In the wake of the international protests sparked by the senseless and unjust death of George Floyd, many major fashion brands have been slow to act and offer meaningful support. In the absence of statements from big players, a wave of small, independent labels is paving the way for an anti-racist industry with a focus on raising up others. Central to this vital move forward is Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall*.
On 3 June, Ross announced via Instagram that he was pledging £25,000 to support black-owned businesses across 10 individual grants, along with a £10,000 donation to Black Lives Matter. Seventy-two hours and over 750 applications later, Ross had selected the recipients from a range of industries, including tech, education, urban planning, agriculture and food, as well as retail. His team read every submission letter.
“We received an overwhelming response,” says Ross via Zoom. “My primary thought process in collating the grant list was to understand the struggles businesses are facing in different industries, and to look at which fields are disproportionately underrepresented.” Historically, he believes, fashion, music and sport have been considered industries for people of color to succeed in. Yet “black bodies are commodified and sexualized” by the media. “This has a lot to do with stereotyping and racial purifying,” explains Ross. “There are so many nuances around blackness and around modernity.”
Ross was inspired by the forward-thinking attitude and agility with which the applicants had worked not just to survive, but to thrive, in the turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Seventy-five per cent of the grant recipients, who range in age from 23 to 35, have been running their companies for 18 months or longer. “We highlighted businesses which were excelling in ideation, and reinventing or bringing a newness to their respective industries,” says Ross of narrowing down the submissions.
Jermaine Craig, for example, has created a “digital village” built on reliable and empowering systems for black communities. His Kwanda platform can mobilize fundraising to help people across the world via Slack, be it through food support or coding initiatives. Haisam Mohammed, meanwhile, has brought a new sensitivity to the male beauty sphere, through his Swedish perfume brand, entitled Uniform, which was founded in the stairwells of a Stockholm council estate. Another exceptional creative, Michael Omotosho of Plugull, builds industrial household appliances with light and energy solutions embedded in them. “Michael is a great example of a black designer coming forward outside of fashion and streetwear,” says Ross.
The health crisis has “amplified and intensified the financial pressure” weighing on each business founder’s shoulders. Many, says Ross, were on the cusp of signing leases on their first stores and had to pivot to online or service-based businesses. But, maintains Ross, “They are entrepreneurs. It is exciting to watch them grow.”
Haisam Mohammed of Uniform
Ross, who says he has been “severely disappointed” by the fashion industry’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement, has spent two and a half years “outlining what black capitalism looks like and what compounded resources look like” with his friends. The grant, he says, is “the first step to ensure economic growth within the black community”—particularly in Britain, where the Brixton-born designer is based, although 25 per cent of applicants were from north America. Then, Ross will work to “compound resources and build layers of support driven by empathetic understanding.” It has to be “community-driven,” he believes.
Christina Nwabugo of ïhe&Oherë
On how fashion must work to become truly inclusive, Ross says talent must be procured and nurtured before the stage when students enroll in schools such as Central Saint Martins. “It shouldn’t be an industry hidden from the black community,” says Ross, who didn’t think fashion was a viable career opportunity for him when he was growing up. “The next generation must be given the time of day and the skills to succeed.”
Michael Omotosho of Plugull
The infrastructure of companies, too, must urgently change, so that black people are employed at a C-suite level. “Black people need to be hired for their intellect and credentials, not as a marketing tool,” he says. Only when all business decisions are made by a fully representative board of directors without deep-rooted systemic prejudice can fashion move forward. There is still a long way to go, but Ross, and an inspiring group of change-makers, are leading the way with actions, not words.
Explore the 11 recipients splitting the £25,000 financial aid below.
Design + engineering: Aeism
Design + engineering: Plugull
Fashion + retail: Cremate
Fashion + retail: Uniform
Arts + creation: ïhe&Oherë
Beauty + grooming: Biophile
Beauty + grooming: Goodman
Food + catering: Sunmo
Food + catering: Artels