I still remember when Rihanna's clothing line, Fenty, won “Urban Luxe Brand of the Year'' at the British Fashion Awards (BFA) in 2019. Known to many in the industry as the Oscars of fashion, the BFAs celebrate the movers and shakers of the previous year. The "Urban Luxe" category is said to "redefine new luxe" and essentially brings fashion into the culture conversation. Recipients of the award are "perceived across the globe as elevating 'casual' to high-end and directional fashion."
Fenty, a brand under luxury conglomerate LVMH, produces tailored jackets, sharp footwear, corset dresses, and a plethora of other high-end items crafted in Italy and France. In line with other LVMH brands, like Dior and Louis Vuitton, items are priced in the thousands and guarantee opulent construction. With that in mind, perhaps Fenty would have been better suited for the "Designer of the Year" category. Instead, the panel—made up of 2500 members from the global fashion community—deemed it fitting to create an entire new category to grant Rihanna her flowers.
Rihanna doesn’t consider Fenty an urban brand, and neither do I. So why was she placed in this category? Could it be because she’s Black? Unfortunately, Rihanna isn’t the only Black designer who has experienced this. Jean-Raymond, the founder of Pyer Moss, expressed frustration when his brand was called streetwear. "I just want to know what’s being called 'street,' the clothes or me?" he said. He continues, "The work of Black creatives seems to always get undermined in one way or another. We [the new generation of Black designers] aren't accepting group categorization and group classifications to describe our work anymore—it just leads to group dismissal. 'Streetwear' had once described T-shirt brands and skate-inspired brands, and now it's just a lazy innuendo used to describe clothing made by designers that the establishment deems 'less than.'"
The Black community already has a hard time securing a seat at the table—and when we finally pull up a chair, we're still not viewed as equals. It’s the reason why the words “urban” and “Black” have become interchangeable in recent years. With the Black Lives Matter Movement and the desire to treat and celebrate Black people fairly, why is the fashion industry not tackling this issue?
The Black community already has a hard time securing a seat at the table—and when we finally pull up a chair, we're still not viewed as equals.
It appears the fashion industry expects Black designers to become inured to this category, that any collection they produce automatically places them here. And that is troubling. With the constant bombarding of images and language, the general public has been taught what a high-fashion brand should look like. They associate Gucci, Prada, Dior, and others as luxury because that’s the fantasy the media is forcing on us.
If the fashion industry continues to display Black brands as just one thing, it continue the alienation. The media has helped push society to believe a single story about Black designers, that they are urban and nothing more. The danger of a single story, as described by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists, is "when you show people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, that is what they will become.” This single story—that Black brands can only be "urban"—has disabled other narratives to enter the public's mind, and introduced a default position to hold Black brands. Black fashion designers are represented in a stereotypical way.
It appears the fashion industry expects Black designers to become inured to this category, that any collection they produce automatically places them here. And that is troubling.
This sense of urban-ness and hip hop culture has been adopted by a plethora of luxury brands including Fendi, Valentino, Prada, Gucci and more. These brands have collections of track pants, puffer coats, trainers, and gold jewelry—further playing into an urban lifestyle. However, they are seldom ever referred to as such. Instead, they are desired by a money market and praised for their individuality and quality. Why can’t Black fashion designers receive that same luxury? Black designers are modern, contemporary, innovative, and inspiring, only to be pigeonholed into one category—urban.
Correcting the role of language should be an essential action item to dismantling systemic racism in the fashion industry. The industry can no longer say they stand with the Black community and fail to address the language barriers they use to describe us. Accurate and wide representation can change the way people see themselves and how they perceive brands. I want the fashion industry to expand their narrow thoughts on Black designers and realize Black fashion is more than just "urban."