When Brandice Daniel founded Harlem’s Fashion Row in 2007, no one in the industry wanted to talk to her, or anyone else, about race. It’s now 2020 and, in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and his three colleagues, the entire world is discussing the subject. Fashion brands responded with hashtags and empty black boxes on Instagram, some of which were followed by donations. Fewer and farther between have been actual partnership announcements between BIPOC-owned organizations and industry leaders. Internally, many companies are struggling to communicate directly with their black employees.
Daniel does the work to bridge these glaring racial gaps. Harlem’s Fashion Row has been responsible for connecting BIPOC designers with major brands like Nike, organizations like the CFDA, and publications including this one. In 2018, she organized a Nike-sponsored fashion show for up-and-coming Black female designers co-hosted by LeBron James. And last year at New York Fashion Week Daniels teamed up with IMG to host an exhibition of costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s work. She holds annual corporate retreats that bring together people from all levels of the fashion industry and designers at various stages in their careers. The point of Harlem’s Fashion Row is to foster meaningful, long-lasting relationships between groups of creatives and business leaders that wouldn’t typically interact in the hierarchical and predominantly white fashion system.
Now, as the world marches, listens, speaks out, missteps, changes, tells the truth—all of it—Daniel is hopeful but cautious. Here, she posits a new approach for the fashion industry. It starts with trying.
Can you speak about the work you’ve been doing with the Icon360 fund?
We launched the fund on May 30. It was always Harlem Fashion Row’s intent to start a non-profit, but I had no plans to do it this year. I started getting emails from designers saying that they didn’t have the money to scale and were trying to pivot their business. There are a lot of great funds out there but the designers that we work with don’t qualify for some of those funds, so I wanted to create something that would specifically target designers of color and that would allow for funding at all levels of the business. Thus far, we’ve been able to raise $20,000 through the online event and we just received a $25,000 donation from children’s clothing retailer Janie and Jack, which is great. So we are taking applications now, and we’ll be awarding that money in June and July.
What other projects do you have in the works at Harlem’s Fashion Row?
We are actually moving forward with all of the events we already had planned for this year before coronavirus. All of our brand partners are staying with us, which is amazing, and last year we launched a corporate retreat at Nike’s headquarters in New York. We had so many editors, including Vogue's Associate Market Editor Naomi Elizée, we had the president of Intermix, so many different people who spoke. There were 75 designers of color there with all different levels of experience represented, which was intentional. And we’re doing it again this year, on July 15 and 17. Because it’s a virtual event, we’re actually able to host more designers, and then we also have an upcoming partnership with Janie and Jack in September and an event around New York Fashion Week.
Why, in the wake of George Floyd’s muder by the police, do you believe that some fashion brands and industry leaders have either stayed silent on the issues or have made empty gestures on social media?
I think people are so afraid to get it wrong, so they stay frozen. It takes so much courage to just try and it’s imperative that they do try. This is not a new issue and it’s been talked about for a very long time, but I think right now brands are either jumping to get it right and put a quick bandaid on it or they’re not trying at all for fear of getting it wrong, and that is why you need to have somebody inside of your organization that comes from the community that you are advocating for.
Every Black colleague and designer I’ve spoken with has felt the same way: heavy. It’s easy to get used to maneuvering around the race issues that plague the fashion industry. It becomes “normal.” This situation has made us look at the reality and see how much has been wrong. We’ve been forced to deal with the racism we’ve faced for years in fashion and it hurts.
There is a lot of talk about the fashion industry looking inward and addressing its systemic race issues internally. But is there more value in bringing non-fashion types into the conversation?
I haven’t really seen the fashion industry ever look to outsiders for insight. Normally, fashion industry insiders consult with insiders, [but] I do think there’s so much value to having a fresh perspective. Outsiders are bridge builders. That’s what we’ve been doing the entire time with Harlem’s Fashion Row: building bridges between industries and businesses and designers, and we’ve had many tough conversations about race for years. It’s about meeting people where they are and starting from a place of empathy and then just having really honest dialogue and giving people safe spaces to have that honest dialogue. Outsiders come with a very fresh perspective, a very different perspective and approach.
I also believe that brands, platforms, and publications should support the non-profits that have been started from a place of passion and purpose. There are several non-profits and initiatives to support such as Fashion For All, BRAG, Your Friends in New York, 15 Percent Pledge, ICON360, and other initiatives that are in the works by Black creatives in fashion.
Fashion brands have begun hiring diversity and inclusion directors. How can a person in that position make important changes happen within a corporate structure for the long term?
I think those positions could be incredibly helpful at labels and within fashion publications if they were to be put in place with specific and measurable plans and if they were to also do an annual report and share it publicly. I think that would make those kinds of positions effective because right now, as a public, we don’t know that these positions exist, because there is no data to support it. I think making that data public on an annual basis and producing a diversity report that includes race as a part of diversity is important. Because a lot of times, race actually gets left out of the diversity conversation. You can be an incredibly diverse company and not have one diverse person on your entire staff, that happens everyday.
I think that if fashion companies really want to make a change that will lead to having more Black creators at the top of the industry, they have to first be able to develop a specific and measurable plan of action. We do that with everything else. There is not a company that doesn’t set annual goals around their finances or their sustainability practices and this is the same thing. Because if you’re really committed, then you’re willing to share that information and I think that this has to be looked at.
Companies can’t just move on a short-term solution. It’s not about saying, ‘Okay, we see the systemic racism and we know that it’s been going on for the last 50 years in our company and we’re going to try and put a quick bandaid on this so that we can move on.’ And that is a concern of mine; among the fashion industry and a lot of other industries right now that’s what is happening. I think companies have to commit to a long-term plan of action and implement a plan that is going to specifically target race and disparities and that means sharing your data, sharing your workplace diversity annually, and being committed to doing this over the long haul. The thing about fashion is, and I’ve seen it happen, we are all about it and we’re like, we see this issue, we see that this has to change, but then it’s a short term solution. There needs to be things that are put in place over the next five to 10 years that will last us until the next five to 10 years because by that time, it will become a habit and we’re out of what we’re in now. But this isn’t going to be solved by the end of the year.
As an FIT alum, do you feel as though there are systemic changes that need to be made within the fashion schools in the U.S. and around the world in order to promote young Black talent in the industry?
One of the big challenges that I think design schools have is that when they’re teaching the history of fashion, Black fashion history is often left out. Or I should say, African Americans in fashion are often left out of that conversation, and there’s so many amazing stories to be taught and told, whether that’s Abraham Lincoln’s wife’s designer, who was a Black woman and actually bought her freedom through design, or Gordon Henderson, who had one of the first exclusive contracts at Saks Fifth Avenue. We have an online book about it now, it’s free, people can download it through Harlem’s Fashion Row. You know, there’s so much history that gets totally left out when it comes to African Americans in fashion. Our history was wiped out of the books and that is a place where schools can do a lot better job. Even if you think about dressmakers, they weren’t given the name “designer,” but it was slaves who were the first designers in this country. They were the ones who were designing all of the dresses for all of the society women, but all of that history is left out. So, I would love to see a new curriculum be brought about in fashion schools that acknowledges not just the contributions of a few but the contributions of the whole.
As you mentioned, many at the top of the industry seem to be focused on the now, on this moment, and on finding a quick solution to a deeply rooted problem of racism and inequality. In your opinion, outside of reporting on internal diversity, how can they create dialogue that leads to changing the way they work and approach diversity for the future?
Part of the challenge in creating this kind of change is that there has never been a safe space for people to have these difficult conversations. There’s never been a safe space for BIPOC in this industry to really say what they’re feeling and what they’re going through. There’s not been a safe space for any Black people, for that matter, to ask questions that are hard and difficult. There has to be a safe space for dialogue to take place with everyone actually hearing one another, and I think the more dialogue that can take place, the further we’ll get. Because still we’re not hearing each other. With everything going on right now people are feeling bad, so they start donating here and there, but still there’s no conversation happening. I think real change comes from hearing my perspective and hearing your perspective. I can hear what you may not have understood, and we can have a safe space to discuss it.
I am actually working on a virtual roundtable discussion with any fashion professional who wants to participate. We will host these conversations biannually and the first conversation will take place on Juneteenth [June 19]. We’ll invite brands to join the conversation. We will send a Zoom invite and I’m going to make sure that everyone knows there is a safe space and you have to actually hear each other.
We have to be able to have dialogue where we can learn; nobody is going to get this right the first time, but you have to be willing to try. And there has to be a safe space because if there isn’t, we’ll be putting a bandaid on this and nothing will happen because no one will truly understand what this group of people are feeling, or what another group of people are feeling. There won’t be any empathy and you can’t move forward without understanding the other person’s point of view. It’s not possible.
I know it’s scary to implement a new initiative around race or to jump into a conversation you’ve spent your entire career avoiding, but it’s time to commit to the process. Have faith that even if the process is “messy” the result will land on the right side of history.