In sharing their views about “Culture, Style and Politics” on Wednesday afternoon, four fashion insiders didn’t just discuss the systemic change that is needed for social justice and racial equality, but also how individuals and corporations can work toward that.
Led by Vogue’s Chioma Nnadi, the virtual talk was part of IMG’s NYFW: BTS series and it featured designer Victor Glemaud, IMG model Precious Lee and curator Kimberly Drew.
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Glemaud spoke of the discrimination and mistreatment he has faced in the fashion industry since starting his career at the age of 19 as an intern for Patrick Robinson. The designer helped and protected Glemaud, and also offered him guidance about whether he should accept certain jobs and salary packages. “Perhaps I haven’t been thrown into the ocean as a lot of people have. But nevertheless the difficulty of being one of the only ones at a show in Europe is hard. And it’s hard to let people see you as this person who loves clothes and the art of dressing, who celebrates beauty, who is confident in being different,” Glemaud said.
Another factor about being Black in fashion is that sometimes people of similar skin tones or backgrounds “are not that warm, cuddly or friendly,” Glemaud said. “It’s hard to not take it all personally and to keep moving. Throughout this time, there have been many, many days where I have thought, ‘I just want to stay in bed…and not deal with this bulls–t.’”
Challenging as these times are, Glemaud said he is very much hopeful about what is being done and where we are right now. He said, “The awareness that we, as people of color, different religions and values, are all trying to maintain and ensure a future for ourselves and for the people that we love. And also celebrate those values and those differences.”
The 41-year-old designer said he sees the current situation as “a gargantuan opportunity where we all have to use our platforms to contribute.”
Detailing some of the discrimination that she has dealt with in her career, Lee said she has been told, “‘You should say that you are from here. You should change your name to this. Why don’t you wear this? Maybe you should change your hair to this. Maybe you don’t tell people that you have a degree.’ There were so many weird things. I just never stood for it, and I have had a lot of turbulence dealing with that. But I stood firm. That is something that I feel that I was hit with like a culture shock when I moved to New York.”
Fortunately, she had the wherewithal to move on and move forward. “But there are so many people who don’t have that, or don’t feel confident to assert themselves like that. I’ve been called aggressive when I’m assertive. I’ve been called short, when I’m concise,” Lee said.
Asked about fashion’s purpose, Glemaud said, “You have to have a voice. For me, any brand that doesn’t have a voice [or] doesn’t stand for something, doesn’t exist.”
From his perspective, brands that are currently having a hard time don’t understand “where we have been. Now we are speaking up and being very clear about this is the world that we live in and we are going to celebrate this. It’s not about pandering. It’s about being honest and real because people can read right through it. The difference between yesterday and today is that they’re getting called out,” Glemaud said. “It has to be authentic, otherwise, no one cares. Your cultural relevancy doesn’t exist.”
The power to say no to certain jobs and the importance of new initiatives were matters that Lee discussed. “Having Black in Fashion and Fashion Our Future, these coalitions are what our ancestors did. This is what we came from. I went to a HBCU. Historically Black College and Universities were hidden in the bottom of churches when it was illegal to go to college, learning secret,” she said. “I feel this is a whole new generation of being pioneers to a whole new sector. It’s important that we continue to uplift each other, stay connected and not allow the noise to penetrate anything that we are actually overqualified to do.”
Emphasizing how fashion has always been a way that we tell our stories about ourselves and it’s also aspirational at any end of the spectrum, Drew said, “It’s really important at a moment like this one and as part of a larger movement that we understand our incredible role and purpose. It’s not just that now we’re in this pandemic moment and we’re wearing sweats. It’s still, ‘What sweats are you wearing? Where was that made? What factory was that made in? How was it shipped to your home?’ All of these things are so important about how we live our lives.“
As for what Nnadi feels hopeful about, she said conversations such as Wednesday’s would be one. “It’s easy to feel isolated. I’m hopeful that we can learn from this moment. I’m feeling more and more encouraged by the conversations that I’m having. And I’m feeling connected in a moment when I’m so far away from the people that I love. That makes me feel hopeful because then I know that we can do this. There can be real change.”