To mark Black History Month, Yahoo UK launched Black British Fashion, a three-part essay series in collaboration with digital publisher Black Ballad. Here, Ata-owaji Victor explores how exciting new technology is bringing Black representation in fashion to a new audience.
Innovation in Black fashion has spanned decades. But when it comes to promoting and celebrating those boundary-pushing Black designers, the fashion industry has been far from receptive.
According to ‘Black Representation In Fashion’, a recent report by the New York Times, there’s still just one Black chief executive, Virgil Abloh at Off-White, working across one of the 64 global fashion brands included in the US and here in the UK.
According to another report, there’s currently only 4.8% BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) representation in fashion and visual arts, a reality that has been obscured by an increase in Black cover stars on glossy magazines.
Sadly, the June 2020 Black Lives Matter-inspired spike in black-led articles within fashion publishing has done little to smash the creative world’s racial glass ceiling. In fact, this tentative inclusion only revealed the industry’s lack of acknowledgment of the historical importance of Black culture and talent and its monumental influence on current fashion.
Finally, in response to years of under-representation, black designers are beginning to build a ‘tech-first’ atelier (studio) of their own.
New-school innovators, including US-based Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba, have been key to the current wave of black fashion creatives moving away from traditional fashion presentations towards a future that places tech front and centre.
Mvuemba’s inaugural show for her label, Hanifa, was streamed over Instagram Live and featured 3D models against a black backdrop, as if the clothing was worn by invisible models strutting across a catwalk.
It was a fashion-tech first. Since Hanifa’s debut, the designer has continued to use technology and social media to promote her direct-to-consumer business to generate $1 million and counting. her clothes are now worn by stars including Lizzo and Kelly Rowland.
This made-for-digital-consumption approach to fashion has also been a major driver behind the success of Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens. The genderless fashion brand, founded back in 2005, has also become a pandemic fashion success story. Through the launch of Telfar TV and its Slow Fashion Format, the brand is using tech to help mend one of fashion’s biggest crises: Sustainability.
The smashing of old fashion systems is a good start – but when it comes to funding for fashion-tech businesses, it still remains disproportionately harder for black fashion start-ups to raise capital.
In a study that tracked venture-backed deals between 2013 and 2017, research found that across all sectors, only 1% of venture capitalist dollars went to Black entrepreneurs – compared to 77% for white entrepreneurs. So despite the uptick in black designers using technology to help shape the future of fashion, the tech funding world has yet to adapt.
It’s a gap that ‘angel’ investor networks like UK-based Cornerstone Partners and Microsoft, with its ‘Future Of Fashion’ incubator for students at the London College of Fashion, are only just beginning to close.
Despite the ongoing difficulties, within the industry at large, black British fashion tastemakers are still harnessing technology – like Urenna Okonkwo, the founder of Cashmere, a fashion fintech app. Founded in 2018, the app works as a social saving platform that helps label-loving shoppers save towards and purchase designer pieces without having to turn to credit cards or pay-later services.
Since the app’s launch the entrepreneur has raised more than £100,000 in ‘angel’ investment.
Technology’s impact on British fashion has also begun to be seen on the catwalk. Earlier this year, due to the pandemic, London Fashion Week hosted its first digital-only event.
The move opened up room for homegrown designers like Nicholas Daley to showcase his take on fashion gone by, with a hybrid approach. In the absence of a physical catwalk, the Tottenham-based designer provided a film to accompany his spring/summer 2021 collection, Stepping Razor – which took its name from Peter Tosh’s 1977 debut single.
The short film was a celebration of cross-cultural, combative influences within the collection and paid homage to Rastafarian musician and martial arts enthusiast Peter Tosh with a look-book of karate-inspired silhouettes.
The designers’ Return to Slygo exhibition also followed a similar formula, with demonstrations of diasporic influences present throughout its colourful, multi-sensory showcase. As a nod to Daley’s fine tailoring reputation and an ode to beautiful woven fabrics, the exhibition’s floors were covered in bespoke carpets, backdropped by a mood-board of archive imagery, family photos and iconic reggae club t-shirts.
Paying homage to heritage via fashion is far from a new phenomenon, but it’s another example of how the inclusion of technology within fashion is helping to amplify Black fashion.
Black designers have historically coloured outside of fashion’s approved lines – but armed with technology, black fashion innovation now appears almost limitless.