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Black Designers and Dressmakers

  1. Bonnie Sandy
  2. February 2, 2012 10:24 pm


Fore word… Ignorance is no excuse for self-deprecation!  When we do not know our history and seek to be accepted rather than hold our heritage high we lose sight of our value!  At some point someone has to say  ‘the emperor has no clothes” all that glitters is NOT selling!  Moreso I can take you into women’s closets for the volumes not being worn!  Such WASTE! In last September’s issue of Essence… the questions was asked where are our “designers’ referring to  black fashion sector as “Dressmakers”; at around the same time I also saw two other “press correspondence ” referring to local independent designers as “Dressmakers’ I took offense… but  decided to let it  be (another black thing  we don’t air dirty  laundry in Public) , I  chose not to rant… then!

We always do… it’s our culture then recently  in this thread on  Brooklyn Fashion Week the reference again…  This time I’m taking on Mac Smith and others!

Beside it’s Black History Month one of two times I can get  Black desigenrs to  Discuss issues (the other is Kwanzaa)

I truly believe we need a fashion press but one that is knowledgeable of the entire fashion industry or at  least specialize in key  categories!  So many believe that image is what sells!

Why I take offense when the Black “press” call the African American or Black  Designers who do custom or bespoke design “Dressmakers”!

So to be clear a dress maker copies a style from a book or uses a pattern… a designer creates a concept from inspiration and ideas! Bespoke refers to clothing done specifically to fit a particular person and Couture to a special type of hand executed garment!  A label is simply a business structure and has little to do with one’s ability to design! Now some designers have labels and some labels are wise enough to high great designers!

I expect black editors, and members of  Black “fashion press” to understand and respect  the culture and tradition  and role of individual  expression  and design within Black  culture! It  seems though that somehow we have reached an understanding that  “the goal” is to “mass production” and to be “accepted  by Mainstream  we need to  “copy” them,  rather than acknowledge the breadth of the fashion sector!

The bespoke designer is part of the history of the Diaspora… You’ll hear such editors boast come February that Jackie Kennedy’s was dressed by a Black … designer (they don’t call her dressmaker then) then in September lament

I’ll be the first to admit the black design community has..umm… “challenges’ . They also have talent, but I’ll leave that for another day!

My “RANT” with this post is a direct response to the former “head” of the Urban Fashion Network and the views expressed and their indication  to the existing “perceptions of value”!

Being my “Brother or sister” does not excuse your lack of knowledge.. I am not even touching incorrect facts in blogs today! There are a slew of Black  Media Professionals who keep comparing Black Designers to the traditional 7th Avenue sector so often I am tempted to say get to KNOW  your culture and history?  There are Independent local designers who do “one offs” in every ethnic group and local community… especially in the lifestyle (where people shop for life events) sectors!  They pay the bills and many of those designers take in over six figures a year!

So Do Not Knock it till you try it!

Culture, The way  people do things is part of the design  sector…  I remember the first time I saw an image of a Nigerian Family “occasion”, everyone was in the same fabric… I was struck … Brooklyn/Nigerian designer Moshood explained to me it was a sign of wealth… it was their culture!

I’ve been fascinated with creating my  own fabrics every  since! The ability to design one’s Fabic is a sign of independence!

I am a third generation Black Bespoke dressmaker and a trained designer, like many in my generation… We still enjoy serving the custom market… my skills are no less than Marc Jacobs and I will put several of my Masters of the Arts against any Luxury Brand any day… yes they’re that Great!

Sure, I am one pushing for them to streamline and get production…  but as a means towards profitability!

Yes,we need funding and marketing and features from the  fashion press especially the  likes of Essence but  for postioning and building!

Yes, a designer has a right to decide to go  “mainstream” but do NOT tell me Moshood  is not a design label  but “Sean Jean ” is (someone actually  did and  once… to their misfortune)!

I was once in a meeting  with  the Black  Chusrch means Busienss and a Macy’s representative, stunned as they expressed concerns over “costuming  even as the  display  in the window (at a local Macy’s) celebrated “Tartan”! In  2004 I  received an apology  post  a “Black History  Month  show from a “Black “  worker at a major venue… they had not publicized the  event  for Fear they would be “embarrassed”  by  “urban’ fashion!

The Bottom Line  I Bring top  quality  design and designers I  insist on professionalism, down  to  the proper press and sales material whenever possible! Yes there are challenges getting that info and for the ,most part the stuff prepared by  someone who has NEVER  sold is of NO  value to the designer!

Many from major black magazines to “professionals” ignore black design culture and their skill… “expertise” is not  a four letter word! Trying to be “accepted” by the mainstream, they make seriously flawed assessments while NOT supporting these designers!

I remember 10 years ago watching the ‘devastation’ as a local black line out of  Brooklyn’s downtown showroom reflected on  the disparity in treatment;  their  disappointment that Essence had shrugged off  her designs, over-shadowed the fact that Seventeen Magazine offered her a feature… both by the way from her presentation at  the same event! The Essence editor’s stand… call us when you’ve made it! I have not bought an Essence since… yes I’ve browsed through the  magazine  count how many designers are “Black”!

Then again a s many  young people  claim… we’re equal and have equal access , “we don’t  want to  be defined as BLACK!  We’ll investigate that.

As for that  discussion on  Brooklyn Fashion Gallery’s Facebook page, I am afraid I will have to forego the writers ‘offer” I do not work with generic labels (not that there is anything wrong  with a  label) … I choose to work with creative DESIGNERS! So many are “milli vanilli-ing’ their way through fashion, believe me  I test to ensure they develop the concept themselves! I can tell which  are brands by  the wealthy and who seek to  “buy success” rather than  learn and be Hands on  in the creative process!   It matters!

Despite what is suggested, few acquire sales from media coverage… media coverage is about brand positioning…  vital in licensing deals and investment procurement!  If a designer wants sales they head to the buyers… or the trade shows… take for example Courtney Washington  who has done remarkable numbers without doing shows! BTW- interviewing designers who themselves did not understand how things work is not ‘proof’!  Again a case of not understanding the market and sector!

SKILL should be respected!

Many African or Black clothiers around the world are trained in the best institutions of design, have degrees (often more than one) and have a unique point of view or aesthetic!  Yes we also have dressmakers and they should be respected! Many pull in great figures!  Not bad by Indie standards…

Unlike their other counterparts many, are exceptional and Masters at the craft of sewing draping and patternmaking … they CHOOSE to do quality one of a kind design! Believe me I’ve tried getting many to add a limited edition or commercial line!

What you call “dress makers”- bespoke designers are an “Up and coming trend” especially in high end product areas… WOMEN love unique items and many designers offer this as a Higher price point! Even women who shop the luxury market pay premium for bespoke or custom designs. .. see  the recent  Burberry’s efforts according to Busieness of Fashion…

As I said to Mac in the discourse, “YOU DO NOT KNOW’  your constituent nor, it seems the sector you claim to lead… he is not the only  guilty party!

This sector is broad and can be confusing!

So to be clear a dress maker copies a style from a book or uses a pattern… a designer creates a concept from inspiration and ideas! Bespoke refers to clothing done specifically to fit a particular person and Couture to a special type of hand executed garment!  A label is simply a business structure and has little to do with one’s ability to design! Now some designers have labels and some labels are wise enough to high great designers!

Being a mass production “label’ does not make one a designer… many run brands/ labels with no design background or training… some simply pull images and send to the overseas manufacturer! Many produce poor quality generic CLOTHING THAT DOES NOT FIT!

Not every designer has a mass luxury market label!  Most local designers in this niche are CREATIVE Bespoke designers… with skills ranging from DIY, Avant garde to couture… that is part of MANY  cultures! Some may choose to offer limited edition mass market in certain designs but most opt for the better higher quality private boutique clientele…

Now many still run “Dress Shops or salons” type businesses and for several reasons, and they are all SELLING!

I also have no problem gaining interest from MAJOR sources for my designers… and I am proud to say they are working on their businesses!

I chose to plug the holes, it is time consuming and frustrating but a few designers are doing what is needed!  As I  said earlier I advocate moving towards small specialty retail! It makes Business sense! If you choose to remain Bespoke then the quality of work and  price has to be such that  it makes business sense! However to demand or expect an absolute change is a disrespect for the culture of our creativity and the way Black designers do things!

That said if you are a design business you need to get you act together and aim towards showing an improvement of sales numbers… cool picture are not enough…change takes time and work but in the end your numbers must increase…and you need to post  quarterly or yearly  reports!

Last  April/May I asked designers for product info and images we had a magazine offer… The catch designers had to be selling the items and so the product info needed… Standard industry practice… editors want items that their consumers can purchase! and herein lies the problem…

I once put a fashion column together… I won’t lie, I won’t fake “coverage” and give designers I know have poor quality clothing coverage… so I understand a part of the  challenge!

If this sector is to be respected we need INTEGRITY!

At the same time the Naturally 1962 … one of the first black beauty and fashion events  celebrated 50 years in a few days ago! As I  listened I  could not  help think … somehow we need to address our issues and challenges!

When I asked Kwame Braithwaite what made the  Black magazines start featuring dark models He simply stated… “we picketed them”!


WHAT… They held them accountable!

Do Black fear being black? We’ll look at that

I have offered help free or at an Incredibly low cost over the last  seven  years…many have refused it why… they  do  not want to be classified as Black!

How does one “GENTLY  tell a brother or sister ” that it is their skin color not  mine that draws that classification! I work with white designers when they  walk into a room they are well “White”
As for the promoters… sure there are “Credible ones, but any have been pimping the creative sector for far too long and creatives… like those plying the sex trade, are  caught in the same trap, they will DEFEND their abusers!

I recently took a stand along with another designer… many asked me “aren’t you afraid… of what … these folks do NOT pay my bills… I’ve was immidately cut from  a couple promoters list but his business only serves his needs so no loss! (He later reached out to one of the designers I  work with) for his Fashion Week Show… Yes they still read what I send out!

So do not get me wrong… “we got Issues”!

While I concur on the negative value or  “Narcissism”, and stress designers focus on the consumer; it is fortunate that technology has removed much of the ‘gatekeeping’ that marred the fashion sector!

I am so tired of the BS…  I still hope things change that persons who KNOW fashion are given charge of Fashion and fashion press! That people who understand quality and fit of clothing are part of editorial shoots! Yes I want “creativity and New “but I also want authentic! As my  nieces hit their teens I understand the power of the images they see in shaping who they are as woman and their pride in their BLACK BEAUTY!

I run workshops and one on one sessions with designers- many assume from what they see that they need press to sell and those who have never sold  accept what appears to  be an industry  standard!


and what about his charges…

To be fair I’ll also look at them …  in  the next  post!


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