Dialogue surrounding race and fashion is nothing new for Ali Richmond and Hannah Stoudemire, the co-founders of the nonprofit Fashion for All Foundation. In the wake of America’s racial self-evaluation, FFA’s work to challenge the fashion industry’s complacency with its whiteness is more pertinent than ever. With its “Break the Silence” social media campaign, FFA has called for the fashion industry to use its platform “responsibly” and denounce America’s Black death crisis.
Here’s my conversation with one-half of FFA, Ali Richmond, on Blackness, fashion and America’s racial complex:
Clay Morris: Where did your interest in fashion and culture come from?
Ali Richmond: To be honest with you, it’s kind of innate, you know? Around 6 years old, I started getting into what I was wearing, dressing myself and decorating my room, and of course the environment and people around me led to my interest. Nature versus nurture. My mother’s into antiques, so that got me interested in furniture and objects. My aunt was really into fashion and name brands, too. As it relates to culture, I was always really interested in history, so when you start learning about an ethnic group, you’re interested in their clothing and objects and then you’re like, “Wow let me look at the art,” so it came pretty seamlessly.
CM: The fashion industry’s relationship with Blackness is very complex because Blackness is obviously culturally significant to fashion. But, of course, Black people aren’t always well represented in the industry’s leadership. Why do you think this disconnect within the relationship between fashion and Blackness is so particular?
AR: Black and white is a new concept. It’s only been around for, you know, since about the late 1400s. And with the arrival of this construct of Black and white and white supremacy, things become very different. Across the board, Europeans were the students of the Africans, but when the race dynamic came into play, everything changed. They [Europeans] continued to take from different cultures, and since then it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t become strange, it’s just always been this way. Now it’s heightened because of technology. The world is smaller, and because of technology, the world is smarter. So, it’s harder to hide cultural misappropriations, and it’s become more apparent. So, it’s just a continuation. It is like that because the system was set up a long time ago, and it keeps going. And it’s continuing because people are benefiting. At this point, people are supposed to care, but people at the top are benefiting. That cycle continues to perpetuate itself as long as people are benefiting from it. You have to dismantle the system to stop it, but the people that have the power to rewire the system are the ones benefiting.
CM: Right, and the question is: How do you incentivize those in power to dismantle the system they’re benefiting from? Why would they do that?
AR: They don’t want to do it. So, we look at Black Lives Matter now, and a lot of the white liberals are saying it but don’t want to look at white privilege. Because if you believe Black Lives Matter then you might have to give up white privilege. That’s what they call the “uncomfortable conversation.”
CM: Yes, then it becomes the issue of not wanting to give up their whiteness.
AR: Yeah, and to your point, whiteness didn’t exist until they made it into a construct. Whiteness is a part of white privilege.
CM: That leads into my next question, which is that many brands and companies that have been overtly racist in the past are now suddenly promoting anti-racism. Is this call from such entities genuine to you?
AR: Give me an example of these brands.
CM: In my opinion, you could pick any major brand but recently Diet Prada exposed Anthropologie for being racist, Gucci has had issues in the past. But before George Floyd’s death, Black people, including models Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell, have been calling out racism in the industry, but only now does it seem like the industry is taking note?
AR: I know Naomi and Bethann definitely spoke to the lack of diversity in modeling, and the industry really didn’t care. It was really easy for people to say “We got a Black girl,” and then Tyson Beckford came up, and they said “We got a Black guy, so that’s fine.” Is everyone on Instagram?
CM: What do you mean?
AR: Is Instagram a major platform for people?
AR: Well then let’s discuss the Black Lives Matter hashtag before George Floyd’s death. When that hashtag was created, no one cared, and it was actually seen as a problem. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he was ostracized. When Fashion for All was started, we didn’t have any support, but we continued to push the conversation throughout the business and creative sides of the fashion industry. When we started talking about diversity and inclusion, though, it became hot for a while because we pushed it so hard to where the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Gucci, Prada and others began to look at diversity and inclusion. But then the sustainability movement became the latest hashtag for the industry. On top of that, we had Me Too and Time’s Up, which changed everything because some of the biggest people were becoming dethroned. It was something you couldn’t unsee. In a different way, when you see what happened to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, you can’t unsee that and erase history, so it became a tipping point. Companies have to speak up. Do you see what I’m saying?
AR: If you’re in any business across the board and you’re on Instagram, you have to speak up about Black Lives Matter. FFA wants to push this momentum forward from a moment to a movement. But in order to do that, it goes back to the whiteness and systematic racism we mentioned earlier. People have to look at themselves. So, let’s see if this interest in Black Lives Matter is a lifestyle change, and if a switch really has flipped on. Most companies are even celebrating Juneteenth now. What do you think about that?
CM: I don’t know. Because I’m afraid that this current racial reckoning is going to peak and then dissolve because we’ve seen it happen before. Granted, the way it’s happening now is unprecedented, but because it’s so hard to let go of whiteness, I think it will be very easy for these companies to revert to who they have been for decades. Black people have been celebrating Juneteenth for a long time just like they’ve been calling out racism in the industry for a long time. So, should we just accept that the world is now “suddenly” realizing that Black people are systematically oppressed?
AR: I offer you this, Clay: We have to seize the day, carpe diem. White people deal with Black people as it relates to frivolous activity. Whether it be somewhere between sexual exploration or music, it’s always “play play.” They don’t have a true interest in what we do. So, at this point, we have to come up with our own agenda. If y’all are really willing to recognize and question your whiteness, let’s get this reparations packet ready. A post-racial climate in America didn’t happen because of Barack Obama. It will only happen when there is an actual apology and reparations which will make the system shift. I think it’s fine these entities just now got it because when that light bulb turns on, you can’t cut it off. You can only ignore it, and when you ignore racism, your higher self will work against you, and you’ll be miserable.
CM: I 100% agree.
AR: I want to add something about the fashion industry’s approach to addressing race in particular. I have to question their sincerity based off of who they’re hiring. It’s one thing to hire somebody Black, but if you’re just hiring a Black person who’s just going to put out the fire and not make change in order to say “We have a Black face,” then that’s just a token hire.
CM: A lot of people assume that fashion is a completely female-driven industry because women are often the intended consumer, but there are many men, especially non-Black men, who control a majority of the industry on multiple levels. However, with Black men like yourself, Edward Enninful, André Leon Talley and Kerby Jean-Raymond from Pyer Moss being important figures in the industry, I’m curious about your thoughts on Black manhood in the fashion world.
AR: There’s no split between church and state. It’s not about Black manhood in the fashion industry; it’s about Black manhood in America and the fear connected to it. You saw people like Prince and Michael Jackson, both influenced by James Brown and Jackie Robinson, who somewhat feminized themselves, so they wouldn’t be such a threat with all of these white women running up to them. The Black man is a threat just by existing. Period. So in all industries, your manhood is a threat unless it’s something like sports where it’s like “We need muscle,” or “We need a buck,” but then the expectation is “Shut up and dribble,” like Laura Ingraham said to LeBron James. But in the fashion industry, it’s more so “Yeah, we really don’t want you here, but if you stay put, and we can make some money off of you, okay.” The next Yves Saint Laurent could have been Stephen Burrows, but it just didn’t happen.
CM: Now I have to bring up Virgil Abloh’s work for Louis Vuitton. Virgil is controversial because Black people want to be excited for him being a streetwear king and at Louis Vuitton men’s, yet they also find some of his opinions on race off-putting. And the industry as a whole, in my opinion, has put him in a “safe” position for his lack of outspokenness in comparison to someone like Kerby from Pyer Moss who received death threats for his police brutality-centered show in 2015. So, what are your thoughts on Black men and people like Virgil, who have been labeled “safe” by the fashion world?
AR: Virgil went through the “Kanye West” school. Virgil’s deal is what Kanye had, but he lost it because he’s not “safe” for whatever reason. So, when Virgil came along it was a matter of “We love Kanye, we want Kanye’s energy, why not Virgil instead?” Virgil is being Virgil, and he’s not going to rock the boat at all. I heard about some of his designs that didn’t come out at Louis because they were a little political, but I don’t know if that would have been great either because it would have been a “trend” and more exploitive than innovative. We can’t just take certain Black images and put them on clothing because it’s about change from the inside. And with Virgil’s hire, the surrounding context is important because streetwear was becoming a big trend, Off-White was very successful and the diversity and inclusion conversation is happening. So, Virgil’s a proven seller AND he’s Black. Now, I don’t know Kerby personally but people say he’s difficult to work with. Is he really difficult to work with or does he not go along to get along? It could be a combination of the two, but there’s so many white designers who are extremely difficult. But with them they’re difficult “because they’re geniuses.”
CM: Virgil recently said that streetwear is dead, and I think that streetwear is a Black invention. With that in mind what are your thoughts on style’s current relationship with streetwear in juxtaposition with how the people who largely created it, Black people, are treated throughout the world?
AR: Again, this juxtaposition is par for the course. There are many incarnations of streetwear if you want to look at it in its purest sense. It’s anything that’s not corporate essentially, and it doesn’t have to be the Black youth culture that is responsible for streetwear now. However, we have to understand what “Black” means for the world and especially America when talking about streetwear.
CM: What do you mean?
AR: Black brought in “cool.” There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that Black is responsible for. And it actually goes all the way back to the 18th century how Blackness literally changed the way everyone in the world carried themselves. Where we are now comes from what was called “urban wear” in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And once the skaters started wearing “urban wear,” it fell into the general idea of streetwear. So, Black people feeding the culture and people getting ideas from us, but we’re being treated badly? It’s par for the course.
CM: What differentiates Fashion for All from other diversity and inclusion initiatives?
AR: We started this conversation, and we do the work every day. In 2016, we started going to brands and fashion organizations and saying “You’re racist,” when they were in denial of racism and white privilege in the fashion industry. We said if you’re doing this for Pride Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, then you can do something for Black History Month. And in 2018, the CFDA changed their logo to red, black and green because of FFA. We were pushing this initiative before it was in vogue, and we do this behind closed doors when nobody is watching.
CM: To me, Fashion for All isn’t a clout mission, and it doesn’t have limits, which is important. Fashion for All is a dedication. On your website, you and Hannah Stoudemire, Fashion for All’s co-founder, say that you hope your work will “spark a revolution and the world will follow the trend of Unity.” What are the steps that people have to take to be a part of this revolution?
AR: Looking at all of the industries, fashion, in our opinion, is the leader in influence because it is the one thing that everyone has to do. You have to get dressed. Fashion is at the center, and it sets the trend beyond fashion. Because of that, we believe that if fashion looked at their own industry, changed their practices and believed that Black Lives Matter, then it will echo throughout other industries. We want to make peace, love and equality a trend because when you embrace that “trend,” you will be forever changed.
CM: How should young creatives and aspiring industry members work to diversify the fashion world before they officially enter the industry?
AR: Do you mean for young Black and brown people or everyone?
CM: I mean everyone.
AR: The first thing you have to do is educate yourself on the problem at the crux of the industry. And then you have to become the best so you can have the skillset needed to actually create change. Hannah wants to add something.
Hannah Stoudemire: The answer to your question for Black and brown people specifically is to perfect your craft so the industry can’t have any excuse to not hire you. And then, simply enter the industry because your presence alone as a Black and brown person is diversifying the industry. Don’t dim your light to outshine your colleagues or make yourself smaller, and be the very best.
CM: Thank you both so much for this extremely insightful conversation. I am always moved by your work and amazed by your drive.
AR and HS: Thank you, Clay, it was great speaking with you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.