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.