When I saw Shelly O. giving her speech to the Democratic National Convention last week, I looked at her gilded-pink dress and thought, “Ooh. Nice color.”

But then when I found out the dress was a custom piece by designer Tracy Reese, I jumped up off my bed with a fist pump, “Fuck yeah black girls wearing black girl designers!”

It’s a funny thing, in my graduate-level fashion program, the majority of the students are, in fact, black women. There are seven of us in a class of 12. But that ratio changes drastically when we look at the industry.

Of the many high-end designers who will be showing at Fashion Week in the coming days (and subsequently, selling in stores and showing up in magazine pages), the number of black female designers is distressingly small. There’s Tracy Reese. There’s Carly Cushie of the duo, Cushnie et Ochs. Then there’s — well, I’m not sure who else there is.

And, as a black woman, when you look at the landscape of fashion as a whole, it’s easy to wonder if you belong at all. We’re talking about an industry that worships the thin, white and moneyed; in which designers comfortably say they only use white models because they sell better or because adding brown skin will “distract” from the clothes; in which a black woman appears on the cover of the monthly fashion bible, Vogue, maybe once a year, if we’re lucky.

One would expect to find more inclusivity in the seemingly more democratic realm of “the interwebs.” But now, even fashion blogging is being called out for gravitating to the lithe ideal. Though there is a veritable rainbow of style bloggers, the ones who draw sponsorships, invites to fashion shows, collaboration opportunities, book deals and television appearances are often not “of-color.” And there was a bit of an uproar last month when the IFB (the foremost community for fashion bloggers) suggested non-thin (and likely by extension, “other”)  bloggersdon’t receive the same attention because their content simply isn’t good enough.

And I’ll be honest — when you don’t fit in with what is considered “ideal,” you do start questioning whether you’re good enough.

It’s the quiet battle I’ve been having with myself ever since I started this journey. I’m a middle-class black girl who grew up in Pittsburgh, who just happens to love drawing, designing and sewing things. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve wondered if my sensibilities were up to par with contemporaries who grew up with arm-length access to designer wardrobes. And sometimes, seeing the “merchandising girls” — the students who love fashion but don’t want to sew, who are overwhelmingly tall, thin and white, who wear designer sunglasses to class and take trips to New York for sample sales — is enough to make me question what I’m even doing here, shopping for wools on a budget, looking to thrift stores for old clothes I can use in my design projects.

In other words: Could I really be a designer?

Fashion is tough enough with the amount of creativity, historical knowledge and technical know-how that’s required to be considered good. Feeling like an outsider can test your mettle even more.

After one particularly brutal critique of my work, I had a full-scale breakdown in the pizza shop near campus. My friends hugged me and assured me that my critique wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. My instructors actually had good things to say about my garment. But all I could replay in my head were comments pointing out how my work was not up to par. I guess that’s what happens when you suffer from latent insecurities and a lack of sleep.

Which brings me back to Michelle and Tracy — both middle-class black girls from Midwest towns (Michelle, from Chicago, Tracy from Detroit) taking on worlds foreign from their own. Michelle left the South Side for the Ivy League; Tracy left Cass Technical High for Parsons. It had to be scary, right? It had to be daunting, to prove that you’re enough, not only to outsiders, but also to yourself. I fully own that, at this point, I am projecting, but considering what I know (Tracy’s first business failed when it didn’t pull in enough revenue; Michelle’s widely-circulated undergraduate thesis detailed the ways she felt alienated as a African-American woman on an Ivy League campus), I couldn’t have been the only one to have an epic meltdown over trying to find my place in this world.

Still, something clicks. You can’t stay melancholy and mopey when you obviously set out on a course to accomplish something. I don’t know exactly how Michelle and Tracy bounced back, but I know for me, there are plenty of late nights obsessively perfecting patterns, devouring Cristobal Balenciaga books and practicing couture construction techniques.

There was the 24-hour cycle where I stitched more than I ate or slept. And at the end of it all, I had a garment that still makes me giggle when I see it — a dress that is the first true manifestation of “Veronica, the designer.” It got glowing critiques from instructors and industry professionals on my final day of class, and that finally made me feel like I knew exactly what I was doing.

image

This is what happens when you study the greats — and decide that YOU’RE EFFING AWESOME.

 And then there was that first night of the Democratic National convention.

There they both were. Michelle, in her poised and passionate speech, and Tracy through her expertly tailored frock. Suddenly, all feelings of beingother and othered melted away. I grew even more confident watching the end result of two women, not entirely different from me, who worked, worked hard, stumbled, got up and worked hard some more, eventually becoming respected for their craft and capturing the attention of millions for one awesomely brilliant moment.

This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more Veronica on XOJane! 

  • can

    I love this article! I love fashion and as a Black woman I long to see designers that look like me: Black and female.

    Also this article reminds me of film school which is overwhelmingly White and male. It was hard to have your opinions taken seriously or to have your projects fully supported. But the fact of the matter is that we desparately (sp?) need Black women fashion designers just like we desparately need Black women filmmakers.

    I was really excited to see Lady O wearing Tracy Reese as well because I know what it will do for T. Reese’s brand. I would like her to wear more Black designers, but only if they are good, which most definitely are. It will help give them a much needed boost!

    Hang in there! The race usually goes to those who refuse to give up! And who knows maybe one day some lovely brown skined leading lady will be wearing one of your dresses at my film premiere.

  • Downsouth Transplant

    @ Can, this so made me want to grab my pom poms & cheer-lead for both you single handed. You both CAN & WILL make it through this self-doubting period to come up with amazing artistic tributes, when you do I will be there to write raving reviews for the both of you for every newspaper, fashion magazine & blog that exists! xx

  • Rue

    “Shelly O. ”
    wow you must be bossom-buddies with her. LOL.

  • http://mommaused2say.wordpress.com mommaused2say

    I was just as excited as you were when I found out Tracy was the designer! The dress was perfect and it couldn’t have been a better moment for Tracy and the FLOTUS to shine!

  • NewLook

    My cousin works at Tracy Reese, and they used her (body) to do the final fittings for Michelle!!!!! I was so excited when my dad told me. Get it Bev!!!!!

  • Cree

    So touching!!! I don’t have a clue about fashion and I’m in tears. These two women inspired and spoke to every one of us in a personal way. It is epic that you wrote this piece!!

  • http://dahlingnikki.tumblr.com Nic

    There’s Mimi Plange!

  • PP

    This article is aspiring and great motivation to do my best at Parsons this year. There are few hues of skin in the industry but that is no excuse. God, hard work,and innovation will up us on top.

    Keep Faith We Can Do It

  • http://pinkpantiesandleopardlipstick.wordpress.com PinkPantiesandLeopardLipstick

    LOVE! XX

  • PRettyNaturalGrl

    As a young black woman entering into the world of public relations, I truly understand where you are coming from. The most successful people that I see in my industry look like Barbie’s twin. There are many professions that are still lacking diversity.

  • http://www.tallawacollection.com Hillary

    Would love to point out the last night of the convention Mrs. O wore a dress by another black designer, Laura Smalls. Another talented industry veteran who is worthy of some more attention!
    http://fashionista.com/2012/09/a-closer-look-at-michelle-obamas-flawless-dnc-wardrobe/

    There are black designers out there, many who may not have half a million to invest in marketing but just keep making great clothing and doing what they know very well.

  • Lokina

    …And on top of it all you wrote SO very well about these thoughts, feelings, and reasons! I’m no designer but I appreciate those who have the skill for it. You share here a very personal story on why it matters what the people at the top say and do while representing the people that elected them. She made a lasting impression that evening and puts thought into the statements she makes with her time in the spotlight. Keep stitching, keep cheerin’ for the girls that made it, and don’t stop til you’re there too!
    Big hugs for your work on this inspiring article!

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