Fashion

Black girls have been erased from streetwear – these girls are altering that

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What are your earliest memories of streetwear?

My first introduction was in the late 90’s / early 2000’s when I snuck out to see BET. Knowing how I grew up as a first generation Caribbean American, I wasn’t even allowed to watch BET or MTV. So all I learned about streetwear wasn’t necessarily from all of the legendary stylists from the past, but from watching rap music videos. I noticed all the brands like the FUBUs and the Baby Phats in the world and said, “Okay, I have to wear this. I have to buy this.” My school was very preppy in the suburbs so it was different at that time to incorporate these types of styles.

You have worked closely with many streetwear brands in the PR industry. How did that change your style?

After coming to college in New York, my style evolved through my experience at various PR agencies and internships. I was also influenced by women like Misa Hylton, who is now an advisor to the Black in Fashion Council and just someone I really look up to and admire, and Vashtie, who I’ve seen a lot at SoHo since living in Tribeca for the time . Essentially, my evolution towards streetwear was firsthand because I didn’t have the luxury of being exposed to that culture growing up.

Black women are involved in setting so many fashion trends. Did you see that this type of representation works in PR?

When I was working at PR agencies, I was definitely the black girl or the black person. When I came to a particular agency later in my career, I was fortunate to have a diverse team and the brands they gave me were the agency’s so-called “streetwear” brands. From then on, when I started owning different clients like working with Ronnie to open up Kith and start Kith Treats, people got to know me. But in retrospect, we may not have been given enough opportunities to be divorced from streetwear in that way. However, I have now noticed an increased presence of black publicists in the field. Years ago I was always in LA and New York and worked on all these big collaborations that exposed me to so many different people from other parts of the fashion industry, like Bephie from Union, whom I looked up to, and so many other people You wouldn’t necessarily know until you became familiar with the industry. After seeing that, I say, “Okay, there’s another me here” or “There’s another me here”.

When we talk about women like Kimora Lee Simmons with Baby Phat and Angela and Vanessa Simmons with Pastry, why do you think we don’t see such huge brand engagement from black women in streetwear?

That’s a great question, and I really don’t know. Prior to recent events, I don’t think people have invested in black women or black people in general. So when we ask questions like, “Where have the investors been? Where should these people start a new brand?” I think a lot of these people were just trying to stay afloat or work in companies that they knew could do better in the industry by working for a certain name. That was really all that was called “possible” at the time. I’m not saying people couldn’t go out alone, but if you watch the development of previous urban wear or streetwear brands you may be a little more hesitant. There are so many great people who have worked for the FUBUs, Karl Kanis and the Baby Phats of the World who are in different areas of the fashion industry today and still have a wealth of knowledge or ideas to start their own brand . And maybe they are, or maybe they don’t agree with it. Starting a brand is expensive at some level, and at that point it was different. I mean, now we have so many black-owned brands – even over a decade – turning pieces and collections every season, but was that possible 15, 20 years ago? Not really. I’m not sure about the details, like the cost of the goods, where they sourced their materials, how much it cost to be supported, or if they had two jobs to get there, or if it was one silent investor, etc. However, we know those who grew up in the area who influenced and inspired many of the non-black owned streetwear brands today.

What changes in the industry do you think are necessary to change this?

I think it just has to be a conscious choice. You must want to help black women. They also want to raise them in rooms where their talents and resources are recognized and used. And not just because we are in a time when people feel they have to. It’s so easy now to find new talent. I’ve met so many black women who have worked behind the scenes in this industry that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Last year I had a call to a very popular streetwear brand and was so shocked to know that the girl I spoke to on the other side of the phone who was their publicist was a black woman. I said to her: “You are black? Oh my god!” It was nice to see. So it’s very interesting that we keep growing. People get these positions and their stand in different rooms.

Are there any black women in streetwear that you are currently looking up to or female-owned brands that you have your eye on right now?

Well, Beth Gibbs or Bephie who owns Bephies Beauty Supply and Estelle Babenzien who is part owner of Noah. Then you have so many new designers coming through the council that I get to know them like Sade, who founded EDAS. I also like Glazed NYC too. I think there are so many veterans and newcomers out there that we will see one hundred percent more growth. When I retire, I just hope that I can pass the baton on to black girls who either work for me or some of my mentees, or just other black women in general. I hope that as an industry we will continue to advocate black women in various areas of fashion. And for me, whether streetwear or upscale streetwear or shoes, in my opinion there are more rooms and chances that we should definitely continue to work in this wheelhouse in which we are not competing with one another. There doesn’t have to be anyone at the table.

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Melinda Martin