Earlier this year, when 25-year-old African-American Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in Georgia followed by the brutal killing of Breonna Taylor, one knew something worst was round the corner, which could go a long way in giving a new dimension to the whole issue of racism and injustice in America. And then in May, when the whole world was still battling the pandemic, George Floyd was shot by police. Expectedly, there was unrest and violence everywhere and probably that was where the entire movement of supporting black-owned brands and business got a strong push.
Several big and reputed clothing labels and retailers came forward and asked their loyalists to not only stand against racism, but also donate for the cause. Soon America was talking #BlackLivesMatter! But just talking doesn’t help; actions matter. Besides donating or educating people about racial justice, one of the most direct, sustainable and appreciable means of supporting the cause or the movement is to buy products owned by blacks. Yes, the ‘new normal’ world will also talk about encouraging black-owned business.
Come August 2020 and HellaBlack will be unveiled, which will offer shoppers the best of fashionwear, childrenswear, gifts and everything from black business. To put it simply, HellaBlack’s goal will be to develop a one-stop shop where one can find the best of Black-owned products. Expressing delight, Love-leigh Trimiew, Founder, HellaBlack, averred “I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and witnessed first-hand the obstacles small business owners face. I took all those experiences and built a technology-first platform (HellaBlack.com) that makes it easy for Black people to find businesses that reflect our own communities.”
The entire focus of the technology platform is to give back some percentage of its revenue to causes supporting the Blacks and also be committed to social justice through economic empowerment. With just a month to go for the official launch, HellaBlack has already started putting efforts to raise funds and make that ‘economic empowerment’ happen with the sole intent to build Black wealth.
More black-owned brands are finding their space
So while HellaBlack is almost there to get launched, there are many black-owned brands that are getting talked about these days and big fashion brands too have taken note of this. Among some such black-owned brands are Chelsea Bravo, House of Aama and Wales Bonner.
Known for her graphic lines and contemporary aesthetic, the Brooklyn-based designer Chelsea Bravo (chelseabravo.com) makes simple yet bold pieces that are made to order, and importantly there is no additional waste. Her collections, which feature both womenswear and menswear, have already caught the attention of many in the fashion world.
Like Chelsea Bravo collection, another black-owned fashion label that’s slowly taking its steps upwards is House of Aama (houseofaama.com). Set up in 2015 by the mother-daughter designer duo of Rebecca Henry and Akua Shabaka, House of Aama explores the folkways of the Black experience by designing classic apparels with nostalgic references informed by historical research, archival analysis and storytelling.
Notably, House of Aama has pieces that give one a feeling of the bygone era – especially its exquisite ’50s-style halter tops that’s a treat for every classic fashion lover.
Also, Lemlem (lemlem.com) is an artisan-driven collection of womenswear, menswear, childrenswear and home goods made entirely in Africa. Here it is worth noting that the famous supermodel Liya Kebede was so inspired that she was compelled to introduce the brand – this happened following a trip to her native country (Ethiopia), where she met some traditional weavers who were struggling to find a market for their craft. That’s how Lemlem was born.
Another brand that has been slowly creating a space for itself is Wales Bonner (walesbonner.net) that was launched in 2014 by Grace Wales Bonner. The label started as a menswear brand and later expanded into womenswear. The clothing is inspired by European and African history and has been receiving applause from those who have known or worn the label. Interestingly, there are lots more such brands that are still on the lookout of that one space that takes them to that big stage.
And then there are sustainable black-owned brands too…
Quite a few brands have been in news also for their eco-friendly ways of making clothes. One such example is Nigeria-based lifestyle brand Míe (mie.ng), which provides design and fashion consciously made to be nature-friendly.
With all their clothes locally made by seamstresses and artisans, Míe’s focus has been on resortwear produced using natural and biodegradable fabrics that are breathable, elegant and functional – and it is for conscious women and all women who have quality taste.
Another such notable brand known for its sustainable collections is CBAAF, also known as Come Back as a Flower (cbaff.org), which specialises in hand-dyed apparels that are ethically made by using 100 per cent recycled cotton. That’s sustainable in every sense! The brand also does drops of cool vintage tees that have managed to catch the attention of one and all.
Then there’s Sindiso Khumalo (sindisokhumalo.com), who established her eponymous label with a core focus on creating modern eco-friendly textiles that strongly speak about African storytelling. What makes her work so notable and appreciable is that she designs the textiles in her collections by hand through water colours and collage.
Here it is imperative to mention that she has also been getting a lot of international acclaim for her work, and her speech at the United Nations on fashion sustainability got a lot of praise from everyone. Sindiso is currently working closely with the International Trade Centre Ethical Fashion Initiative.
Celebrities endorsing black-owned brands
Celebrity associations always add value to every cause! A lot of renowned celebrities have lately taken liking to brands owned by blacks. Kim Kardashian recently gave the brand JBD Apparel (jbdapparel.com) a thumbs up and showed the world why she adores JBD’s body-hugging knit apparels.
Another celebrity favourite label is this gender-neutral brand namely Phlemuns (phlemuns.com) designed by James Flemons. And the who’s who among the superstars have been wearing and endorsing these collections from Solange Knowles, Lizzo and Billie Eilish, to Miley Cyrus and Bella Hadid.
Designed by Carly Cushnie, Cushnie (cushnie.com) is a luxury women’s ready-to-wear and bridal brand that is worn by influential women like Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Gal Gadot, Lupita Nyong’o, Ava Duvernay, Jessica Biel, Jennifer Lopez, Ashley Graham and Padma Lakshmi, among many others. Distributed through more than 100 premiere stockists across the globe, Cushnie was a winner of the Ecco Domani Award in 2009.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) too has been initiating a lot of measures for the black talent in the fashion sector – efforts that cannot be undermined.
CFDA in June 2020 announced that it will be developing an in-house employment programme that aims to place all black talents across all sectors of fashion industry. There’s nothing more encouraging – or should we say more assuring – than getting placed at the right place. To put it differently, CFDA will be finding individual black talents and then putting them at the right place.
Besides, CFDA may soon start a mentorship programme and an internship programme that will focus on placing recently passed black graduates or students in established fashion firms. It said that it also plans to start ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ training programme for its members.
It is noteworthy that ever since Tom Ford’s appointment last year as the Chairman of CFDA, he has enhanced the Board’s diversity by hiring Virgil Abloh, Carly Cushnie, Kerby Jean-Raymond and Maria Cornejo, among several others – again a sign of encouragement.
The much-talked about 15% pledge
When young Aurora James, Creative Director and Founder, Brother Vellies in Brooklyn, New York, asked herself if brands were standing with her as a black woman and business owner, the answer was no. She knew blacks never feel supported.
Then few days after George Floyd’s death, she posted an idea on Instagram that read “What if major retailers like Walmart, Sephora, Target and Whole Foods started devoting 15 per cent of their shelf space to products from black-owned businesses to align with the population of African-Americans in the United States? If that happens, it would drive the growth of the brands and also bring in many investments that would ultimately go a long way to help the black communities.
This proposal, now famously called 15 per cent pledge, soon attracted global attention. Sephora’s American business said it would make the pledge and create an advisory group that would include James and leaders of brands owned by people of colour to help it make changes.
The entire objective is to create a better platform for black-owned brands to grow. Like Sephora, Rent the Runway has also expressed its commitment to the pledge. Jennifer Hyman, Chief Executive and Co-founder, Rent the Runway, said, “We are together reckoning with the fact that for far too long, fashion has co-opted the style, inspiration and ideas of Black culture without ensuring that the people behind the work are properly compensated.”
The company added, in a statement, that it would also give US $ 1 million to help black designers through other initiatives. Though Target did not initially respond to a request for comment, lately it has dedicated space for fashion brands like Cushnie in addition to housing several cosmetic brands owned by blacks.
Meanwhile, Foot Locker recently announced that it would donate US $ 200 million over the period of next 5 years for the said community. It also stated that these funds will be dedicated to organisations that focus on education and economic growth. “We stand resolute in our commitment to fight racial inequality and injustice,” said Richard Johnson, Chairman and CEO, Foot Locker.
When any business goes public, lots of shareholders become part of it as owners, and gradually, barring few, the business no longer remains Black-owned, which kills the whole purpose. So, what’s required is an honest partnership between the retailer and a new company for the relationship to be long-standing and productive. It could mean that the retailer should give the company a break on fees it charges for certain shelf space. Only if that happens, it will serve the purpose.
One just hopes more retail chains and more brands come forward and offer space for the black-owned brands. It is high time they are brought to the forefront and given the recognition that is long overdue.
The day this happens on a large scale, one can actually tell the world the real definition of #BlackLivesMatter.