The average U.S. fashion designer makes an average annual salary of $73,750, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a standard of living above the U.S. average. Getting recognition, however, is difficult, as the industry uses a monolithic brush to paint who is important. For example, of the numerous designers featured in the global Spring 2014 Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, one of the most well known in the industry, only a handful, if that, were black.
Miami Fashion Week (MFW) is somewhat unique; it is dedicated to resort/pre-spring collections, and features many Latin American designers. While the overall event lacked a large presence of black designers, MFW made waves with the Jones Magazine African American Designer Showcase.
New York-based Jones Magazine targets a multicultural audience of women, positioning itself as the shopping guide “for women who know better.” The Jones enacted this mission, featuring three African American designers who specialize in resort/swimwear. Allusions by A. Lekay, one of the featured designers, revealed a collection of vibrant, high-waisted swimwear. Designed with curvy women in mind, the young Florida A & M alumna sought to create a line that camouflages trouble spots.
“It was started out of a little bit of frustration,” said Altrichia “A. Lekay” Cook, label founder. “While preparing for a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, I wasn’t able to find a swimsuit that was high enough to cover my abdominal imperfections, so I created my own.”
Color, functionality and fun describes the Wilbourn Sisters collection. Emanating from a family of seven designing and sewing sisters in Jackson, Tennessee, Carolyn and Janice Wilbourn’s collection exploded onto the runway with a burst of fiery spirit. The boldly patterned pieces could be worn in several ways, as the sisters demonstrated during their final runway walk.
“See, we give you more for your money,” Janice said of their collection, which now claims the Atlanta area as their hub. “You can wear them in more ways than one, that’s what makes it fun. These are versatile pieces, very versatile.”
Their collection’s versatility was apparent as a full-figured model donning a billowy striped top appeared on the runway, to thunderous applause.
For a showcase of this magnitude, a team of experts were carefully selected. Chicago-based Chris Curse of ORS (formerly Organic Root Stimulator) was on hand to whip the models hair into coifs of perfection.
“It was amazing because actually got to work with cosmetology students. I was so proud because they were able to finish up the models when I got called away. I got to see my vision come to life” says Curse.
Miami-based Catwalk Pros was enlisted to assist in planning the show, selecting the visuals and securing the models.
“We had fifteen models in total, five girls from the model search with Cynthia Bailey, ” said Sandra Ward, company CEO and President. Incidentally, the show was hosted by Cynthia Bailey, former model, founder of the Bailey Agency School of Fashion and cast member of the Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Endless hours of preparation were worth it for Ward, as she was pleased with the final execution.
“I thought it was flawless,” she proclaimed. “I had goosebumps when I saw my girls walking down that runway. It was amazing to work with Jones Magazine.”
Attendees and event staff alike found the Jones showcase to be a breath of fresh air, citing it as long overdue in Miami. Miami Native Paulette Dozier, who works with the Wilbourn Sisters, sees this as key for the recognition of black designers.
“I think this is as excellent step for the Miami area because of the versatility of this town,” said Dozier.
Buyer and Designer Mr. Witherspoon agreed, having travelled to the show from New York to represent The Brownstone, an upscale women’s boutique in Harlem. He notes that since aspects of style began in African antiquity, a lack of black presence would be a travesty.
“The history of fashion stems from Egypt’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd dynasty, so it all really started in Africa. To have that element missing doesn’t make sense.”
Stylist and editor of Jones Magazine, Rose Mednard, felt that the show went exceptionally well, but knows that there are still miles to travel in terms of hearing the black voices in fashion amplified. However, Mednard did offer a bit of optimism.
“We are limited in our representation of designers and full-figured women, and I think that’s something that we want to stay on top of. But I do think that fashion is headed in a great direction. A lot of the new designers are coming up with new stuff, not just repeating the decades like many designers we have now do. I’m looking forward to the future of fashion.”
This post was written by Dr. Chetachi A. Egwu, Associate Professor of Humanities at Nova Southeastern University. Her scholarship focuses on Black Internet Usage and the African image in film, with an emphasis in documentary. The Howard University alumna is the owner of Conscious Thoughts Media. Dr. Egwu is a regular contributor to The Grio. Follow her on Twitter @Tachiada.