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Four Women of Color on How to Navigate the Path to a Racially Inclusive Fashion Industry

"Essence" Fashion and Beauty Director Julee Wilson, casting specialist Gilleon Smith, CEO of Harlem's Fashion Row Brandice Daniel and designer Azède Jean-Pierre weigh in.
Brandice Daniel, Julee Wilson, Gilleon Smith, Azède Jean-Pierre and Dhani Mau. Photo: Tonya Mann

Brandice Daniel, Julee Wilson, Gilleon Smith, Azède Jean-Pierre and Dhani Mau. Photo: Tonya Mann

For decades, the fashion world has predominately used models who are white and waifish. But in recent years, we've seen brands and publications put more people of color and of different sizes on their magazine covers and in their advertising campaigns. We've also seen a much-needed uptick in diversity on the runways, giving us hope that we can prevent the fashion industry from creeping back to its old ways of near-total exclusion. 

And yet, the road to embracing diversity has been a rocky one, tainted by a laundry list of challenges and misguided decisions, from tokenistic casting to racially insensitive imagery. At Fashionista's sixth annual "How to Make It in Fashion" conference on Friday, West Coast Editor Dhani Mau assembled a panel of prominent people of color in fashion to discuss their experiences in navigating the industry and what work is left to do when it comes to making real, permanent improvements in diversity and getting more people of color a seat at the table.

The group included Essence Fashion and Beauty Director Julee Wilson, casting specialist Gilleon Smith, CEO of Harlem's Fashion Row Brandice Daniel and designer Azède Jean-Pierre. The panelists drove home the point that while race has become an important, more openly talked about conversation in fashion, the industry still has a long ways to go in terms of better reflecting our diverse world. 

These women recounted similar stories of growing up and developing early interests in fashion. Wilson loved fashion and writing and knew early on that she wanted to marry the two, so she did a series of internships, which led her to hold numerous editorial positions. One was at The Huffington Post, where she said it was important to her to frequently speak out about the lack of diversity in fashion. "Fashion is fun and fashion is great," Wilson explained, "but for me, it's about the conversations that I'm having and the type of imagery that I'm putting out there." Wilson then became the Fashion and Beauty Director at Essence — a title she's held for two years – where she said she "wakes up everyday and gets to celebrate the dopeness of Black women."

Daniel, who got her start as a buyer for a plus-size brand in Memphis, came to New York and worked in production for three years before finding her true purpose: championing designers of color. Daniel wound up at a fashion show in Brooklyn and had the idea to do one in Harlem, where she lived, but had the hardest time finding Black designers. "It led me on almost a year rabbit hole, where I would go through department stores' websites and look for designers of color, then I'd go to the CFDA and the New York Fashion Week roster and found that less than one percent of these designers are of color," Daniel said. This discovery led her to create Harlem's Fashion Row, a platform aiming to fill the void for multicultural fashion designers and high profile professionals in the industry. 

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This void is slowly being filled by women like Jean-Pierre, a young designer of Haitian roots, who launched her own label in 2012 and has had her work featured in prominent glossies, such as WWD and Vogue, as well as on prominent figures like Michelle Obama. During the discussion, Jean-Pierre touched on how her Haitian roots have informed her designs and given her a unique perspective in the industry. She also said that while she was able to raise an eyebrow and found her own success as a designer, that the design room – which is historically white — has made it difficult for people of color to get their foot in the door, especially in terms of internships. "People of color usually come in with no relationships — and you need relationships to get internships — because of the history of exclusion that fashion has, so they don't have as much of a leg up," Jean-Pierre noted. "The design room, casting room and editors need to step their games up to fight for more representation." 

In terms of fighting for recognition in the casting room, Smith is behind the diverse casting for Chromat, which received much attention over the last few seasons for the lesson it gave on real runway inclusion. When Smith described the casting process for Chromat, she did so in a refreshing way, noting that the personalities of the models were just as important as the way they looked. "We always pick dynamic personalities, strong women, so all the sudden we're getting all this buzz for being so diverse, but that just came naturally to us," Smith said. "And now we're really able to influence other designers in the same way." But clients aren't always as open and willing to embrace diversity as Chromat. Smith said she struggled at the beginning of her career with clients who had a very specific, woefully white, vision for their shows. "I'm a person of color and that's completely against what I stand for," Smith noted, and now she's at a place in her business and in her life where she can choose not to work with those people. 

And while the industry has made strides on the runway, Wilson and Daniel said the editorial world still has a long ways to go. Daniel expressed a need for the industry to be more open. "Many designers of color won't be in the in-crowd, and a lot of times, fashion goes for the in-crowd, and the ones that are not — even if they are extremely talented — get left behind," Daniel noted. "It's important for people to know that there's more than one place to find designers and editors should be mindful to look beyond designers that have already been featured in a prestigious magazine." She's currently in the process of creating programs that will hopefully start to open the industry up to a wider range of designers. "Even though the fashion industry, in terms of the editorial world may not be as far ahead as I would like, brands are becoming more open to working with designers of color." 

Wilson, the resident editor of the bunch, made it clear that before passing out beauty tips and trends, her priority is to take as much advantage as she can of having a seat at the table by frequently speaking about the lack of diversity. On a recent trip to Florida for a big beauty conference, Wilson was the only Black beauty editor in attendance, and in the sea of white editors she wondered what would happen if she went up to one of them and said, "My edges aren't thriving." Would they even know what she's talking about, and if not, can they truly call themselves a beauty editor? "I can tell them five medium hold hairsprays for their hair." 

Her white counterparts, who work for mainstream publications, have a tall order of serving a readership that counts people of all shapes, sizes and colors. Wilson said it is their job to make sure that no one has to go through the mental gymnastics of deciphering what a blush shade will look like on their skin tones. "You represent Black women at your publication," Wilson said. "It's important to have these conversations and to put people on notice that this is expected of you." 

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