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Black Designers

Fashion, History, Interview, On the Street, Pop Culture

Sankofa Couture: Interview with School of Thought Collection Creators

December 15, 2015

by Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene 

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photo credit: Mike Ryan/Brick x Birch (all photos in this post)

I recently I sat down with Maryam Pugh of Philadelphia Printworks and Donte Neal of Mars Five to discuss their fashion design collaboration, the collection “School of Thought.” The “School of Thought” collection “imagines a different world where colleges and institutions have been established based on the philosophies of Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and James Baldwin. The collection represents the double consciousness experienced by” African diasporic people in America  “and creates a safe space for the praxis of liberation.” [Editor’s Note: The interviewer, Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene, is also featured in the “School of Thought” campaign photos wearing the ‘Tubman’ shirt]. 

Keene: How did this idea come about?

Neal: I had an art studio at the Window Factory in North Philly, and so did Maryam. I got to see the beginning of what Philadelphia Printworks was, and I always wanted to collaborate with them. Then in the beginning of 2015, we came up with this cool idea to do collegiate sweatshirts. I always wanted to do something that had a collegiate theme, and [liked] being able to do that with Philadelphia Printworks by way of using very significant black intellectuals.

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Keene: How did you choose which intellectuals to use? Will others show up later?

Neal: There was a much larger list. We wanted to, at least for this run, to do names that were a good balance between men and women.

Pugh: Any time we design a collection, there’s always that balance of trying to find people that we think are impactful and someone that has done things that we feel deserve to be brought to the light and recognized and honored. If it goes well, we can expand the collection to include other names and other products.

Neal: We wanted to make sure that we grounded ourselves somewhat in reality; if these schools existed, what would be the cornerstone of their educational system? So [for example] Garvey Industrial Institute. So we focused on the technology of industry, the building of factories, etc. Ida B. Wells was one of the writers who started writing about the lynchings in the South in the height of it, when it was going down. [Someone going to that fictional school] could be someone who maybe wants to be involved in politics, bringing important subjects to light regardless of what kind of adversity they’re [facing] at the moment. So we didn’t want to pick names out of a hat because these names are cool. These are the ‘schools of thought.’ These are the ideas of importance, and here are some people that represent these ideas.

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Keene: The timing of this project feels really important given the current state of affairs for black people, particularly in America. How intentional was that, and what are your thoughts about the images of this line, juxtaposed against images of what’s happening in America right now?

Pugh: Philadelphia Printworks has been doing this for 4 or 5 years and it’s interesting to see how the climate of the world affects the things we do. Specifically now, it’s very important that we have these positive images and think of ways we can manifest the future we’d like to see.

Neal: I hope this collection and this effort can bridge the gap between people who started with the same fire that [the youth] have now. It would be great to have youth adopt these names into their way of thinking and draw a comparison between what they’re going through now in their fight and what was going on in the times of the folks that appear on these sweatshirts.

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Pugh: Historically, the younger people are where the revolution comes from, but we can’t lose what we learned in the previous generations. It’s the idea of Sankofa – going back and trying to apply what we’ve learned from the past. With the concept of this collection, we were able to take past revolutionaries and apply it in a very futuristic way.

Neal: This is very Afrofuturistic. We are imagining our future, planting the seed for a manifestation of a bright future.

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Keene: The “A Different World” [late 80s and early 90s NBC sitcom about a fictional HBCU called Hillman College] connection is seamless. How did the idea to make that visual connection come about?

Pugh: “A Different World,” [the films] “School Daze,” “Higher Learning,” they all talked about really important topics, that unfortunately we’re still experiencing now. And I’ve seen the younger generation reach out to these shows [and films] that we grew up on and use them as a conduit, so it made sense for us to also tie our collection into it.

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Neal: For a lot of black folks, that alternate universe in which these characters existed, there was hope in this show. Being young and impressionable, seeing that show I was just like “Wow. Here are these completely normal… They don’t fit like a stereotype. This black person is like this and this black person is like that, and they’re friends and they exist in the same [space].” Seeing that was really inspirational. The impact and the positive influence that show had on black folks, that was imagined. That was written by somebody. If someone can imagine that and make such a great impact and inspire black people, why can’t we at any point imagine a product, whether it’s a book, a movie, a piece of clothing, art… We can imagine things and create a space in the future in which these ideas can exist. Who knows? Maybe one day we might have a Tubman University.

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You can purchase items from the “School of the Thought” collection here.

Follow Philadelphia Printworks on Twitter, IG, and Tumblr: @philaprint

Follow Donte Neal of Mars Five on Twitter: @donteneal_

Stephanie “Rhythm” Keene is a Philadelphia-based writer and performer. She is a co-host of The Harvest, the largest open mic experience in Philadelphia. A proud graduate of The Lincoln University (PA), she is an ally and advocate fighting for the freedom of all people. Follow her on Twitter and IG: @rhythmkeene

Fashion, News

5 Black Designers Who Could Next Lead Christian Dior or Lanvin

October 30, 2015
(clockwise, top left: Olivier Rousteing, Tracy Reese, Carly Cushnie, Stella Jean, B Michael)

by Eric Darnell Pritchard

Yesterday, I shared a commentary in which I argued that Black designers are not appearing on lists of designers who would be potential replacements as creative directors at historic ready-to-wear and haute couture houses, and specifically Dior and Lanvin after the sudden exits of Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz, respectively. In a social media economy in which name recognition and visibility matters, and given the continued shifts among creative directors at the top houses, it is imperative to provide some direction for a future leader of Dior, Lanvin and the historic fashion houses to come who may be looking for leadership, and are invested in considering many of the very talented Black designers for such a position. Certainly this list risks becoming yet another among the long and ever growing wish lists of potential creative directors to be considered, but as this list centers the qualifications, contributions, aesthetics, and promise of Black designers exclusively and deliberately so, and as argued in a previous commentary Black designers rare (if ever) appear on such lists, this is a much needed addition to the usual list of those being considered. Also, I was to stress that these are my personal five favorites for the job, and stress that there are many, many other Black designers who have everything it takes to get the job done:

Stella Jean

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A rising star in fashion, the Milan based Jean is a favorite of fashion critics including Franca Sozzani editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, and fashion critic Suzy Menkes. Jean’s feminine, pretty aesthetic is very much so in line with that of Dior and Lanvin’s own design codes. She also has a European fashion sensibility in her clothes that would be appreciated by haute couture die hards.

B Michael

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With nearly two decades of experience of making glamorous gowns to order, B Michael would bring the skill set a historic house of haute couture would be looking for to fulfill this responsibility of the position. He also has an already impressive roster of clientele who come to him for custom made garments including Halle Berry and the Williams Sisters, and this would be a built in client roster Dior and Lanvin would be used to and continue to court.

Carly Cushnie

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Cushnie, one half of design duo Cushnie Et Ochs, is known for women’s wear designs with the hallmarks of strength, passion, sexuality as central themes of her work. Trained at Parsons School of Design, and a former assistant in the design studios of American designers Proenza Schouler, Donna Karan, and Oscar de la Renta, the London born Cushnie’s designs for Cushnie Et Ochs have been wor on many red carpets by celebrity clientele, including Rihanna the current face of Christian Dior.

Tracy Reese

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A favorite of FLOTUS Michelle Obama (above), Reese has almost twenty years of experience heading her own fashion label. Reese’s designs are known for their traditionally feminine flourishes, and bold use of color and print, both of which would be a good match for the visual vocabulary of  Christian Dior or Lanvin.

Olivier Rousteing

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The reigning fashion king of social media, Rousteing has managed to make Balmain a “must see” show during Paris Fashion Week, not only for his sexy, modern, and edgy designs, but also for a runway show front row of attendees who are also friends such as Kanye West, Kim Kardashian – West, and Rihanna, while supermodels Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls and Kendall Jenner all stomp the Balmain runway each season. Just this week, Rousteing launched “Balmain x H&M” a one off collaborative collection bringing the luxury retailers aesthetic to the department store H&M and its more affordable price point. His current successes would give Dior or Lanvin attention from a generation of luxury brand consumers who would grow with the label.

Who would be on your list of potential replacements as creative director at Dior or Lanvin?

Beauty, Fashion, Runway Review

“The Art of Fabric”: African Fashion Week, Chicago (Review)

October 30, 2015

by Dominique Michelle Davis / Photo Credit: @ChicagoFashionDiva

The 2nd African Fashion Week of Chicago hosted at Victor Hall proved to be another great success. For the second year running, founder and CEO, Christianah Ajanaku, has managed to pull talented designers together to create a runway show inspired by the art of fabric. Designers in the show included the brands 828 Collection, Cocushubi, St. Frimpong, Akese Stylelines, Abayadake, Anzhelika Crochet, Binta Sagale, Maryam Garba, Slice by Cake, Simply Cecily and Tiffney Deo Allure.

This was a unique experience in comparison to the standard runway show. What separates this fashion event from others is the way its producers incorporate the arts (visual, music and textiles) in a way that is inclusive to all artists, including the broad and diverse range of the models for the runway show.

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The theme of this year’s event, The Art of Fabric, inspired designers to use a variety of textiles, prints and colors with a range of motifs. The theme also invited designers to challenge the traditional structural design of garments. Vibrant earth tone hues of green, blue, orange and yellow were consistent among all the collections, and what what is currently on trend for the 2015-2016 in fashion generally. Of all the designers, Simply Cecily, Maryam Garba and St. Frimpong were among my favorite collection pieces.

The production of the event was a definite progression from last year’s event, which was held at Jackson Junge Gallery in Chicago. However, with a theme this broad, and with the ability to work with other art form incorporated into the show’s production, I would have liked to see the art of fabric imbedded in more than just the designer’s collections. For example, the “art of fabric” as a theme give the opportunity for the interior design of the location to be incorporated into the runway show, as well as the integrating of the theme with the wonderfully venturous hairstyles and accessories could have been amplified to create a cohesive beauty look for the shows that used hairstyle to showcase fabric. This would also exhibit the diversity of hair textures and hairstyles among the broad range of wonderful models for the show, as well as among the event coordinators for African Fashion Week – Chicago.

Despite this minor critique of those very few details, and even in the absence of what my thoughts on what would have been additional compliments to the show, I applaud Christianah Ajanaku for her leadership, creativity, inspiration and ability to be a trailblazer. Ajanaku has created a platform for artists to debut and present their creations in a great way. I look forward to African Fashion Week – Chicago 2016 and to following Christianah Ajanaku and the designers to see their creative visions flourish for what will undoubtedly be many years to come.

Fashion, News

Black Fashion Designers Must Be Considered to Lead Historic Haute Couture Houses

October 29, 2015

by Eric Darnell Pritchard

Reports that designers Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz will exit their positions as creative directors of legendary fashion houses Christian Dior and Lanvin respectively, has been the talk of the fashion world. Fashion has played this steady game of musical chairs among the top fashion houses, as one house or another finds itself searching for a new artistic leader after another resigns about as often as a socialite is in search of her next couture gown. As fashion critic Robin Givhan notes, gone are the days when a designer takes over a fashion house for the duration of their career. The minute news of these resignations was reported much of fashion turned immediately to this question: who will be the next creative director of Christian Dior and Lanvin? While responses regarding Lanvin are just beginning to emerge, with Dior there has been a constant stream of names emerging as potential replacements for Simons, some more frequently than others, including American designer Joseph Altuzzarra, Phoebe Philo of Celine, and couturier Bouchra Jarrar. Each of these designers would be extremely exciting for everyone in fashion, and each of them offer the opportunity for Dior to take an important step by appointing a person of color or a woman as its leader for the very first time in its history. However, with the exception of Olivier Rousteing of Balmain (which no longer has a haute couture designation) it also remains true that the role of creative director at Dior, Lanvin or any of their peer haute couture or other historic fashion houses has never been held by a person of African descent, and given the frequent critiques of industry racism and the lack of diversity in fashion, this highlights yet another barrier that must be broken.

Perhaps more concerning is that among lists of potential new creative directors at Dior and other houses that have had vacancies in recent memory, Black designers are rarely (if ever) named on what are sometimes exhaustive lists of potential replacements. Google search ‘Black fashion designers’ and you will be directed to posts like “25 Greatest Black Fashion Designers” or “15 Black Fashion Designers You Should Know.” However, those same designers are never discussed as potential leads of historic fashion houses. The frequency of such lists show that Black designers appear in the historical and social imaginary of the fashion industry as being in a perpetual state of either people who did great work but who fashion history forgets, or contemporary designers who are doing great work but who are being overlooked as we speak. It is incumbent upon fashion to do better to make sure that Black designers are at least a part of the conversation when legendary fashion houses are looking for new creative leadership.

One counterargument to the lack of Black designers on the list of potential players for the top job at Dior or other historic haute couture houses is that whoever is selected will be required to design haute couture. Haute couture, or “high fashion,” is an original garment made custom by hand from beginning to end by a designer. In France, where the most historic haute couture houses were born, the label haute couturier is a heavily policed title, and is bestowed only by invitation of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Unless Chambre approved, a garment is not considered haute couture. With so few designers of any race or ethnicity holding haute couture recognition, one might argue that this is the reason why Black designers are not on the list. But this argument only highlights the need for fashion to make an even greater effort to invest in the careers of Black designers in order to be solvent around the lack of diversity at the leadership at historic houses of haute couture. In 1988 designer Patrick Kelly from Vicksburg, Mississippi was admitted into the Chambre making Kelly the first person of color, first Black person, and first American so admitted. Since that time the number of haute couture houses led by Black designers has remained extraordinarily rare. In 2011, as previously mentioned, designer Olivier Rousteing was appointed creative director of the historic fashion house Pierre Balmain. However, though Balmain is historically recognized as a former haute couture house, it has not produced a haute couture show in at least twenty years. Thus, Rousteing is the sole Black designer working at a legendary fashion house among the many that exist, but is doing so without a haute couture designation.

As many have stated, fashion is about art and commerce. Making a historic statement of selecting a person of African descent makes good sense on both counts. As many designers of African descent come from a lived experience wherein Black cultural aesthetics are part of their background, a sense of what the Dior archive or the archive of any historic haute couture house would look like through such a dimension could prove rewarding in more immediate and lasting ways than much of the fashion industry may imagine.