What would fashion look like if we had the whole pie?

The Covid Effect

Prior to COVID-19, post George Floyd and the trend to support black-owned businesses of 2020, only 15 of the 495 CFDA members were black, and only ten black designers have ever won a CFDA or CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. One of the most popular and financially successful black designers, Tracy Reese, has never received a single nod. Less than 10 percent of the 146 fashion designers who showed at the major fall 2018 shows for New York Fashion Week were black (the Cut).

COVID exposed the scarcity of viable resources in the fashion industry for African American, Black and IBPOC to participate in the economic powerhouse of personal expression. 

Personal expression is the cultural foundation. Adornment and dress help define our identity. Fashion is the prime component of our lifestyles. However, there is a void in the dynamic industry of fashion that goes beyond “black dollars”. 

The Black Fashion Cycle

The Black Fashion Cycle is what quantifies the lifespan of fashion, consumer behavior and the overall effect and distribution of fashion apparel, accessories and footwear purchased and displayed on a daily basis within black culture.

Typically there is the trickle down effect that starts with the designer and its manufacturer delivering product to the retail level. Once the fashion cycle has gone through its lifespan – it has accumulated billions of dollars back into its non-Black, non-African American or non-IBPOC owned ecosystem. This dissolves the trending “black dollars” and removes our contribution from the ecosystem altogether. 

Although we participate as creative visionaries and we have trend-setting spending power that is coveted by the industry – our inclusion stops there.

Let’s explore the fashion cycle

Besides being a designer, the spending power of African Americans, Blacks, IBPOC stops at the register, making our contribution to the cycle at only 20%. A full healthy cycle represents designer/brands, manufactures, distributors, retail and the management of the life cycle of products, complete with profit margin and business structure intact. Once the products reach their end of life, something new and exciting comes along the next season and we start all over again. A beautiful cadence of ebb and flow in an industry.


15% graphic showing Black business plight during 2020.

Aurora James founded the 15 Percent Pledge, a new nonprofit calling on retailers to match their representation of Black business owners to the Black population of America. A seemingly knee-jerk reaction to jump on the bandwagon of Sephora and Target, a hand-full of retailers agreeing to bet on black does not have long-term effect for the brands and designers looking for shelf space to showcase their wears.

According to the 15 Percent Pledge, the American retail industry has 8,753 Black-owned businesses, with 50,539 employees. There are over 1 million retail stores from independent mom and pops to multi store legends in the United States. Black owned retail makes up less than 1% of the multi-trillion dollar business. However, Nielsen says, Black consumers command $1.3 trillion in annual buying power from clothing to streaming downloads. The numbers seem crazy but close to the truth.

So where is all that money going?

Behavior of black fashion culture

Luxury shops at Duomo di Milano Italy. Black dollars help fuel the European luxury market in the US among the wealthy and poor.

By any means necessary, we will raise the capital needed for a luxury brand item. We then travel to areas unfamiliar or areas we are oftentimes not even wanted, making our shopping experience uncomfortable for some. But still the purchase goes through as an affirmation for our hard-earned money going into the hands of the cashier of the high-end brand. The cycle still continues, but that is where it ends for us. 

That brand will then turn our dollars over to the often European market, where it gets distributed to their supply chain. Our dollars do not get circulated back into our communities or companies in the same way or magnitude non-black dollars do. 

Our black dollar spending power ends up in the hands of non-blacks. Period. There is no circulation. There is no ecosystem. And therefore we cannot hold on the movement for more than a moment.

The lack thereof

The Black Fashion Cycle and the parts of the pie. Black contribution to fashion at 20% consist of being the creative and the consumer. We lack the faculties of being the manufacturer, distributor and end of life=circulation facilitator.

And beyond the design studio, there remains a lack of Black representation in the senior executive suite of major fashion and beauty companies worldwide.

(Tonya Blazio-Licorish and Obi Anyanwu for WWD)

My husband usually says we’ve got the cart in front of the horse. The African American/Black experience in fashion starts out in the usual way as a creative. And then as a consumer. But in between those phases, there is structure and segments that drive the business that we are not apart of. And it is as simple as OWNERSHIP. Because ownership in fashion is scarce, we cannot really find solid ground to stand on. We will continue to ask others for help instead of navigating through the very industry that leverages our culture as “cool” validation today.

When we do not own our operation within the business, there is only but so far we can go. In the beginning, we are getting fashion education from non-black institutes. We are being taught to design for a non-black audience and aspire to work for a non-black company. It is not until the student becomes “disruptive” enough to create with their like-minded brethren, do we break from those lessons. Once we graduate from fashion school – we showcase our portfolios to the plethora of white fashion houses. We then discover that the garments, shoes and accessories are more than likely made in China or some European artisan country. The distribution companies that ship and insure these brands are also non-black. Making it impossible for any further participation outside of a designer, retailer (maybe) and consumer.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to participate in the whole entirety of the fashion cycle?

We lack ownership in the true backbone to the fashion industry (MDF): 

  • Manufacturing
  • Distribution 
  • Fiscal insurance

Without the MDF, we are only spinning our wheels. Self-made independent seamstresses and clobbers are aware of the complexity of this cycle and why it is so important for them to keep that circle tight. There are profit margins to consider and keeping the lights on forever to ensure longevity of the craft. No one wants their business to fail after two short years of trying. There have been countless black-owned footwear brands that have fallen to the wayside because of the lack of ownership in MDF.

Get the horse

 A Nielsen’s report states advertising dollars designed to reach Black consumers declined by $1 billion between 2017 and 2018, according to the report. (Photo: NPPA Newswire)

There are thousands of black owned fashion businesses that can be discovered across instagram with phenomenal followers and amazing reelz. Press coverage and celebrity styling gain fame potential because in 2021, if you have not purchased fashion from a black owned business, you are out of style. But the reality of these businesses happens offline and only time will tell if Jame’s 15% or constant sustainable support will keep these businesses around.

Have you seen the movie The Banker? Well – imagine what downtown Los Angeles would look like if Garrett and Morris were able to continue their plans. Black owned banks loaning money to black businesses, home owners and retail giants, creating big commerce and industry. Changing the narrative means changing the way the game is played. What we need is a real effective board, organization and fiscal institutions that will carry the initiative of African American, Black and IBPOC fashion businesses and see it through fruition. We would not depend on the PPP, minority grants and options that are designed to take you to 20% of the pie. We will not succeed with only a piece; we need the whole pie. AND, from A-Z the pie needs to be made by us – ingredients, plate, stove and all.

There are a handful of black owned manufacturers and possibly distributors but the percentage is so low – they are only known by word of mouth. With solid ownership in education, factory facilities, marketing, logistics and grounds to conduct commerce, our dollars will recycle back into our ecosystem and scale up-and-coming businesses with room to flourish while establishing long-lasting footholds in the fashion.  Formulating The Black Fashion Cycle is pivotal to absolute success in this industry.

We’d have a horse that can carry that cart to the moon and back.

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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