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Why Are There So Few Black Fashion Designers at the Oscars?

By Onyx E. Ewa, Crimson Opinion Writer
Onyx E. Ewa ’24 is an Art, Film, and Visual Studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Their column “All Black Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

It’s been a little over a week since the 2022 Academy Awards, and while I did not watch the ceremony, I did watch the red carpet coverage.

I love red carpets; I always enjoy seeing who the classicists, the innovators, and of course, the fashion victims will be each year. In addition to being an interactive runway, the red carpet is also a venue for celebrities to make political statements. This year, a number of stars sported blue #WithRefugees ribbons in solidarity with the victims of the Ukrainian invasion. In addition to overt political messaging, some attendees made subtle political statements through the designers they chose to wear. While big-name brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Valentino dominated the red carpet, a few nominees appeared in clothes from lesser-known designers of color.

After the racial reckoning the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences faced due to the inequities in its nomination process, there has been a growing awareness of racial issues in media and celebrity culture at large. Despite a newfound consciousness of the necessity of prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all realms, there is still work to be done. At the 2018 American Music Awards, actress Tracee Ellis Ross chose to wear clothes designed solely by Black fashion designers, in order to raise the profile of Black-owned brands and to highlight the marginalization and erasure of Black designers in the fashion industry.

At this year’s Academy Awards, a small minority of nominees appeared in outfits produced by Black designers. When I was brainstorming this piece, I was planning to write specifically about the black clothes made by Black designers on the Oscars red carpet. However, I was shocked by the relative absence of Black-owned brands from the scene. After sifting through six digests of red carpet looks, I was able to identify only seven (out of more than 100) attendees whose looks were produced by Black designers. While representation of Black celebrities at awards shows has improved substantially, it is essential to prioritize increasing representation of people of color in surrounding industries as well: fashion, beauty, styling, journalism, and more.

Will Packer, producer of this year’s Oscars, appeared on the red carpet with his wife, actress Heather Packer. He wore a gold tuxedo jacket with black accents by Hideoki Bespoke, while she wore a Jovana Louis emerald green strapless dress with an oversized bow adorning the back. Hideoki Bespoke’s founder Diedrick Thomas specializes in custom tailoring, and has designed looks for T.I., Gucci Mane, and Steve Harvey, among others. In his role as producer, Packer hired the show’s first all-Black production team and partnered with Black-owned brands for many elements of the ceremony. He says the decision to attend the event wearing clothes by Black designers was intentional, as he hopes to increase exposure for Black brands.

In 2019, costume designer Ruth E. Carter (best known for her work on Black Panther) became the first Black designer to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Carter attended the event in a sculptural ensemble by Jovana Louis, which featured a black and white mermaid gown, and a white jacket with hyper-modern circular sleeves. The brand, founded by Haitian-born fashion designer Jovana Louis Benoit, creates high-quality ready-to-wear couture garments that are intended to fit women with curves. Actress Niecy Nash and her wife, singer Jessica Betts, both appeared in outfits by luxury athleisure brand Richfresh. Actor David Oyelowo wore a yellow and black printed suit by the Los Angeles-based African-inspired fashion brand Kutula.

I both love and study fashion, but sadly, I can only name a few Black fashion designers. While racial diversity of models in the fashion industry has improved substantially over the last decade, there is still a disappointing lack of representation of Black designers and brands. In 2021, Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond became the first Black American designer to be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the Parisian governing body of the haute couture industry. Only 4 percent of the members of the Council of Fashion Designers, the primary trade association for fashion designers in the U.S., are Black. The organization is currently working to improve diversity in the fashion industry through an in-house employment placement program that is intended to place Black talent in the fashion industry, as well as through educational programs that center equity and inclusion.

Fashion is the way we express parts of our identities to the world. Our garments reflect our cultural backgrounds, ethnic origins, gender identities, and generally, our approaches to navigating our environments. Improving diversity in the fashion industry means creating more every single person to find a way to express their unique stories and lives through the garments that are available to them.

Red carpets are inspiring to me, because in their extravagance, they have the potential to be an especially open forum for self-expression. Events like the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Met Gala are opportunities for visibility for so many people who feel represented by the celebrities and artists who attend them. As Jonathan Michael Square, scholar of fashion and visual culture in the African Diaspora explains in his fashion and justice course, clothing is a way for marginalized people to understand their place in the world and gain access, visibility, and power. Uplifting and supporting fashion designers of color means creating more opportunities for all marginalized people to utilize clothing to define their place in the world.

Onyx E. Ewa ’24 is an Art, Film, and Visual Studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Their column “All Black Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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