Angela Burt-Murray has recently departed from her role as Editor-in-Chief of Essence, but one of her final decisions will continue to stir embers of unrest for some time. Her choice to hire a White woman as Essence’s fashion director ignited a far-reaching discussion of the lack of jobs for Black people in the industry. While most people know and respect famed Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley, there are few other African-Americans making major taste decisions in fashion. Burt-Murray’s hiring choice rubbed salt on this raw nerve, and this wound remains open. But new facts might lead to a salve for this serious industry problem. It’s been established that Michelle Obama generated $2.7 billion for the fashion industry between December 2008 and November 2009 through her style choices alone. This revelation is a call to action for greater racial equality within the fashion industry. Why?
Because, before Michelle Obama can wear it, designers have to design it, stylists have to create looks, fashion directors have to pick pieces, model bookers have to find faces, and photographers have to shoot images. In all of these roles in fashion and more, Blacks are still woefully underrepresented—despite having a Black woman as its billion-dollar icon. If a Black woman can sell clothes like no other figure in the industry today, fashion must evolve to accommodate her queen-like power.
Researchers from NYU’s Stern School of Business have found that just a single appearance by Michelle Obama in a piece from firms like Calvin Klein or J. Crew could create up to $14 million in revenue for the fashion brand, or boost its stock price by up to 25%. And of course, all this profit was created without setting up photos shoots, hiring expensive photographers, Photoshop magic, or complex lighting. This power to make massive mean green for both average clothing stores and high-end luxury brands relied solely on our first lady’s explosive style influence.
If one exceptional African-American woman can generate almost $3 billion in stock price increases and fashion revenue in a year through her taste, the undeniable reach of Black style can no longer be denied. And yet somehow it is.
In the CLUTCH magazine article covering the Essence hiring controversy, one reader noted, “While I agree that the magazine needs to be revamped, I do think that it’s an insult to think that a white woman is the only person qualified for the job. There is a general attitude in the fashion world that black people do not possess a sense of style, and having a white person in this position only reinforces that idea.” Even though our culture of fashion ingenuity has been obviously co-opted for decades, those who have excluded Blacks from the inner circles of fashion have denied us entry based on this belief. Plus, the insane misconception that Blacks don’t have style feeds into the insidious myth that Blacks can’t sell—magazines, style concepts or clothes. This has been the justification for keeping Black faces off of magazine covers, and our minds out of fashion boardrooms. This mistaken belief is reflected in the underrepresentation of Black editors, writers, photographers and fashion directors. But until now, the African-American community did not have the irrefutable proof needed to squash this poisonous assumption.
These new statistics establish our ability to set trends and create wealth through them. Given this, will African-American professionals still continue to be denied places within the hallowed halls of fashion where style is professionally commodified (even if we have already been denied access at a magazine we used to call home)? If we are, at least style insiders have been robbed of their favorite excuse. With no real or imagined reasons left to bar our entry, perhaps we will see the end of the denial/blame game going on. It is time for the healing change in fashion we are all looking for. And First Lady Michelle Obama is the leader to bring it.
If we don’t see evolution soon, it will be time once again to march.
- Alexis Stodghill