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(Part two of a four-part series)
The Manhattan-based international designer isn’t stressed about what to wear. Nor is he in a quandary about how to attire a particular celebrity, although first lady Michelle Obama recently bought some of his dresses.
|KAI MILLA —Fashion designer Kai Milla, left, after her September fashion show in New York with Nicole Murphy, former wife of entertainer Eddie Murphy.
Henry Jackson, 51, is in a bigger quandary: how to fill an unexpectedly high volume of orders that came in after the debut in September of his spring 2010 womenswear collection.
Just after Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City, Jackson determined that he couldn’t travel to France to show his new line during Paris Fashion Week. So he dispatched agents to shop the clothes to retail buyers in his stead, and one of them brought back huge orders from stores in Russia, Switzerland, Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other overseas.
“My foreign orders are now more than domestic orders,” said Jackson, who designed for Valentino and Oscar de la Renta before consulting on the business side with Tommy Hilfiger and other major brands and eventually starting his own high-end line, now called Henry N. Jackson for HNJ.
With sales projections for the fiscal year shattered and apparel production based on those sales forecasts now inadequate, Jackson is exploring financial avenues to fill as many of the orders as possible.
|B. MICHAEL with actress Victoria Rowell. Rowell is wearing a dress he designed.
The Boston native was one of only a few Black designers to stage shows during the recent New York fashion week. Although African-Americans by proportion tend to spend more on fashion and beauty than their White, Latin and Asian counterparts, Black designers remain underrepresented during America’s largest and most significant fashion event of the year.
As usual, one didn’t need every finger to count the number of fashion week presentations by Black designers or Black-owned labels: Stephen Burrows, Kimora Lee Simmons, Tracy Reese, Rachel Roy, B. Michael, Kai Milla, Shereé Whitfield and Jackson. Although the recession has caused designers of every ethnicity to rethink, downsize and in some cases cancel their seasonal previews, Reese was unique this season in that she was the only Black designer to show her collection in the Bryant Park tents, the hub of Fashion Week and the focal point of international media attention.
Simmons returned to the Roseland Ballroom for her show, again hosting the largest audience of any Black designer with her popular mix of trendy urban streetwear. The others staged more intimate presentations in their showrooms or at rented facilities around the city, inviting loyal clients, select retailers and some media.
No one knows the number of Black American designers, including the growing number of Black celebrities who launch a fashion brand and pay others to design it because they themselves can’t sketch and sew. Jackson and Burrows—as well as Black designers such as Edward Wilkerson at Lafayette 148 and Patrick Robinson at GAP—are distinct from entertainers with fashion opinions and the financial backing to translate their views into reality. The latter includes the likes of Sean Combs, 50 Cent, Beyoncé, Steve Harvey, LL Cool J, Will.i.am, Russell and Kimora Simmons.
|RACHEL ROY, fashion designer and former wife of hip-hop impresario, Damon Dash.
The impact of such celebrity brand diversification doesn’t always sit well with designers for whom fashion is both their vocation and livelihood. Burrows called it “truly appalling” and “a sad state of affairs.” “Not many of them last more than two years and then, kaput—out of business.”
Some say that celebrity brands, particularly the hip-hop genre, have changed the industry over the last decade—and not necessarily for the better.
“If you don’t have hype surrounding your label, you don’t get orders no matter how beautiful your clothes are,” noted Jackson. “Hype doesn’t guarantee you a new taste level or a history of fashion. It just means that you have attention, and hopefully you have something to say when you have the attention. That’s my problem with celebrity design lines. They rely on their hype and don’t hire folk who can make great clothes. And the people who represent them don’t care about longevity or quality. Hip-hop brands generally have a seven-year life, then the market moves on. And now that’s crossing over to designer labels.”
Celebrity vanity projects, reality TV and the pop culture in general have helped to increase public interest in fashion. Yet, Black designers are barely visible during New York fashion Week. And even beyond those two major eight-day events each February and September, there is no national organization that organizes and advocates for Black designers, unlike Blacks in other professions such as medicine, engineering, accounting and journalism.
“We need an NAACP of Black designers,” said Jackson.
And while his remark is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it speaks to a sobering reality. Notwithstanding economic and political realities that affect all designers, the national fashion scene appears tougher to penetrate for designers who happen to be Black.
A major disadvantage is that Black designers tend to lack the generational ties to the industry enjoyed by some other ethnic groups. As evidenced by Jewish designers such as Marc Jacobs and Zac Posen and the profusion of Asian designers, entrée into the industry is aided by a history of family involvement. That could mean a family-owned textile mill or a business in design or production.
“Their families have been in fashion industry for generations, so it’s easier for them to make the transition from design student to Seventh Avenue designer,” said Jackson. As for Black designers, he added, consider “how they are brought up. Are they trained by their fathers to run a business? Are they trained to be in the family business? No. We don’t have that advantage, so that is a detriment for us and that is the hurdle we have to jump over.”
Still, the deep pockets of a celebrity spouse have helped more Blacks gain access to the industry. Rachel Roy was married to rap mogul Damon Dash when she launched her line, Kai Milla’s husband is Stevie Wonder, Marie Claudinette Jean of Fusha is wedded to Wyclef Jean, and Kimora Simmons’ Baby Phat and KLS Collection lines wouldn’t exist were it not for the hip-hop mogul she recently divorced.
Whether Black designers buy or earn their way in, the respect of an insular, elitist, New York-dominated industry often proves difficult to win. But it’s not impossible. Designers such as Jackson and Burrows, in developing distinguished careers over the decades, have paved the way for the Reeses and Robinsons to make their marks.
Burrows, for example, was the first to show the wrap dress silhouette that many mistakenly believe was conceptualized by Diane von Furstenberg. He also introduced the lettuce edge in 1971 after a worker accidentally stretched a hem on a skirt, he revolutionized the use of bold color in U.S. fashion, and he is widely credited for popularizing the concept of a runway fashion show in 1973.
“I suppose I was one of the first to take my shows out of the showroom, choosing to present at a large venue with a live deejay and 15 to 20 models,” he recalled. “I did a show on the sidewalk of 57th Street, stopping traffic and causing a sensation. I had great support to do it, as I was working out of Henri Bendel and they had one of the best PR machines in New York and other American fashion capitals, like L.A., Chicago, Dallas and Houston.”
Burrows, 66, became the first Black American fashion designer to win international fame. It wasn’t easy.
“Challenges I faced were endemic of the fashion industry and not necessarily having anything to do with being Black,” he said. “However, I will say that securing investment capital is harder when you are not White, and funding your business is of prime importance since you really can’t survive in this industry without it.”
Black designers seem particularly affected in an industry that chews up and spits out creative people who lack business acumen and marketing savvy. Perhaps out of some fear of being pigeonholed as “just a Black” designer, some choose to show their clothes primarily on White models—even when most of the people who buy and wear their clothes are Black. The mentality also is evident in Black designers who court White media while demonstrating indifference to Black media. Kai Milla declined to be interviewed for this story. Tracy Reese, Rachel Roy and Kimora Lee Simmons ignored multiple interview requests and B. Michael could not be reached.
In an aside worth mentioning only because of her newfound notoriety, reality-show personality Shereé Whitfield of the blockbuster Bravo television series “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” presented a spring-summer collection off-site during fashion week. Afterward, she did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story, perhaps hoping to avoid questions about what turned out to be a dismal failure.
As enrollment in fashion-related degree programs soars, Burrows offered some advice to aspiring designers.
“Go to school,” he said. “Learn your craft technically. Learn about the business side of the business you are going into. Follow your dream, and don’t lose faith in yourself.”
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