The Fairchild Media Group hosted its Fashioning Equity Forum recently with a star studded international group of speakers and diversity advocates. During a panel entitled “Abloh and Beyond: What Black Leadership and Legacy Means for Fashion,” Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, who is half-Ethiopian, half-Somalian, and was born in a French orphanage, remarked that he is back to being the only Black designer in a high profile position of a luxury house. Virgil Abloh had been artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton until his untimely death this past November. The 41-year-old designer will be the subject of an upcoming retrospective of his two-decade career at the Brooklyn Museum in July, "Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech."
“People started to realize I was Black only 3 or 4 years ago but I’ve been at Balmain for more than 10 years,” said Rousteing. “For many of my crowd in fashion, it was a non-topic in that no one was giving me the chance to talk about it.” He described how he would fight for more diverse casting but the models were just not around a decade ago, and stylists and photographers refused his proposals because “I was not respecting French luxury.”
He now refers to the concept of French fashion, a style based on whiteness that has been in place for centuries but which was solidified in the 70s and 80s, as a cliché. However for the early part of his career, especially becoming creative director of Balmain at age 25, it was used as a way of limiting his vision. He likens the old guard of high fashion to a monarchy: “There’s the Queen, the King, and the crowd.”
Brandice Daniel, Chief Executive Officer & founder of Harlem's Fashion Row pointed out that historically Black creatives, such as designer Ann Lowe who created the wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier when she married John F Kennedy, were dismissed under the term “Black dressmakers.” Lack of credit and diminishment of talent have kept the ivory towers of luxury fashion out of reach for minority creatives.
The only way to open the locked doors is to consider untraditional talent instead of hiring from the same high profile fashion programs, said Daniel, because untapped Black creatives with passion and talent aren’t within the student body. Abloh studied a Masters in architecture and a Bachelors in civil engineering, but was also a DJ and product designer as well as fashion visionary, while Rousteing dropped out of fashion school after five months. Yet both men rose to the top of the field. The ongoing challenges of access, mentorship and financing often prevent minorities from considering a career in the fashion industry and parents often cannot afford the high tuition fees associated with sending their children to the top design schools.
Black designers flourish through community and social media
With the demise of magazines and the associated whims of their powerful editors, creatives like Rousteing were poised to take the lead in the new digital era. In no time he assembled an enormous social media community of young people–-along with Beyonce, Bjork, Rihanna––who had no appetite for the established codes of the old guard. His vision was soon reaching hundreds of thousands of people rather than 600 invited to a fashion show. Under his direction Balmain was the first French label to pass the landmark one million followers on Instagram, yet Rousteing said that the company’s former president thought his social media presence was cheapening the value of the brand.
“The difference today is there’s a collective we,” said Haitian American designer and 2017 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist Victor Glemaud who cast only Black models at his recent NYFW show. “In the 90s, there was one designer, one brand, now we as Black designers and entrepreneurs are many.” In 2020 Glemaud founded In The Blk a professional network to unify, build solidarity and economic independence for Black individuals in the global fashion industry. Abloh was one of the first to attach his name.
Togetherness is a theme elaborated on by Rousteing who is the upcoming guest designer at Jean Paul Gaultier Couture. It is his dream that US designers and French houses could collaborate out of a sense of love and respect for each other. Traditionally European and American brands have been standoffish and competitive but if there ever was a designer to make this happen it would be Rousteing. He adds one last hope: “For the next generation I wish that I will not be the only Black designer in French luxury.”