Five Women of Color Get Real About the Fashion Industry

Five-Women-of-Color-Get-Real-About-the-Fashion-Industry-Man-Repeller-Feature
Rikki Byrd | March 30, 2016

Vogue’s Marjon Carlos, Refinery29’s Connie Wang, Latina Magazine‘s Verky Arcos Baldonado, Native Max founder Kelly Holmes and freelance writer Amina Akhtar on the importance of diversity in fashion

In discussions surrounding racial diversity in the fashion industry, people seem to speak with dismal hope that maybe, just maybe, it will get better soon. The reality is that people are tired of waiting. They’ve experienced firsthand what it feels like to not see enough people who look like them in film, television, on runways or even among their staff.

The five women of color below are doing their part to change this landscape. They work feverishly at their respective jobs in fashion to make a difference. Between ensuring that people of color are represented as new designers to watch, models of color are featured in editorials and that stories about appropriation are more educative than sensational, these women are a force to be reckoned with in the industry.

Read on to find yourself inspired by Vogue.com’s Senior Fashion Writer, Marjon Carlos, Refinery29’s Fashion Features Director, Connie Wang, Latina’s Editor-at-Large, Verky Arcos Baldonado, Native Max founder Kelly Holmes and freelance writer Amina Akhtar who are just as passionate about fashion as they are about change. They share stories on their big breaks in the fashion industry, their thoughts on the conversation regarding racial diversity and why it’s high time to get more women and people of color in power.

  • Marjon Carlos
    Senior Fashion Writer at Vogue.com

    Tell me about your experience growing up and how you were drawn to fashion and beauty.

    I think I grew up with two gravitational pulls: On one hand, I was drawn toward books, politics, and academia. On the other, it was all about fashion and pop culture.

    I was raised by two nerds, so I was always really encouraged academically, but I was also that incisive little girl who would tell my mom what she wanted to wear. My father used to buy me these crazy designer dresses for church when I was growing up in Texas; it was super Southern of him, but now when I think about it, my parents just saw that fashion — like writing — was a way for me to be creative and express myself.

    I really explored both passions as I grew up: I would read Vogue religiously but then was on the newspaper staff writing op-eds on politics.

    Were there any specific people of your racial/ethnic background who you looked up to in the fashion industry? Was there any fashion inspiration in your community, in film, or in the media?

    I work with some of the people I admire the most. Before even knowing my Fashion News Director, Chioma Nnadi, I always respected her opinion on fashion and found her work to be so tapped into these niche pockets of style, trends and designers. She loomed large at Vogue and really set an amazing example for young black women in the game. Now that I’m working with her, she challenges me on a daily basis and allows me the freedom to be fearless with my ideas.

    I also look up my to my “big sisters,” Tamu McPherson, Shala Monroque and Michelle Elie. As a culture and fashion critic, you need people who are willing to put some fire under your ass and make you think outside the box. Of course, when I was growing up, Diana Ross in Mahogany created this paradigm for me! It’s the tale all little black girls who love fashion fall for. I always joke that the theme song should play when I get off the elevators at work.

    What was your first break in the fashion industry?

    I was a wee thing when I worked as a PR intern at Zac Posen. It was my first gig right out of college and taught me so much about the fashion world. I am still friends with my boss from there, Jodie Patterson.

    How important do you think it is for publications and media entities to ensure that stories about people of color in the fashion industry are included in their content regularly?

    It’s so important because quite frankly, it’s reflective of the world we live in. People of color are some of the biggest architects of popular culture, so there is no dearth of stories or phenomena to report on.

    At Vogue, how do you work to ensure that people from all walks of life are being represented?

    One of my many beats is global style, which affords me the opportunity to look the world over for arbiters of style. It’s exciting because the content actively works to create new ideas of who we believe to be cultural heroes and heroines. We can call out the unwittingly well-dressed rapper with “cool pants,” the young mystic who is taking over Instagram, unsung Persian style stars or the African Sex and the City all in a week. It’s about exploring that intersection of style and culture, which is where all the action is happening right now, where real trends are emerging.

    It’s also incredible to support new talent. I love seeing a promising young actress or musician of color who isn't fashion’s “usual suspect” and supporting their style growth with coverage. I have an incredible platform and I try to use it to include new faces and names in the conversation on fashion.

    What have been some of your personal experiences with race in the fashion industry?

    It’s funny because a couple of weeks ago I was at a co-worker’s going-away party at this super crowded bar. I was having a really deep and honest conversation with my other co-worker about the cultural and racial implications of Beyoncé’s “Formation" video. Everyone is partying, and we’re just sitting at the edge of the bar discussing Hurricane Katrina and Gucci. I have to say that those types of talks are pretty frequent here, which I love. I am admittedly often the only (or one of few) black women in a room when I move throughout this industry, but rather than that making me uncomfortable or hindering me in some way, I use it as fuel. I am not a shy person, so I constantly speak up when I think we should be broadening the scope of who we cover.

    When we talk about the numbers concerning the lack of inclusion and representation in the industry, we're often stuck at the issue and not the solution. How do you think we can actively work toward a more inclusive industry?

    I’d say "putting on" your people is fundamental. They could be friends or people whose work you greatly admire, but if you identify a talented individual of color, whether they be a model, a writer, an editor, a photographer, a designer, always throw their hat into the ring. I know that’s how I moved along in fashion: People remembered my writing and wanted me to do more with it. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
  • Connie Wang
    Fashion Features Director at Refinery29

    Tell me about your experience growing up and how you were drawn to fashion and beauty.

    I grew up in Eden Prairie, Minnesota and my family was one of the few Asian families in town.

    In Eden Prairie, there were a handful of mass retailers, so I had to be really creative to try and stand out. I shopped at thrift stores and in the sale section of cheesy mall brands that were too uncool for other kids in order to find things that no one else had. There was definitely an element of "I already stick out for being Asian so I might as well go with it," and I think that outsider point of view has stuck with me ever since.

    It wasn't until high school that I really started looking at fashion as a vehicle for writing.

    When did you start at Refinery29?

    I started reading Refinery29 in 2006 as a media intern at Glam Media, and it quickly became my favorite website. When I moved to NYC in 2009, I stalked the website for job openings. I applied to the first one I saw -- a blog editor -- and Christene Barberich, the editor of the site and my mentor, gave me a chance. I've been here ever since.

    Were there any specific Asian/Asian American people who you looked up to in the fashion industry? Was there any fashion inspiration in your community, in film or in the media?

    I am a massive fan of Susie Lau. I've been reading Style Bubble since she was taking point-and-shoot pics with her digital camera and collaging them all together on her blog in 2006. During those days, most of the fashion bloggers I read were Asian — I obsessively followed I Am Fashion, Says The Asian Leprechaun, Fops & Dandies, and Give Me Spirit Fingers Dammit. Their voices were so whimsical and thoughtful, and I always look at that era of fashion blogging with starry-eyes. These bloggers taught me how to have fun with fashion and treat is as a subject as well as a tool for expression.

    At Refinery29, how do you work to ensure that people from all walks of life are being represented?

    I'm the kind of person who's always aware if I'm the only Asian person in a restaurant, the only person of color in a room, or the only woman in a meeting, so it's second-nature for me to run everything we do through a check. Did we try and include a range of backgrounds, perspectives, definitions, abilities, body types, ethnicities and ages? Are we reaching out to make sure people within a community are getting the opportunities to speak for it (instead of co-opting the conversations ourselves). When we cast for a shoot, are we representing our readers with our models? And though it's an automatic habit, it's not easy to follow through with. There aren't enough resources in the fashion industry, in media, nor even at Refinery29 to be as inclusive as I'd like to be. But it's something all our editors are aware of as we work toward parity.

    Why do you think the lack of representation and inclusion continues despite people calling it out season after season?

    I think it's arrogance. There are so many people in fashion who believe that the small bubble they live in is reality. There's nothing wrong with creating art and products about what you know, but if you're doing it for a public audience who buy your clothes, consume your products and don't feel respected by your work, you have to open yourself up to criticism. If there's anything that Donald Trump has taught us is it's that there are still people — smart, educated, well-meaning people — who don't think that their internalized racism is a problem. They might couch it as a backlash against "political correctness," but all it means is being able to practice hatred without consequence. It just means that the rest of us have to continue to be vocal and agitate for inclusivity and sensitivity.

    When we talk about the numbers concerning the lack of inclusion and representation in the industry, we're often stuck at the issue and not the solution. How do you think we can actively work toward a more inclusive industry?

    We need more women of color to be in decision-making roles in fashion.
  • Verky Arcos Baldonado
    Editor-at-Large, Latina

    Tell me about your experience growing up and how you were drawn to fashion and beauty.

    As a young child, I remember my mom -- with her big curly hair and red lips -- shopping and styling her clothes, figuring out what looked best on her. I wanted to emulate that. Once I was a teen, I learned about designer fashion from my older sister. She was wearing Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Plein Sud. I would take everything from her, so I was rocking a Louis Vuitton bucket bag in high school and wore a Yohji Yamamoto dress to prom. All of these memories have stuck with me and have drawn me to fashion and beauty.

    Were there any specific Latin American people who you looked up to in the fashion industry? Was there any fashion inspiration in your community, in film or in the media?

    My community was primarily Latino, so I never had to look far, or in mainstream media, for fashion inspiration because fashion and style is engrained in our culture. I do remember loving the supermodels back then – Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Claudia Schiffer – particularly Christy Turlington because she was one of the few Latinas.

    What was your first break into the fashion industry?

    My first break was at Latina in 2008. Before Latina, I produced photo shoots in the music industry, and while that wasn’t particularly in fashion, it introduced me to the styling world and the process. When I was a writer and editorial assistant at Latina, there were some internal transitions and one of them happened to be a new fashion editor position. I didn’t have direct experience, per se, but I was confident in knowing who the Latina girl was. I marched into the editor-in-chief’s office to convince her that I could do the job and managed to get a 3-month trial period. Once I got the opportunity I rocked it and continued on my fashion path.

    What's it like working for a publication specifically focused on producing content for people of color? 

    It's fun, challenging and feels like a great responsibility. It's fun because it's an ever-growing market that is slowly being noticed, so there is a lot of uncharted territory to cover and content to produce. It's challenging because we are not just Latina, we are also American, so we are always looking for that Latin thread within mainstream issues. It is very necessary for Latinas to be a part of every conversation, especially fashion and beauty, because the Latina market continues to grow and whoever ignores that is ignoring the reflection of mainstream America.

    Why do you think the lack of representation and inclusion continues despite people calling it out season after season?

    We need to have more dialogue so that those who make the decisions not only hear what is being said but also understand what people are saying. Those who have power and the ability to change the marketplace are going to need to push for inclusion. The more we stand up for it the more we will see inclusion.

    When we talk about the numbers concerning the lack of inclusion and representation in the industry, we're often stuck at the issue and not the solution. How do you think we can actively work toward a more inclusive industry?

    Like in Hollywood, part of the problem is not having minorities in positions of power to make those important decisions. In fashion, part of the solution is creating incubator and accelerator programs like Access Latina, which help Latinos excel and succeed. Programs like these will put more Latinos in positions to make a difference and include people like themselves.
  • Kelly Holmes
    Founder & Editor of Native Max Magazine

    Tell me about your experience growing up and how you were drawn to fashion and beauty?

    I’m originally from the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota. My mom made star quilts, so I would watch her and make jewelry, too. As I got older, I started to collect magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vogue. I would cut out pictures and put them in collages all over my room. I would always cut out models or girls in magazines that looked indigenous like me.

    When I relocated to Denver as a teenager, it was tough. The school was not only twice the size of my old high school, but there were literally just two or three Native American students. I would say I was Native American and people would make remarks like, “Wow, you’re still alive. You guys still exist. I thought you guys were killed off.” People would ask to touch my hair. They wanted to feel my face. In place of being upset, I decided to turn that into a learning experience and teach people: Yes, we are still here. We are very successful. And I still bring those lessons with me today.

    What made you start Native Max?

    As a teenager, I was going through magazines and I felt like I couldn’t connect. I wished that there was something that could connect with someone like me. What if there was a Native magazine with Native American models wearing Native American designs and photos taken by Native American photographers? I went into my mom’s room and told her about this idea and said, “Someone should do this.” She said, “Why don’t you?” I went back into my room and I wrote down all of these ideas.

    What were some of the responses you received when you begin to share your idea for Native Max?

    I put together a business plan and an informational website. When I started to really promote it and started to reach out to people to see if they would like to help, there were no responses. And when there were responses, they weren't positive. A lot of people told me this would be a waste of time.

    I’m pretty stubborn. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it. I started putting together layouts and a few team members joined. Coincidentally, the idea got out, so writers at colleges and radio stations started calling me, asking for my opinion on "the Karlie Kloss thing" [she wore a Native American headdress down the runway at a Victoria's Secret show]. And I would ask, “Why do you want my opinion?" And they would say that I’m kind of a voice for the Native American community. That was a shock. That’s when I realized that we can use this [Native Max] as a platform to tell our story and use our voice. As soon as we launched the first issue in 2012, it spread like wildfire.

    Why do you think the lack of representation and inclusion continues despite people calling it out season after season?

    It’s definitely something that’s important. What I experienced here in Denver [as a teenager] -- that people were surprised that we still existed, it's because people really had no idea. I feel like people appropriate our culture because they don’t know. Some people probably don’t know headdresses are sacred or these patterns on dresses are sacred patterns that no one in the Native community would consider putting on anything. With Native Max, we try to educate everyone, not in an angry way, in a positive, constructive way. That’s also what sets us apart.

    When we talk about the numbers concerning the lack of inclusion and representation in the industry, we're often stuck at the issue and not the solution. How do you think we can actively work toward a more inclusive industry?

    We want to create spaces and create positive environments where we don’t have to yell back but just show. With Native Fashion in the City (a subsidiary of Native Max), we’re trying to create it as a parallel to Fashion Week. We invite buyers, store owners, magazine editors and bloggers to promote and expose Native artisans or Native American models.
  • Amina Akhtar
    Freelance Writer

    How long have you been in the industry?

    This is going to date me but going on seventeen years.

    Tell me a little bit about your experience growing up and how you were drawn to fashion and beauty?

    I grew up in El Paso, Texas, where the idea of working in fashion wasn’t really a thing for me. In my family, it was all about going into medicine, but I loved Sassy magazine. My other big exposure to fashion was my mother, who made a lot of clothes for me. Makeup was also major in our house — good eyeliner was a must.

    Were there any specific people from your racial/ethnic background who you looked up to in the fashion industry? Was there any fashion inspiration in your community, in film or in the media?

    To be honest, no. When I started, there weren’t that many South Asian women in fashion. I’ve met some incredible women along the way, however — Meenal Mistry, Roopal Patel, Tina Chadha, Rebecca Suhrawardi, Nan Wolfe — but there are not a lot of us. I love seeing more and more younger women of South Asian descent getting into fashion.

    What was your first break into the fashion industry?

    I got a job as a fact checker at Vogue in 1999, which I did for like, a month. And then there was an opening in the managing editor’s office and I got the job as one of her assistants — one of my favorite jobs in terms of learning and bosses. Moral of the story: Never say no to a job because you think it's beneath you, especially when you’re starting out. You never know where it can take you.

    What have been some of your personal experiences with race in the fashion industry?

    Oh God. Well, I’ve been told I was a diversity hire before at one publication. At another, it was suggested when I was hiring a staff that I not hire a black editor because there would be TV appearances involved. That was gross. Another would mix me up with other brown girls in really awkward ways.

    Or it’s small things, like beauty PR people who know you, who’ve met you, sending you products and colors you could never wear.

    Why do you think the lack of representation and inclusion continues despite people calling it out season after season?

    You know, casting agents blame model agencies who blame the casting agents who blame their designer clients. Everyone passes the buck; no one wants to accept responsibility. And you’ll hear, "Well, in Europe it’s like this, and customers don’t want to spend money if there’s a diverse ad." That’s bullshit. If that were true, why are mass market companies using diverse castings? They appeal to, by definition, a broad group of people. There are some awesome designers who are making changes, who are casting diverse shows. But they shouldn’t be in the minority.

    How do you think we can actively work toward a more inclusive industry?

    We need more people of color to be in decision-making roles. When that happens, you’ll start to see change. You’ll start to see a change in stories, in castings, in cover decisions, in social media. But if you have only one or two people of color on staff who can’t really make any major decisions, whose hands are tied because of red tape and corporate bullshit, then you won’t see jack. Publications have to want to see change. They have to want to make a difference.

Rikki Byrd is a fashion scholar and freelance writer living in Brooklyn by way of St. Louis, MO; follow her @rikkibyrd. Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; collage by Emily Zirimis.

man-repeller-bar-women-of-color-in-fashion-industry

  • Amazing post, amazing views. People don’t always understand that
    representation is about no one feeling inadequate. No one feeling out.
    Poc, trans, fat girls. We’re adults and I can’t figure out why fashion
    cannot leave the “bullying phase” behind. And this is not only about
    Designers but also about bloggers and other publications.

    There’s like, 0 people talking about it because they don’t want to burn
    bridges. Especially if they are privileged somehow and they don’t have
    the obligation to care.

    For me it doesn’t matter how much your designs are innovative, if you’re not practicing diversity means nothing to me. We need to learn with Queen B. and use our platforms for something bigger and positive.

    • Aydan

      I think another piece that the fashion set tends to forget is geography — yes, of course there is a short list of cities we call “fashion capitals of the world” and I know particularly with blogs they focus on where they live, but COME ON!! There is a whole host of amazing and inspiring women (AND MEN) who are living, breathing fashion–maybe in a different way–that have stories that can be told!

      • Nicole L.

        I totally agree! I’m about to graduate from college in Wisconsin with plans to move to Chicago and it seems as though the only opportunities are in New York, which can’t be true! The Midwest has its own living breathing fashion culture and we shouldn’t have to transplant to the coasts to live this passion.

      • Catherine Gans

        When I looked at the draft of 6775 dollars, I have faith that brother of my friend was like really generating cash in his free time with his PC..yib His aunt’s neighbor has done this for only 11 months and by now repaid the loan on their home and bought a new Car.

        For Details Click Here
        io..

      • snakehissken

        One of my favorite places to check out people’s clothes is at the airport. The last time I was there, a flight from Nigeria landed while I was waiting for my mother and so many of the women were wearing such cool outfits.

  • Tiana

    Amazing articles and insight!

    http://www.jivaro.com.au

  • Foyin Og

    So much “YES!!” I love that a portal like Man Repeller is having and continues to have these vital conversations, and I think its also important to pick up on the common thread that all of these women have pointed out: we need to create our own platforms and also be in positions to make crucial decisions. I kind of feel like they go hand in hand, too.
    Obviously, we should be present in mainstream media and have diversity be an instinct and not an afterthought, but it’s also important to create our own spaces that represent us and use them to empower each other.
    I feel like every sector of the fashion industry should try and use their power to make a difference – women of colour who are afraid of rejection due to their skin colour/size should still try and become models; bloggers should produce relevant content to their community/location/demographic and speak out on these issues; magazines shouldn’t be afraid to interrogate themselves and the industry, and so on and so forth.
    I really hope diversity isn’t just a trend for brands to get more media coverage but rather a conscious act of unlearning harmful biases.
    Also, I love this, Man Repeller is one of my faves and s/o to Rikki Byrd!

  • Great article about fashion. Thanks for sharing.