It’s 2021 and finally, the words “people of colour” and “luxury” are used in the same sentence. Has this always been the case?
People of colour globally have been perceived to lack the purchasing power to contribute to luxury brands. According to a research article by Ivanic, Overbeck and Nunes, there is a relationship between race, status and money.1 For instance, African Americans in the past were considered lower in status compared to Caucasians and in marketing or sales, they are seen as inferior in the marketplace because there is a perception that they cannot afford luxury goods.
This perception stems from the history of slavery and colonization and is still prevalant world-wide. In the rare instance that BIPOC can get the recognition they deserve, their culture and heritage is often appropriated for the financial gain of white market campaigns. One instance is the fabric and pattern of the Maasai shuka that has been used by fashion houses like Louis Vuitton in their 2011 Menswear line, without permission or compensation.2
Recently these issues have been highlighted in the fashion industry, leading to scrutiny that shed light on lack of representation for BIPOC. After the uproar, a new buzzword, diversity, came into use and was thrown around in campaigns, but on close observation, said diversity was only for optics. Black models are used on runways and in campaigns but in boardrooms and head offices, diversity does not ring true.
Shelby Ivey Christie, a leading fashion and costume historian explained, “equity for black professionals in the fashion industry means not just affording us a seat at the table but allowing us to occupy seats that possess real decision-making power”.3 She states that black people should be business drivers, and be in executive positions that accord them the privilege to contribute their immense talent to the fashion world.
As tensions heated up on the global front after the death of George Floyd leading to the revival of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, people of colour have opted to use other means to protest, including economic boycotts by not supporting companies that are not aligned with the #BLM agenda. Others take the extra step to only support black-owned businesses. This shift has re-framed consumer habits into a buying culture that is more politically and ethically motivated.
In the words of Christie, people of colour are breaking through glass ceilings because recently there has been a renaissance of black designers making their mark on the global fashion industry. Creating collections that are a testament that people of colour are just as capable of designing crafting items that can be classified as luxe.
Barbadian singer and entrepreneur Rihanna entered the luxury scene with Fenty, and she was the first woman of colour to head a luxury fashion house in Paris, under LVMH Moet et Hennessy (LVMH). Virgil Abloh and Olivier Rousteing were right ahead of her, Creative Directing the Louis Vuitton Menswear Section and Balmain respectively. Mowalola Ogunlesi is leading Design at Yeezy Gap. Kerby Jean Raymond of Pyer Moss is the new Creative VP of Reebok, to mention a few.
Then, there are the designers who created their brands that consistently compete as high fashion brands- coupled with innovation and rich contextual collections celebrating their heritage. Some of them include Christopher John Rogers, Telfar Clemens of Telfar, again Raymond of Pyer Moss, Laquan Smith, Mowalola and Anifa Mvuemba with her line Hanifa, who dropped the collection ‘Pink Label Congo’, and reset the fashion runway industry with her 3-D virtual show during the Coronavirus pandemic.
They carry on with the works of the people of colour who went before them and conquered and they give hope to the future generations of designers, breaking down barriers and inspiring new creatives. This forms a steady bridge linking the past and the future to promote this message: diversity will no longer be restricted to billboards, BIPOC can also lead in boardrooms and executive positions.
Aarti Ivanic, Jennifer Overbeck, and Joseph Nunes, “Status, Race, and Money: The Impact of Racial Hierarchy on Willingness to Pay,” Psychological Science 22, no. 12 (2011).