Friday, September 24, 2021

William Okpo & More Talk to Vice about Racism Within the Fashion Industry

Vice – a popular online platform that delivers addictive and blunt stories on everything from politics to music – has interviewed some of fashion’s brightest black and mixed race stars on what it’s really like to work in the industry, when it comes to race and dealing with fa distinct lack of diversity.

Contrasting all that ignites our true ‘love for fashion’ with some of the negativity associated with the industry, the piece – titled “In Colour” and written by Erica Euse – includes an interview with top NY-based sisters and designers, Darlene and Lizzie Okpo (of label, William Okpo), as well as commentary from the popular bloggers, editors and models, who speak candidly on their experiences.

Darlene and Lizzy Okpo, who were recently interviewed by I-D Magazine  on working with Solange Knowles (read about it. here)
Darlene and Lizzy Okpo, who were recently interviewed by I-D Magazine on working with Solange Knowles (read about it, here)

On being stereotyped, the brilliant Okpo sisters explain;

“Our experience in the fashion industry has always been a hot and cold situation. They pre-judge what and who we are. We are often seen as the designer sisters who do streetwear.

We look at that and say, ‘Our aesthetics can sometimes be no different than Carven or Alexander Wang, why are we streetwear and they are considered ready-to-wear?’ Even if they see the collection, they still consider it urbanwear even when it is full of suit jackets and flowy dresses.”

A look from William Okpo's Spring/Summer'15 collection
A look from William Okpo’s Spring/Summer’15 collection

The talents also talk of the hypocrisy experienced by the industry, when it labels ethnic minorities styled in head wraps and baby hairs as ‘urban,’ while their white counterparts are championed for donning the same looks, and labelled more positively.

Lizzie Okpo explained;

“We grew up watching Martin and the character Shanana was a typical person we would see in our neighborhood. I find it so funny that now Vogue, who has been scared of that woman who shook her head and rolled her eyes, puts her in their editorials with baby hairs, Timberlands, and bamboo earrings. …Then you see white men walking down the runway with du-rags.

They think they are showing appreciation, but I see it as mockery because I couldn’t do it. If I do it, it is considered urbanwear. If they do it, it is considered art.”

Disappointingly, there is more negative moments in the Okpos’s story, who went on to reveal;

“When we first started, we went to a factory and they thought we were the interns – and that still happens. I think the hardest part was going into a meeting or factory and really standing your ground and not fitting that stereotype that they do put on you, that we are urban.

The biggest thing has been proving ourselves and it’s heartbreaking.”

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African and Caribbean bloggers behind Street Etiquette, Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs – who started their blog “because there wasn’t a voice for black culture in fashion as far as young men go,” voiced a similar story, saying;

“We already get discriminated against so much that if you are trying to enter into a field and you are a minority, you are already looked at in a certain type of way, so we created our own space. [We] don’t think the fashion world really embraced us with open arms.”

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Complex Magazine’s fashion editor, Matthew Henson also offered Vice some negative memories, outrightly calling them experiences of racism, revealing;

“My personal experiences when it came to racism were more on the social spectrum. Attending events, or not being invited to events with my contemporaries in my early years, was daunting.

There are times I have gotten looks and stares when I’m at events like store openings on Madison Avenue. Everyone is wondering if I am a rapper or a hip-hop artist, but I am just an educated black man. I deserve to be there.

Institutionally, the fashion industry is colour-struck, but there are people out there who don’t see colour. You have to stay true to yourself and in the end it’s all about work.”

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Beautiful model Brandee Brown, who has starred in recent campaigns for DKNY alongside Cara Delevigne and Rita Ora (as one of only a few models of minority in any given campaign shot), explained how she too has encounters segregation in the industry;

“America has been brought up on racism and we can still see it behind closed doors with things like modelling, where they cast the girl with the big curly hair or the light-skinned girls with the light eyes as the black girl to represent the whole race. But there isn’t one role that speaks for every African American.

You put things in front of people and they start to believe that’s how it should be. You can just see that race is not really promoted.”

Brandee Brown for DKNY's Autumn/Winter'14 collection campaign
Brandee Brown for DKNY’s Autumn/Winter’14 collection campaign

The article, which also includes commentary and the experiences of people from other ethnic minorities, including Pinay photographer Christelle de Castro and Korean model Noma Han, concludes with Darlene Okpo’s thoughts, echoing Ms Brown’s;

“[Blacks] have a lot of buying power, and we spend a lot of money, but we aren’t represented on the business side.

I have so many girlfriends who can say the same thing: ‘I am the only black girl in this big company.’ You don’t want to talk about it, but sometimes you have to.”

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We at SPICE are glad the William sisters and their fashion peers chose to be so candid with their stories on working in fashion as a minority, because while we’re happy to express a ‘love of fashion,’ the topic of diversity and racism are still important and reflect real frustrations that need to be addressed.

Read the full interview here and let us know how you feel about race and fashion below in the comments box.

Image source: Vice.com

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