell, Akademiks and Prps founder and creative director. “I feel like one of few in those spaces, when it should be that the same players from back in the day are still involved.”

It’s important for consumers and buyers to be educated on streetwear’s origins, he added, so they know that the styles they are wearing are a product of Black creators.

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Appropriation is a loaded topic, but one that is essential to understanding the evolution of streetwear. Panelists noted the tendency for society to view Black designers as making clothing for Black people, and white designers as making clothing “for everyone.” Black brands are often labeled “urban” and marketed differently simply because of a designer’s skin color.

According to TJ Walker, co-founder of Cross Colours, it’s likely linked to America’s history of segregation.

“If someone who’s Black does something, there’s a certain perception associated with that,” he said. “There was always the theme of segregation [in Southern American states], where people were separate but equal. I think that’s just a mindset that we need to grow out of.”

Because of this mindset, Harrell left the country to launch his first brand, denim label Prps. He went to Europe where he felt society would be more receptive to a young Black designer, and where he felt he could create a commercial brand that wasn’t confined to a niche market—and even then, he took a backseat role and let the product speak for itself.

“I had to go to Japan to manufacture it, come back and launch it in Europe just to make it work,” he said. “And it’s just sad that I had to be so calculated, but that was the time. That was the only way that I had forecasted it working.”

Though Harrell believes today’s playing field is more level, April Walker, Walker Wear founder and creative director and one of the few women of color in streetwear, has noticed some of the same racist and sexist issues from decades past still plaguing the industry.

“The good news is that [we now] we have the attention of the world,” she said. “So I say let’s put our foot on the gas pedal and make some noise.”