In August of 2018, Black fashion editor Lindsay Peoples Wagner wrote and curated a piece titled "Everywhere and Nowhere: What it's really like to be black and work in fashion" for New York Magazine's The Cut. This illuminating piece highlighted the experiences of more than 100 Black professionals in fashion, and the enduring prevalence of racism that permeates every part of an industry that lauds itself as a bastion of progression, while simultaneously excluding Black creatives from decision-making roles and profiting from the culture.
On Wednesday night, Essence, the leader in media, tech and commerce for Black women did what it does best, and celebrated the culture of Black creatives with its inaugural Best in Black Fashion Awards. The invitation-only event kicked off a two-day experience ahead of New York Fashion Week by awarding 2019's most talented Black stylists, fashion and accessories designers, photographers and more from across the globe.
"I'm just happy that I'm nominated and that I was able to come all the way from South Africa for this event," says Rich Mnisi, who was nominated (and also awarded) for Emerging Designer of the Year. "This is for my country. This is for my continent and I'm happy that people are going to see the wealth of talent that exists there. This really means a lot to me."
The selection process for nominees was daunting as the team scoured social media, lookbooks and other media outlets for names not yet known to the general public. In an effort to "bring together the diaspora," as media personality Bevy Smith so eloquently puts it, Essence allowed the public to decide on the winners. In addition to Mnsisi, Aminah Abdul Jillil won the Accessory Designer of the Year award; Itaysha Jordan for Photographer of the Year; Fe Noel for Designer of the Year; and Zerina Akers was given the Stylist of the Year award. Special honorees included Pat Cleveland for the Icon award, Billy Porter for the Trailblazer award and Zendaya for the Influencer award.
As inspiring and original looks by Black fashion designers filled the room at the gallery and events space Affirmation Arts, there was a palpable sense of community and belonging among attendees. "We feel that there's a void. Black women are always the creators and shapers of culture and style and there's not really a place that celebrates us, so we wanted to do the awards to celebrate these young creatives and give them a platform," explains Essence Fashion Director Marielle Bobo while draped in an embellished Selam Fessahaye jumpsuit. "A lot of designers don't actually do shows because they're so expensive, so we wanted to give them that platform and just say 'Hey, show up with your clothes, we'll get the models, we'll provide the venue and give you a space to show.' That's something a lot of designers don't get to do."
On Thursday, the publication's New York Fashion Week takeover will continue with the debut of Essence Fashion House, following its initial success at Essence Festival, an annual celebration of Black culture that takes place in New Orleans, in July. Keeping with their commitment to democratize the fashion industry, the interactive event is open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis and features live conversations and fashion shows aimed at fostering economic and creative development in the Black fashion community.
"We wanted to have a bit of fashion and also instruction," says Bobo. "So we have a series of panel discussions with various industry professionals. We also have fashion shows featuring the designers from our Best in Black Fashion Awards, so that everyone will get to see why they made it to the list as finalists. We also have a masterclass that June Ambrose is doing. We just wanted it to be instructive but carefree, as well.
The culmination of the New York debut of the Fashion House will be the "Texture on the Runway" fashion show, presented by Essence and hair-care brand Naturally Curly. The show, aimed at highlighting the unique aspects of Black beauty, is curated by Essence Global Beauty Director Julee Wilson and will feature the work of makeup artist and hairstylist Stephen Seven Hudson, as well as designer Whitney Mero.
"The hair is really about our levels of greatness," says Wilson. "Long hair, short hair, updos and it's really a lot of fun. And we're so happy to bring our beauty to the festivities because our beauty is just as important as our fashion."