During a brunch with my girlfriends I glanced around the table and noticed the number of designer handbags. I spotted a Chanel 2.55, YSL Chyc, Prada Saffiano and of course there was the ubiquitous Céline tote, resembling a bag about to take flight. You could take these items as proof of our hard work or a sign we’re a group of conspicuous consumers with absurd spending habits.

Interestingly, I noticed most of the bags belonged to women of color. So then I proceeded to ask, “Why do we support brands that consistently ignore us?”

My close friend rolled her eyes and ordered another drink, “Not today Christiana, please not today.” At some point in my life I’ll grasp that cocktails aren’t a helpful aid when discussing politics – in particular the politics of fashion and race.

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One of the women present suggested that high fashion is there to represent a fantasy world rather than the masses. It doesn’t depict or reflect anyone accurately – including the white women who tend to be the focus of their campaigns. “How many women in the world are 5’10”, rake thin and perpetually unsmiling?” she asked.

“Barely anyone. But why can’t they use a diverse group of miserable looking thin women?” I responded.

A recent New York Times article asked a similar question. It explored fashion’s blind spot, commenting on its alarming lack of diversity and feeble efforts to change things. Céline hasn’t used a black model in a runway show since Phoebe Philo became its Creative Director in 2009. Despite this, variants of the Céline tote remain the “It” bag for fashion conscious women globally.

Since 2008, Jezebel has tracked the number of women of color walking the runways at New York Fashion Week. The results are depressing yet unsurprising – there’s a deficit of women of color and it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon.

It’s tricky deciphering causality with this issue. Modeling agencies blame the fashion houses and fashion houses blame the agencies. But even if we ascertained the cause, it’d be futile. You can’t regulate the fashion industry and insist they use diversity quotas as no regulatory body or individual has that power. Plus to try and give fashion designers and executives a sense of moral responsibility would be moving them beyond their remit, as their aim is to turn a profit.

Many of the women present at the brunch felt the absence of women of color in fashion was a commercial decision rather than a racist one. They speculated that those in power think using diverse models in editorials and runway shows will isolate their customers. This irked me because it neglects the fact that people of color are also their customers.

One of my friends piped up about the “Black issue” of Italian Vogue in 2008 and asked by a show of hands how many of us had bought it. It turned out most of us had. Most bought it as a mark of solidarity and we wanted to help prove women of color sell too. However while the editorials featured black women exclusively, barely any of the advertisements did. Proof the issue of racism in fashion is so much bigger than the runway.

As the drinks flowed, it became apparent we weren’t going to agree on this topic. One lady commented that with the plethora of serious issues women of color encounter everyday (specifically those living in the developing world), being preoccupied by how many of us walk runways during fashion week is fickle and a symptom of the western woman’s obsession with things that don’t matter in the broad scheme of things.

I disagreed. Hierarchizing women’s issues isn’t just divisive, it dismisses things that matter deeply to some, but may not matter to all of us.

The fashion industry has somehow become the unelected barometer for what’s deemed progressive, acceptable and beautiful. Apparently it’s a projection of our collective beauty aspirations. By subtracting a significant portion of the world’s population from that equation, what’s implicitly being said is that these women aren’t acceptable, they don’t belong and they’re far from beautiful.

I know that the brands that benefit from the earnings of diverse consumers should have a duty to reflect them in their images. But I’ve guilty myself. My passivity surrounding this issue and insistence on purchasing from brands that treat me as if I’m invisible, is just as much a part of the problem as tacit or overt racism in the fashion industry is. They’ll only realize the importance of women of color when we take our money elsewhere.

So perhaps it’s time I took the Chanel Boy off my vision board. However it’s just a “perhaps” I wish I could honestly say I’ll never buy a designer item until things change, but that would be dishonest. The fact is I feel torn and this issue represents a conflict. A conflict that myself and many fashion conscious women of color feel. We get lots of enjoyment from these items. Whether it’s the gorgeous timeless Chanel handbags made from caviar leather or the vintage couture pieces you found while thrift shopping in Paris. For many it’s not just about wearing a “brand”, it’s about the craftsmanship, quality and durability that comes when you buy a luxury item.

And it’s with sadness I have to admit, I feel a loyalty and affection towards brands that couldn’t care less about women who look like me. Isn’t that tragic?

XOJane

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

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  • SayWhat

    One thing that we don’t do well is connect the dots. Fashion is not trivial and here’s why. White, Asian and Latina girls and women on youtube have been able to turn their love of fashion into careers.

    Designers/marketing reps have realized that they can turn regular women into relatable next door models. While your average black youtuber has around 250k subscribers and 50k views (if they are lucky) the average white youtuber has about a million subscribers and 250k views. That is the difference between youtube being your second job/hobby and youtube being your only job. These women get sent products and a check, all because they matter.

    We continuously let ourselves be exploited then shrug it off like it is nothing because we were supposedly too busy worrying about world hunger. Maybe if we demand that the industry acknowledge and pay us what we deserve, then we could use some of the money to solve all of the problems we deem more important than fashion.

    • Deal-n-Truth

      Yes, many bloggers and Youtuber’s have turned their hooby into a career, but you can demand and whine all of you want to, but the industry is not listening or checking for us as influencers, because we often place ourselves in a niche market and there aren’t many upscale white women going to be taking advice from black women.

      Many of us have the art of living well and our various talents down pat, but they don’t think so and it would behoove us to create blogs with depth that everyone can relate to, if that’s your interest.

      The PR reps want to give many of you exposure and hardly anything else, while the other women are raking in the dollars, book deals, exposure, product and clothing lines. And I’m sure many a black woman will be in line to show their support, but if it was the other way around I’d doubt that the support would be reciprocated, unless they like what you’re selling.

      I want to read blogs from women who are taste-makers other than those who have the same content and the same people every time, along with those who try to appeal to just a certain taste of readers.

      I want to read something with depth that hinges on true progression and not what I constantly read on several black blogs: the need for white acceptance and validation. All this shows me are a bunch of women who have a severe identity crisis.

    • SayWhat

      Bottom line is that we both want black women to stop looking for white acceptance.
      I believe that if we were to actually ask for mutual respect, instead of trying to pretend that we are fine with the way things are (no respect, but that’s OK because we never officially asked because we are trying to cure cancer), then this would force us to support each other when we realize that they have no intention of respecting us.

      Black women are a money maker, ask the Koreans who dominate the weave business, ask the kitchenpreneurs who turned homemade shea butter recipes into million dollar businesses, but we give our money to other people, it is time give it to each other.

    • nik

      Andreaschoice(?)!!!

  • Nyala

    I long to see a black model with a flat nose and full lips like mine. But they’re always so damned photo-shopped or whitewashed no one can tell.

    I, personally think that the old age white stereotypes that view black women as loose-talking Jezebels still exists and our appearance is viewed as a threat to modern society. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we are unattractive, and yet everything that is prominent in the African race (full lips, a full body, a smooth face, good skin), is coveted by all the others.

    They want to keep us ignorant and feed off of it. That’s all. You can lead a sheep anywhere as long as it’s eyes are closed.

  • Fifi-Gongon

    I worked in an advertising branch of a known company. Most of the employees were young, white, thin (to very thin) and wealthy. They looked like those people we see in magazines. Those same magazines were sending gifts everyday like fancy make up, fragrances, skincare products, clothes etc. I wouldn’t spend my money on brands before that, but working there gave me another reason not to do it. Those brands spend money on offering products to people who can largely afford it, so that these persons can advertise, write good feedback to those who are just like them : rich and white. I work too hard to waste my very thin paycheck on this. It’s like I am paying those people gifts.

  • This article is spot on. The bottom line is….we have to start supporting and loving ourselves.