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Kimberly Jenkins Is Disrupting Fashion Education by Embracing Diversity and Addressing Racial Discrimination

Her new Parsons exhibit, "Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities," considers the industry's exclusionary past while proposing a radical new future.
Kimberly Jenkins. Photo: Anastasia Garcia

Kimberly Jenkins. Photo: Anastasia Garcia

Why do we wear what we wear, and how does race play a part in our clothing choices? 

This is just one of the many challenging questions scholar Kimberly Jenkins asks herself each and every day. From a young age, Jenkins — who now works as a part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design and a visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute — developed an interest in both the sociocultural and historical influences behind style and dress, but wasn't sure how to merge her passions together. It wasn't until she discovered an MA program in Fashion Studies at Parsons that she realized could pave her own way in the industry.

After graduating from the program in 2013, Jenkins ultimately began teaching her "Fashion and Race" course at Parsons in 2016, which quickly became one of the most sought after classes at the university. Since then, Jenkins has become an emerging voice and a cultural pioneer in the study of fashion and identity, encouraging her students and peers to consider how politics, psychology, race and gender shape the ways we "fashion" our personal identities. Beyond this, Jenkins has been busy organizing topical panels, speaking as a guest lecturer, launching (and running) a related online database and curating a new exhibition, called "Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities," which progresses many of the themes she addresses in her classes.

The show, taking place at Parsons from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11, puts the work of eleven students and alumni on display, investigating issues such as "misrepresentation, exclusionary beauty standards, the lack of inclusion and systemic violence in their creative practice," according to the press release.

In the wake of the opening, Fashionista sat down with Jenkins to learn more about her work and how her Parsons exhibit considers the fashion industry's exclusionary past while proposing a radical new future. Read on for the full conversation.

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

When and how did you first become interested in the intersection of fashion and race?

As a person of color, I discovered the idea of race at a very young age, since most of my lived experience has been shaped by it. As a child, I was enthralled by fashionable women. My interest in fashion developed through media representation — "Style" on CNN with Elsa Klensch, "House of Style" with Cindy Crawford, poring over fashion magazines. In eighth grade I wrote a report on the dress signifiers of Skinheads; by high school I had become sort of obsessed with race, social psychology and belief systems. By college, I didn't know what I should major in because I didn't know how to reconcile my interest in social and cultural issues with "fashion" and dress — fashion is stigmatized as being frivolous and unworthy of scholarly examination. I discovered a graduate program called Fashion Studies at Parsons School of Design nearly two years after graduating with my BA, so I was obviously elated to see my academic interests legitimized.

What other factors do you try to address in your work?

My exploration and teaching of fashion and race is actually just one of the various aspects of fashion and self-presentation that I am fascinated with. In my classes, I talk to my students about all of the "fashion and's" — like "fashion and aging," "fashion and politics," "fashion and psychology," "fashion and sustainability," and so on. My master's thesis was about how we dress and manage our appearance when we go through a divorce or breakup.

Can you tell us more about the classes you teach and your approach to educating the next generation of fashion designers?

The classes I teach run the gamut from fashion history (what we wore) to fashion theory (why we wear it). I also teach a research methods class that shows fashion design students how to expand the depths of their inspiration. When I developed my "Fashion and Race" class, I hoped to bring something sorely needed in fashion schools: a diverse and disruptive perspective. All too often, students are presented with a very Western, and let's just say it, a very white perspective of fashion history. I think it's time to broaden the definition of fashion and also broaden what we know about clothing and style. Sure, we could argue that fashion "with a capital F" came out of Europe, but wouldn't it be interesting to learn about dress from cultures and regions outside of Europe that convey just as much meaning in terms of style or prestige?

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

What do you encourage your students to consider when it comes to addressing race and identity through fashion?

A hot topic that I know I must address in my class is cultural appropriation. I agree with scholar Minh-Ha Pham that it's time to retire the term (unless you are a fashion law professional), but I still find it useful as an entry point into talking about style, ownership and power sharing. I don't think it's useful to say that no one should ever wear anything that is not native to their identity or upbringing, but I do think that there needs to be a conversation about what something means and why. Paradoxically, as the world has become smaller and more connected, we have in many ways become more tribal and isolated. We build up walls and plug our ears and that's what I see happening in fashion when the personal becomes political.

What is the Fashion and Race Database? How do you hope it'll increase consciousness regarding the ways the two subjects are linked together?

The goal for The Fashion and Race Database Project is to provide a dedicated platform with open-source tools that address the intersection of power, privilege, representation and aesthetics within the fashion system. There has been such a warm and supportive reception since I launched the website, as students, educators and fashion enthusiasts have all agreed that we need to diversify and decolonize the ways we think and talk about fashion, dress and style. For many educators it will provide valuable teaching tools that helps the locate the blind spots of their work.

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In recent times, "activism" has become a fashion buzzword, as more and more corporations are capitalizing on it. Do you think it's still relevant or has it lost its meaning?

Coming back to what I was saying earlier about the personal being political, I think that our everyday dress and appearance can advocate — or at the very least simply express — how we feel and what we value most about ourselves. That everyday act of self-expression communicates something deeper and, for better or for worse, the signals that it sends can cross with those who see things differently or don't respect who we are.

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

All of this is to say that dress is an active, everyday practice of self-expression and capitalizing on that democratic act is something that, in my mind, makes the potency and possibilities of self-fashioning lose its richness. But I'm no fun for the fashion industry — I wear vintage and secondhand, or I wear projects designed by fashion graduates. I've been seeing a market emerge for fashion activism and cultural "wokeness" that is so self-interested and inauthentic.

When it comes to addressing social issues through clothes, what do you hope to see more from the fashion industry in the future?

I have a concern about appearance and discrimination — specifically, the racialized body is a visible, physical expression and, in many cases, misperception, of someone's identity. This leads to appearances that become criminalized, exploited, appropriated and seen as unfashionable... well, until it can be capitalized upon. The fashion industry is often seen as superficial, parasitic, ever-changing and exclusive. It is my hope that, as we navigate these precarious times politically, the fashion industry can show how what it does best — to innovate and inspire — can lead the path towards showing more empathy in education, design and business.

Tell us more about the "Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities" exhibit. What kind of works are on display?

I've divided the exhibition into three sections. The first is "Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities" which has work from Cecile Mouen, Avery Youngblood (a Beyonce "Formation Scholar") and Joy Douglas that grapples with, subverts and interrogates the existence of race, respectively. Cecile has these two large frames that each display a flat garment with symbols relating to biology and survey data painted on the surface. The data corresponds to the information acquired from interviews Cecile conducted with young, multiracial, multinational women who wrestle with the anxiety of appearance and authenticity.

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

Photo: Courtesy of Parsons

Then there is the section titled "The Racialized Body," which confronts and reckons with the longstanding, dehumanizing and reductive representations of Black women. Inside the gallery, you can see the fashion design work of Kyemah McEntyre (who went viral for her self-empowering prom dress in 2015), Katiuscia Gregoire, Carly Heywood and Lashun Costor all standing in conversation with one another to show us what is possible for the next generation of Black woman fashion designers. We also have the illustration work of Jamilla Okubo (whose work has also enjoyed a collaboration with Dior), whose Hair as Identity zine presents an intervention with the rhetoric Black women have been told about their hair texture and appearance.

The final section, "The Intersection of the Race and the Gaze in Fashion Photography," sheds a spotlight on the next generation of photographers of color. It's a beautiful moment for one of the photographers featured, Rachel Gibbons, as I remember her mentioning in the class "Fashion and Race" that she didn't see many Black woman fashion photographers out there.

There's the work of photography wunderkind Myles Loftin who has already enjoyed quite a bit of visibility, but his series "Hooded", which reclaims "Black boy joy" and implores a sense of humanity whilst wearing the stigmatized hoodie, was absolutely imperative for this show. Stevens Añazco rounds out the group nicely with lustrous and tender photography that centers queer, non-binary and trans bodies of color. Finally, I collaborated with Media Studies graduate Jessica Hughee to film three narratives about what it's like to work in the creative field as a person of color. This storytelling component plays on loop inside the gallery adding an actual voice and ambient sound to the exhibition. The viewer doesn't leave the space without being touched by that added sensory experience.

What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing the exhibition?

It is my hope that those who have felt marginalized in the fashion system — or just in general, socially — feel seen. My goal is to further legitimize how fashion can be examined critically and also be a crucial tool for self-determination.

What's up next for you? What kind of projects do you want to take on in the future?

Next on my agenda is a podcast with a companion talk series that generates knowledge and understanding through fashion edutainment. Once that is off the ground, a book.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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