Fashion is political! I'd heard about what Elle Magazine had done with the picture of Gabourey Sidibe (making this gorgeous-ebony representation of black womanhood appear almost bleached-out in a suspect skin-lightening tactic), but didn't really pay it too much attention.
Coincidentally, browsing through Facebook I came across details of a meeting taking place in the city to discuss the so-called post racial runway of diversity in the worlds of publishing and media and promptly told my girlfriend Marcia that we should attend. The conversation, convened by Ester Armah of WBAI, Michaela angela Davis writer and former fashion editor at Essence Magazine and Isolde Breilmaier – museum creator and trendsetter, was billed as a community discussion. On arrival I was amazed to see a room - packed with fashionistas, clothes-horses, photographers, bloggers and quite a good smattering of activists. The main topic of conversation seemed to concentrate on the fact that one of my favorite reads - Essence Magazine, had recently undertaken the services of a WHITE (horror of horrors) fashion editor. I'd seen the response of Angela Burt-Murray to this treacherous decision, and I quite frankly wasn't buying it! Neither, it seems were a good majority of women representing the fashion and media industry gathered on Friday night. Fashion's insiders explained how damaging it is when Essence, once the icon in black fashion, seems to turn its back on its prime market by hiring a white fashion editor. Whilst some crow that this is simply racism in reverse to look askance at this hiring, what it actually does is send a very strong and clear message that there are no good black fashion editors who could aspire to the job. A very good point that was raised by one media insider was to acknowledge Essence as a breeding ground for training and raising up talent in the industry. Now, with this important role going to the race that least needs a helping hand, where will young black girls itching to test the fashion water, go to get their baptism. Who will give them the chance of getting their feet wet?
The meeting paid tribute to the many legends present, and it was an honor for me to personally meet Marcia Gillespie, who became Essence Editor in Chief at the age of 26. Michaela angela Davis, founder of Honey also recounted how her team took an ailing magazine and turned it around to profitability before it was suddenly shut down. Fashion Editor at Diesel, and former Saks buyer, Kevin Stewart's flamboyant personality was aptly displayed in his somewhat lengthy raconteurial jaunt down memory lane.
Marcia's question of when would we see more realistic representation of black people, diversity in its true form, showing us in all stages of nappiness was well received in a crowd that had a lot of sisters showing diverse natural hair choices.
I learned that the silent protest that unfolded at the recently concluded much highlighted and touted NYC Fashion Week was inspired in part by Ms. Davis, Quan Lateef, community activist and a band of young and upcoming movers and shakers in the community and fashion industry. In a nod to the days of the civil rights and pacifist movements of the 60s and 70s on the first day of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's spring/summer 2011 offering, young black women, dressed in black, wearing black sunglasses stoically marched in silence from the headquarters of Essence Magazine (the Time Warner building) to Lincoln Center, carrying banners in an attempt to draw attention to the dearth of black models participating or being seen on the myriad runways at the Lincoln Center. "I am a fashion director," "I am Susan Taylor," "I am Ionia Dunn Lee," "I am Kevin Stewart," "I am Pamela Macklin," "I am Agnes Cammock", I am HARIETTE COLE” -- all names of African Americans who have served in the fashion director role at Essence during its 40-year history.
The dialogue continues and as an Essence fan for all of it's 40 year history, I'm heartened that the baton is being handed off to a fierce set of black people who are not afraid to go kick down some doors and who will not dishonor the men and women on whose shoulders they stand.