And features that viral dashiki prom dress
When Vogue Italia published the ‘all black’ issue in July 2008, it asked: “Is Fashion Racist?” In the decade since, the question has come to the fore countless times, demanding investigation, critique, and, ultimately, dismantlement.
Inspired by the conversation the question posed, Kimberly M. Jenkins, a fashion educator and independent researcher, began developing an academic initiative. It began with the course “Fashion and Race”, which she has taught at the New School’s Parsons School of Design since Autumn 2016. “The first thing we do in the class is to go about discussing what race, systemic oppression, and white privilege are to set up the terms we will be relying upon in order to look at how the construction of race has shaped fashion and beauty industries,” Jenkins explains.
Driven to bring her vision to the public, Jenkins created The Fashion and Race Database Project, an online archive filled with vital source materials. Now, as part of the third and final phase of the project, Jenkins has curated Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities, a group exhibition of student and graduate work, which runs until 11 November.
The artists featured in the show confront and subvert racism to assert their vision and claim their space as people of colour navigating worlds of fashion and beauty. In How to Be Black, Avery Youngblood, a ‘Beyoncé Formation Scholar’, simulates a ‘how-to’ guide,’ recording the everyday life of a young, multidimensional black woman, while Jamilla Okubo created Hair as Identity, a zine that explores preconceived notions of black hair. Kyemah McEntyre presents her dashiki prom gown, which went viral in 2015. Jenkins also organised a free film screening of The Gospel According to André, followed by a Q&A with André Leon Talley and director Kate Novack.
Here, Jenkins speaks about how the next generation of artists are becoming the change they want to see in the world.
Why were you first keen to explore the subject of fashion and race?
Kimberly M. Jenkins: I knew there were some unasked questions and under-explored issues going on in the fashion industry, and perhaps the classroom could be a starting point for us to explore it and propose progressive futures for the fashion system.
I wanted to gather resources, case studies like retail discrimination or models who struggle to be seen, and bringing it all together in a more thoughtful and targeted way so we can look at how the construction of race operates in these industries, how it influences our value systems, and what can be done in terms of diversifying perspectives and representation.
“As a kid, growing up loving fashion, I didn’t really see myself until I saw André Leon Talley and Naomi Campbell” — Kimberly M. Jenkins
Could you give us a few of your highlights from the different sections of the exhibition?
Kimberly M. Jenkins: The first section features students directly addressing the idea of what ‘race’ is and how that has shaped their identity. Joy Marie Douglas was inspired by the book The New Jim Crow and the film 13TH to address the prison industrial complex and recidivism through her clothing collection Re-Branded. You will see the collection, which deals with the dismantling of identity in the prison system, in a film blasting across a big projection screen as Gil Scott-Heron recites ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.
For The Uncheck Project, Cecile Mouen created a survey asking people how they identified their race and ethnicity. Then she constructed a series of flat, framed garments and incorporated symbols that correspond to the participants’ surveys on the garments’ surface design. I think it will resonate with people who are exhausted with having to explain or justify who they are.
How do the artists featured in The Racialised Body section use the constructed garment to explore race?
Kimberly M. Jenkins: Lashun Costor created The Strange Fruit Project, a beautiful oxblood gown that sits in the centre of the gallery, to talk about fall out of Jim Crow and the struggles and complexities of black womanhood.
Katiuscia Gregoire’s piece Hood Dandy takes in archetypes of black street style in Harlem like the durag and oversized pants, referencing the dandy’s nuanced thoughtful way of dressing with a sense of panache.
Carly Heywood’s Black Beasts piece is probably the most controversial piece in the show: it’s a lacefront bomber jacket covered in curly hair and a pair of chaps made from leather fur. The piece interrogates the notion of the black body as primitive, savage, and animalistic.
And lastly, in the final section: Intersection of Race and the Gaze in Fashion Photography?
Kimberly M. Jenkins: I was adamant about putting Myles Loftin’s series Hooded in the show. It is showing young Black men in hoodies, as a way of reclaiming the criminalised and stigmatised garment. Myles Loftin has been enjoying quite a bit of success; His contemporaries include Quil Lemons and Tyler Mitchell, who photographed Beyoncé for Vogue. They are the young new crop of photographers who are going to be legendary in their own right.
Why did you want to do an event with André Leon Talley?
Kimberly M. Jenkins: As a kid, growing up loving fashion, I didn’t really see myself until I saw André Leon Talley and Naomi Campbell. I grew up watching him on CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch and MTV’s House of Style with Cindy Crawford. I thought he was fabulousness incarnate.
When the film by Kate Novak came out, I knew the stars aligned. Now, that conversations about race, identity politics, injustice, and inclusion are coming to the fore, I think André is opening up and talking about what he has been through.
I talk with my students about the issue of being ‘the only one’ and having to do the emotional labor of being that person: the code-switching, the compromises, or refusing to compromise and having to constantly defend yourself. André Leon Talley dealt with that for decades in the industry. I want to have the conversation about his legacy and how he is inspiring the next generation.
“Much like the young New York-based artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, these kids are pushing through turbulent times with such dynamism” — Kimberly M. Jenkins
What inspires you about the way this new generation is relating to these issues?
Kimberly M. Jenkins: These students are ready. They are academically and emotionally intelligent. They understand social justice issues and fashion branding at the same time. They know what they are inheriting politically, and they are staring it down and ready to make change.
The classroom has been a great practice in productive, generative discourse when it comes to race. I’m always encouraged by seeing how prepared these students are to roll up their sleeves and do the work. To use the cliché, ‘The kids are all right’ – it’s true!
How do you see things progressing from here?
Kimberly M. Jenkins: In spite of this precarious socio-political landscape, I remain optimistic when I look at the work displayed in the Fashion and Race exhibition. I think about how young and visionary these students and graduates are and how they are equipped to challenge any obstacles that come their way. Each of them express a knowledge of self, and do not feel tethered to the traditional fashion system or hierarchal creative industry.
From this point moving forward, I see students with a fresh point of view, carving out their own paths and doing things differently. Much like the young New York-based artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, these kids are pushing through turbulent times with such dynamism.
Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities is on view now through November 11 in the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York.