Lack of black designers at New York's Fashion Week draws experts' speculation

theGRIO REPORT - With the African-American buying power set to surpass $1 trillion dollars annually by 2015, black designers are facing a potential shut out from their own market...

Fashion week may be full of glitz and glamour, but it is severely lacking in color when it comes to African-American designers showcasing their work. Out of the 127 designers showing Fall 2012 looks as part of the official presentation of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, only two individual designers are African-American.

In terms of other minorities dotting the color palate, there are 26 Asian-American designers, 17 Latino designers, and a smattering of design groups made up of a combination of ethnicities.

With total African-American buying power set to surpass $1 trillion dollars annually by 2015, black designers are facing a potential shut out from this buying audience through a lack of promotion in the fashion industry.

The fashion industry is not short of African-Americans working behind the scenes. Many of the most prominent stylists, makeup artists and show coordinators are African-American. But when it comes to the front-of-house, there are a select few black designers that have managed to climb the ranks.

“I think a lot of it stems from the lack of black models coming down the runway. So if you don’t have a lot of African-American models, I think that kind of translates into the designers,” said Deena Campbell, Associate Editor of Uptown magazine.

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Campbell, who also runs a beauty blog on, has been attending fashion week shows for years. Out of all the shows she’s seen in the last four years, Campbell says she’s only seen between 10 and 15 black models at the big shows.

“Maybe even less than that. Like 9 or 10,” she said. “It’s pretty slim. And then I think a lot of times, [an issue is ] funding. A lot of black designers just don’t have thousands and thousands of dollars to pay for the production of the show. So that combined leaves very few.”

Cost is definitely a major obstacle to overcome for any designer, and for African-American designers without backing, it can be nearly impossible to get the funds together to put on even a small show.

“Well, fashion week is a multi-million dollar proposition,” Dr. Valerie Steele told theGrio. ”[E]ven for a designer to put on a small show can cost a hundred thousand dollars. So you have an enormous investment on the part of designers.”

Steele, Director and Chief Curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, highlighted some of the more prominent African-American designers in the museum in a recent exhibit during a tour she conducted with me — but said she thinks there could be more.

“I think it could go a lot further, [but] fashion has become something more costly to get into. It used to be if you had a few good clients you could start a little fashion house, and now you need much more capitalization. And so I think that’s made it harder for a lot of minority candidates.”

Popular African-American designer Tracy Reese says there are more designers of color than people are aware.

“There are several of us,” Reese told theGrio an interview backstage just before her Fall 2012 presentation held last Sunday. “I think that people aren’t aware of how many of us are working in the industry, how many black designers there are, perhaps behind the scenes.”

Reese’s clothes are celebrated by women of all races and sizes. For designers like her, Campbell says they must walk a fine line when it comes to race in the industry.

Designer b michael of b michael America is the only other individual African-American designer showing his work this week in a major presentation. He attributes the problem of so few African-American designers having large shows to the greater lack of black representation in the fashion design industry.

“I think that really has more to do with the fact that there are so few designers of color really in the business in this country,” michael said. “And so, you just see that percentage as it relates to Fashion Week. But I think it also has to do with a lack of support from sponsors, and from the press and the industry, which would give that designer a presence, which would attract sponsors and then enable them to have a great kind of presence during Fashion Week.

“I think it really begins there. You only see the effects of it [during] Fashion week, but it really has to start somewhere before,” michael concluded about the lack of underlying support for designers of color.

The non-profit Council of Fashion Designers of America has been a source of support financially for many young, up-and-coming designers. While African-American designers are not excluded from seeking help through CFDA, their massive under-representation at Fashion Week suggests that extra efforts are needed by blacks in fashion to assist them in gaining equal footing. Yet, they don’t have many unique spaces of support to call their own.

Harlem’s Fashion Row is one of a select handful of African-American non-profits focused on getting black designers’ clothing on runways and in the public eye.

“If our community could just rally behind this, I believe it could change overnight. Who doesn’t want to wear what Rihanna is wearing?,” Brandice Henderson, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, stated about the power of black style. “One thing is that the fashion industry is just super-competitive. Regardless of your race, it’s just a very competitive industry and in order to get in you have to have really great contacts and resources.”

This means that African-American designers need to be even more connected and resourceful if they are to make an impact. Despite the help from groups like HFR, both Campbell and michael think this support needs to come from within the larger black community, if black designers are to be successful.

“There’s a balancing act with that,” Campbell said about potential efforts to garner wide-spread African-American support. “Like, how do I kind of appeal to everyone, but be myself and really put forth my true designs and showcase everything?”

As another fashion week comes to a close tomorrow, one can only wonder how many, or how few, black designers will be able to show at September’s annual Fashion Week presentation — which many consider to be the largest and most important style event of the year.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America was contacted and declined to comment for this article.