Clothing & Race
Rikki Byrd and Charles Harbison in conversation with Rachel Kinnard
This interview is based on a transcript of the conversation recorded on June 11, 2017. It has been edited and condensed by Rachel Kinnard.
Rikki Byrd is a writer, educator and scholar with a passion for cultivating innovative spaces for conversations on fashion and race. She is the co-editor of the Fashion and Race Syllabus – an ongoing, online academic project exploring the intersection of fashion and race, expanding upon and decentralizing fashion history. Her journalistic writing focuses on fashion and diversity and has appeared in Mic, ManRepeller and ALIVE Magazine. She has lectured and participated in panel discussions at Parsons School of Design, Washington University, Fontbonne University, and the Missouri History Museum. Rikki is currently a faculty member at Washington University, St. Louis where she has developed new courses on Fashion History and Research, Fashion and Race, and Fashion and African American Studies.
Charles Elliott Harbison is the founder and Creative Director of HARBISON. Charles studied fine arts, painting, and textiles at North Carolina State University. He spent his undergraduate summers holding internships at Michael Kors and Jack Spade. Following graduation, Charles spent a year abroad studying Central Asian textiles. Charles began his professional career as a textile designer before moving on to womenswear at Michael Kors. He continued with stints at Luca Luca and Billy Reid, producing both womenswear and accessories. Charles launched HARBISON in 2013 in Brooklyn, NY.
When did the two of you start thinking about the relationship between clothing and race? Rikki, what drew you to this topic to be the focus of your research professionally?
RIKKI BYRD: My research started when I was an undergrad at the University of Missouri. I went to the library and I stumbled upon the Vogue archives and started to notice, where are the black women on the covers of the magazines? That’s where my inquiry started. I ran back home and googled, “When did the first black woman appear on the cover of Vogue magazine?” Which is 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first black women to appear. I said, “When did the first black woman appear on the cover of any mainstream fashion publication?” It was 1965. Donyale Luna appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and in 1966 she appeared on the cover of British Vogue.
I was interested in creating this timeline but also [including] the [historical] context. What was going on during this time that was sparking this flux of black women? [These magazine covers were] happening between 1965 and 1974. Did black women go out of style? I started doing the history, the work, and finding out that the black power movement and mantras like “Black is Beautiful” were going on in the black community. Was the mainstream fashion industry responding to this, responding to black people outwardly proclaiming that they were beautiful, that they were powerful? And if so, what does it mean to turn a movement into a moment?
I don’t think I was very acquainted with how my blackness intersected with my love of art and design until I ... was told that my blackness is a point of concern and consideration for those who I’m working around and with. - Charles Harbison
That’s where my research stopped when I was an undergrad. Then this conversation around fashion and diversity started in the fashion industry. It was very kind of surface level…like, “let’s count the number of models on the runway.” Okay, we know that there’s a lack of racial diversity. But I knew that there was history behind it. That’s when I applied to graduate school at Parsons and really started to dig deeper and really develop a narrative called “The Temporality of Blackness” – this idea that blackness goes in and out of style, this trend of blackness and the history that surrounds that. My thesis went from the black power movement to present day. Which was an interesting experience because I started my thesis thinking through Black Lives Matter and how the fashion industry was responding to Black Lives Matter, and then using that as kind of a comparison to what was going on in the black power movement and the civil rights movement.I didn’t know that it was going to lead into my professional career. The conversation was just fashion and diversity, but the history wasn’t there…It’s a big void to fill, but I enjoy it. It’s fun.
What about you, Charles? As a designer you’ve been thinking about clothing probably forever.
CHARLES HARBISON: Yeah, I have. But I definitely navigated art and design from the space of personal exposition in that it made me happy. That’s somewhat naively how I navigated for quite some time. I don’t think I was very acquainted with how my blackness intersected with my love of art and design until I basically was told that my blackness is a point of concern and consideration for those who I’m working around and with. Maybe not very directly, but as soon I became a working designer in New York City and saw the dearth of other black people and I was always the only one in a design space, I had to inform myself. So that naivety I think really did work for me in some ways because I moved forward in an industry that is fundamentally racist, thinking that I can have whatever I wanted in it.
I didn’t see all of the red flags and things. I’m like, “No, I’m doing this, and I’m good at it.” Then once I got in the big rooms…that’s when I could see how my race did intersect with art and design, particularly with fashion and how it has always been a part of my narrative. It’s always a part of my work. But it came just naturally from the images of beauty that I saw around me that I grew up with. Even now, it’s just that I’m more deliberate about highlighting the honesty and the beauty of how my race intersects with my work. I’m grateful to be able to do that.
I’m always looking at the fashion industry as a system like any other system. When you change the power dynamics of a system, the product and the result changes. - Rikki Byrd
Diversity is a big topic right now, people have been thinking about it for a long time, but it’s become trendier to talk about it, and to support it, and try to go towards being diverse. Is it even possible for fashion to ever truly be diverse? What do think about the media’s focus on it? Is it a trend? Is it going to go away? Is it actually something that we can work towards?
CHARLES: I don’t know if you guys read the op-ed in the Business of Fashion regarding how fashion needs cultural appropriation. A friend of ours (Darío Calmese) recently wrote a response about how fashion need not legitimize [cultural] appropriation. And I just texted him today with this line [that he wrote], “It’s kind of hard to find a thread of altruism in the midst of capitalism.”
We have to temper our expectations of an industry that is really built upon a lack of representation. Whether in race, size, shape, forms of the races that are even deemed acceptable, forms of femininity, like all of that! When it comes to talking about race, societally, the way racism and sexism lands on black women, they are basically the most forgotten in the context of all this. We’re basically asking this industry based on capitalism to highlight the most disenfranchised among us in some ways. What is happening is a configuration of a different industry that is outside of this industry that’s kind of deemed itself the most important.
I learned how to be a designer from that industry, so I love it. I’m speaking about something that basically raised me. I’m a working class black boy from North Carolina that has been able to navigate high fashion not only here but also in Europe. That’s because of the very industry that I am kind of speaking about. But you have to, in some ways, dismiss [the current fashion industry] as the model and see the possibility of building a very different model where beauty can be highlighted on the faces that the [current] industry does not highlight.
So then how do we move forward in a very different way? How do we collectively highlight brands and individuals who are doing something very different? Because there’s plenty of them.
RIKKI: There’s definitely a shift in the power structure and dynamics that’s going on in the fashion industry: seeing people like Elaine Welteroth take the helm of Teen Vogue, and Edward Enninful become the editor and chief of British Vogue. People say, “What’s the solution? What’s the solution to have a more diverse fashion industry?” I’m always looking at the fashion industry as a system like any other system. When you change the power dynamics of a system, the product and the result changes.
So when you have a black woman helming a teen fashion publication, those stories change. The people on the cover of those magazines change. It’s not just all black women. It’s not just all stories about Black Lives Matter. But the experience that she brings to the position and the way that she operates within the world as a black woman, you come in with a different way of thinking and a different approach.
There’s this power shift that’s happening that when you change who’s at the top, the narrative changes. Charlie and I, in the positions that we are in, we try to advocate. One thing that Charlie told me as soon as I moved to New York was, “Don’t expect to be accepted, just because they’re trying to diversify, because you’re black.” He said, “Operate out of excellence. They should notice your work and know your work.” I think that in advocating, we’re also aware of the people who are excellent and people that look like us who are excellent, and making a way, and making opportunities.
Parsons is one of the leading fashion schools. I started, along with two colleagues, the fashion and diversity series that involved conversations on fashion and jazz, fashion and race, fashion and women in technology because we weren’t having [these conversations] in the classroom. There wasn’t space to have them in the classroom. So my colleagues and I responded by curating this series of events that not only makes space for these conversation in a place like Parsons but brought in folks who otherwise wouldn’t have been in that space, who wouldn’t have been asked to come and speak on a panel discussion. Those people have gone on to get opportunities and be associated with the school. That’s what I mean when we’re in these positions. It’s a heavy responsibility, but really advocating for creating space and creating access, I know it’s become a goal of mine.
Rikki, you just put together a syllabus for the Fashion Studies Journal [on the Gucci Dapper Dan controversy]. Could you use it as an example to talk about the relationship of fashion and race?
RIKKI: I’m like, where do we begin?
Well, who’s Dapper Dan? Let’s start there…
RIKKI: Dapper Dan is a phenomenal person. He started a boutique in Harlem in 1980s and 1990s. He would take logos of luxury fashion houses, and replicate them, and create these really lavish looks. He had a really specific demographic, he catered to athletes, hip hop artists, and hustlers because Dapper Dan would tell you that he’s a hustler. He was a couturier. He really designed from scratch. He made personalized items that arguably went on to influence the luxury fashion houses that you see now, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, who weren’t even designing clothes when Dapper Dan was taking these logos and creating these things. They were designing accessories. Fendi, the fashion house, filed a lawsuit against Dapper Dan in the 1990s because he was using the logo illegally. He had to shut his store down and went underground. I kind of created this syllabus of sorts to kind of talk about that evolution of Dapper Dan, so that when he re-emerged it was in 2013.
An article appeared in The New Yorker, and that is kind of when you started to see Dapper Dan come back out into the world. [In the syllabus], I trace all of these articles that have been written about him in 2013 and 2015, all the way up until the  Gucci scenario. Then I took underlying things from those articles, because they were thinking about culture appropriation, but they were also thinking about this idea of Black cultural production not being taken seriously and not having access to excel. In the syllabus, I specifically look at the ways in which luxury fashion has been a way for hip-hop artists to establish agency and perform in the world. Their body is worthy in a country that has devalued the Black body historically and how luxury fashion operates that way. The academic text corresponds with those underlying themes, thinking through the Black body, thinking through the depth of Black culture.
It was fun to do and it sparked my thinking because, like I said, a lot of these conversations on fashion, diversity and culture appropriation, sometimes can be very surface level or regurgitated. I was very specific in the articles that I chose because I wanted to make sure there was a compelling argument or a compelling narrative in each article that will correspond with these texts.
All three of us went to Parsons at one point. Rikki, you taught at Parsons and are now teaching at Washington University. I want to hear you talk about teaching fashion and race in the design education context and why it’s important for students to learn about that. And not even just fashion designers but image-makers. Whether it’s costume designers or photographers or filmmakers or anyone putting clothes on bodies for the purpose of a visual product.
RIKKI: I have developed a new course, Fashion History and Research at Washington University. Instead of teaching fashion history chronologically, we look at the history of fashion through themes. We start with fashion and the body. And then we move into fashion and gender and sexuality, fashion and race, fashion and art, fashion and sustainability and globalization.
Starting with fashion and the body is super-important because that’s people’s first connection. Our relation to clothing is through the body. I start off the fashion and race section thinking about otherness and how that’s constructed and then moving into image making. I teach my students how to extract their research through current topics and current events. So Vogue magazine will publish an article titled, “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty.” It was published in 2014 and the narrative was about J-Lo and Iggy Azalea and a song that they released called “Booty.” The author writes this article basically saying J-Lo set the trend and that she was bringing it back. [The author writes] Destiny’s Child came out with “Bootylicious,” but it wasn’t nearly as powerful as this J-Lo and Iggy Azalea song. So I used that Vogue article to enter this conversation. I pull up the picture of Sarah Baartman, who was a woman from South Africa who was taken from her country. She had a large back-end and they treated her like an animal. They put her on a stage and white people would come by and they’d look at her and point at her.
When we think about the language that we use to discuss black women, when we think about the ways in which the black female body has been hyper-sexualized in society, it’s like “what are you doing?” To share this with my students and their faces literally go… “What?! I never knew about Sarah Baartman. I never knew that I could connect this type of history. I never knew that conversations like this could happen in the fashion industry.” And then to see the research on how they go forward in thinking as fashion designers, it opens their minds to so much.
I showed some students a documentary called, Fresh Dressed that’s about fashion and Hip Hop. Some of my students came up to me saying, “I never knew clothing was that important to a group of people.” Fresh Dressed opens with André Leon Talley talking about "Sunday’s best" among enslaved Africans and that Sunday was the only day that they could dress and style their bodies in the way that they wanted. Style became very important. There’s a quote by a sociologist Stuart Hall and he says, “Look at the way in which we’ve used the black body as if it’s the only capital that we have. We’ve used it as a canvas of representation.” And so Black folk’s necessity to have ownership over their narrative is really through the body and through clothing, through style, and so this documentary opened my student’s eyes to that.
Charles, do you want to talk from your experience of working in the industry? How have you noticed people you work with who are really highly educated fashion people who are just totally ignorant to all those things?
CHARLES: It’s hard for me to call it ignorance because I think its laziness. I was an assistant and we were fitting several models for our fall runway and we had a super star black model. She had come through for multiple fittings and I was like, “This girl is sickening in every option!” It’s, like, why is she back? Freya is gone. Natasha is gone. Like, why is she back for another fitting? And why is she in the fourth look and why is everyone deliberating? And I’m just standing there and literally I say under my breath, “She looks great in everything.” And then the knitwear director, she turns around to me and says, “You know, Charles, it’s just so hard to make a black girl seem expensive.”
And she said it to me like, “Yeah, you get it, don’t you?” And I just stood there and everything kind of continued, like, all the kerfuffle that happens in fittings or whatever, and I’m literally just standing there and my breath is taken from me. I’m just like, I don’t… I literally don’t understand. And I had to sit with that for a long time, mainly because the images of expense and beauty that were most available to me, that I fell in love with, were all women that looked like that black model – my mom, my aunt, and all that, not relegated solely to them, you know.
"White men would dress their slaves in velvet, in gold and they would take their slaves to their neighbor’s house to show off their wealth." - Rikki Byrd
So, yeah, there’s that and it doesn’t take a lot to be thoughtful of other people and to do the work. Fashion designers and fashion as an industry haven’t been told that they have to do the work. But what I can say is that when a brand does the work, I see customers respond favorably in many different ways. I see women being so empowered by these clothes that in my mind I’m immediately first putting on black women. These things exist on black skin first in my brain and then I put it into the world and I see all women benefit from it and even love the stories behind it. They enjoy the fact that this is a coat that was influenced by Erykah Badu. They get to talk about all that stuff and every woman, and every man, loves that. So yeah when you do the work it’s exciting for all of us.
RIKKI: Charlie told me that story as soon as I moved to New York. And to take that line, “It’s just so difficult to make the black girls look expensive”, and then to go and study the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And to find a book called Slaves to Fashion and find out that in the 1500s slaves were regarded as luxury items. Little boys had a higher price tag. White men would dress their slaves in velvet, in gold and they would take their slaves to their neighbor’s house to show off their wealth.
So, what does it mean now, when we have someone saying to Charlie, “It’s so hard to make the black girls look expensive.” There’s a history of questioning the worth of Black bodies and questioning the work of Blackness. I really enjoy the creativity in the void that’s waiting to be filled in rethinking these histories and narratives and being an advocate both in the fashion industry and in academia.
CHARLES: There are so many things that come from fashion, and it’s a process we each engage in every single day. It’s a place that takes up the most of our expendable income, and yet it’s a place [where] we don’t have real conversations. That is a pity. It’s a place of mass human rights [issues]. It’s a place of great global dismissal and it’s horrible, right? But we don’t talk about it and that’s apparently cool for a lot of people, except for Rikki.
Photography: Rachael Pena
Clothing & _____, 2017.