Why The Black CEOs In Fashion Are So Elusive

Today I read a thought-provoking article about Fashion’s Black CEOs written by Sheena Butler-Young for Business of Fashion. The article pointed out the lack of fashion’s larger brands appointing Black chief executives, following two years of theoretically addressing racial injustice.

Reading the article did spark this op-ed if you will, and raised the question; is it beneficial or even necessary for large fashion houses to hire Black executives?

Or better yet – is the question really about where are the Black CEOs of fashion or that the problem of racial injustice is solved by providing a job? As Butler-Young mentioned, there is a game of musical chairs underfoot in the C-Suite and in the mind of this opinion – is that a game we want to play? The furthest Black talent has achieved is the coveted Creative Director role and when you take a look at roles at Reebok (Kerby) and Adidas (Kanye West), it is very clear that the objective is to utilize the talent – not replace the board.

Please take a moment to read the article. It is well written and a piece that will make you scratch your head.

However, do not spend too much time scratching. Rather, let’s take a look at the original question of “WHERE are Fashion’s Black CEO’s?” Let us also dispel the idea that we are anomalies that do not exist. Here is where we are and where to find us. Walk with me and discover how to get there.

The Legacy Brands

In order to understand the simple hard truth about fashion, we need to note that there are three remaining lux fashion houses that folks “care” about today:

  • Gucci
  • Channel
  • Louis Vuitton

Ever since I was a little girl, those were the fashion icons to look to for inspiration. It was all the professors and instructors talked about in fashion education. We’ve seen the rise and dramatic drop of others (Versace and Halston -) and the appeal of the magnificent seven (Dior, Balenciaga, Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, Valentino, and Prada; you can replace Prada with Balmain if you like) but those three are it! It’s like they are positioned to be immortal.

Even if the opportunity arose to select a Black CEO, the legacy of these brands are undeniable. It is what Black creatives are motivated by – to be the next Channel, but do not possess the assets and collateral that awarded those triads of mega fashion: investment capital, supply chain resources, major support by their core audience, and what we are calling generational wealth. Let’s call that the “sauce”. We know the stories, there are movies out and documentaries on how each of these houses were able to stay afloat.

That “sauce” is the key element that prevents any other race from achieving that point of interest of becoming a mega brand. Fashion’s Black CEOs are vying for their moment to be the next mega fashion house. However, without the “sauce” it is impossible to achieve that kind of legacy of success. 

Those fashion houses have investments ranging from Fossil Fuels to banking institutions, pouring millions into a dying breed. Most CEO’s of color are still struggling to earn a grant or a loan to grease the wheels of their still fledgling businesses. Fashion for POC does not grant this type of immortality. And so, we have to create that space ourselves all while knowing in the depths of it all, that we may not be able to hold on.

Many Black owned brands have come and gone. Even with the hype and height of the 70’s and 90’s – many of those brands were sold off, websites are down and the clothes or shoes can be bought for pennies with no value to their name. The fashion CEO seat needs to come from a supportive ecosystem, not necessarily does the CEO seat need to be filled from an already existing cohort.

Marketing To Who?

The great designer brands of our time are marketed towards a consumer that they either aspired to be (rich, living in mansion homes, attending yacht parties, lux vacations, unlimited money resources). Or that were already intertwined in their family origins and inherently passed down. Creating a fashion house that is entangled with the words “underserved” or “undeveloped” or anything with the prefix of the “un” – would not grant the production of a $500 shirt, dress or shoe, to sell out amongst its own. So if designer fashion is not inheritably marketed to the very person that is to run the company as CEO – it kind of does not make any sense or cents to bring said person on board. So being pragmatic has to start somewhere. 

Although growing up, there was the allure of Fashion Fair & Ebony Magazine where countless Italian designer brands loved the opportunity to showcase their threads to the Black Elite. And that exposure is how some brands became Black house-hold names. Black Elite often favored the purchase of the romanticized Italian made heel, made with Italian hands and modeled after an Italian face that tanned the Italian leather. The romance was embraced across the globe and marketed that way. Same for France and Euro-centric American brands.

There was no romance marketed for designing a beautiful heel made in Harlem, or Nigeria. Nor New York where footwear factories and bespoke cobblers were known to exist amongst spaces occupied and culturally elevated by people of color. 

Blacks and people of color have done an AMAZING job of marketing and elevating these dying brands and keeping them alive. We do it through music, we do it through showmanship, red carpet opportunities, dripping in photoshoots, etc. etc. – we even bring our babies home in designer clothing! We are the marketing machine that keeps fashion afloat and the affirmation if the brand is doing well. Fashion knows that it really has nothing to do with seeing diversity in the models, but to have confirmation from the hottest trend-setter on a billboard for the world to see is much more valuable.

The problem lies there. Our willingness to hype the achievements of others and not our own. In this case we do a disservice to ourselves with the limitless spending power we possess.

With limited marketing behind your craft or history behind a craft, there is no marketing piece, no story, no romantic vision and certainly not investment worthy. And least we not forget on purpose. There is no gain to be made in the grand scheme of things so many Black designers of the 70’s, 80’s, leading up to today – take jobs collaborating and designing for larger designer houses in hopes to elevate their own brands. 

It is easier to be hired as a creative in a designer house than to hang your hat on developing and sustaining your own brand when the “system” is not set up for its success. Being hired as a CEO is certainly a financial relief. Even if it’s short lived.

The Top 10 Fashion Black CEOs

Since there are 10 top designer houses, I think it is only fair that we shift the dominant culture and talk about something different. From apparel to footwear to retail, we have always been here with the immortal energy that keeps us chasing the dream. Ten designer houses with Black CEOs, founders and originators at the helm:

  1. Kevan Hall
  2. Eperson
  3. Byron Lars
  4. Tracey Reese
  5. McMullen
  6. Telfar Clemens
  7. Ozwald Boateng
  8. Sergio Hudson
  9. Wales Bonner
  10. Kerby Jean-Raymond (Pyer Moss)

In footwear we have Aurora James (Brother Vellies) , Rocky Parrish (Rock Deep), D’Wayne Edwards (Education, Factory Owner) and Scott Uzzell (Converse) to name only a few. These high profilers are doing it for themselves or heading up large brands. And of course, Tanita S. Gray of Last-Report magazine. There is a larger list to add to this and should be distributed among the masses. This article is not written to post yet another headline “Top 10 Black Designers” because that list is already circulating every February. This article is to keep in mind who and where we are and why to buy forever and ever beyond our generation. To demystify the obvious.

The goal, I believe, is not to just sit at the table – you have to build the table and the chairs as well as the house around it to sustain in any industry as CEO.  

Perhaps a hip-hop song would do the search for these CEOs justice, if it can make it on the cross-over airwaves. Finding out where the Black CEOs are is like asking where are the Black country singers? Here, there, everywhere in fact. Quietly and patiently waiting for the hour to shine and be noticed on a massive scale. Not knowing that the time is now at this moment. As mentioned many times on this platform, here is a need for Black retail, Black distribution and a Black supply chain and new infrastructure to answer Butler-Young’s question with authority and confidence.

Call it putting the cart before the horse or running without walking – Black CEOs are in a race to overcome and overachieve and overstand. We do so without inheritance, endless banking capital or global marketing. And without being hired by companies as a temporary deflection of their role in social and racial injustice.

Tanita Gray

Editor-In-Chief, Publisher and Founder of Last-Report.com, and CEO of Shoes Waste. Gray is a footwear, accessory and apparel designer/developer by day - writer and content architect by night. With over 17 years of experience in the fashion industry, you can find her teaching sustainability classes, drawing thumbnails, writing in her journal, giving her husband & children enormous hugs, or eating french fries.

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