African American designer Virgil Abloh’s first show as men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton, one of the biggest luxury brands in the world, was a true fashion moment. The Spring/Summer 2019 outing — colourful, inclusive, joyful, emotional, raw, uplifting and lauded by critics and consumers alike — sparked a cultural revolution at the French luxury megabrand. In a business that continues to struggle with whitewashed runways and boardrooms, where racial minorities are scarce, Abloh’s debut underscores a key point: diversity is not only a moral obligation, it’s imperative to keeping the industry relevant at a time when black creatives, especially in music, are at the very centre of popular culture.
Abloh, who was raised in the Midwest of the United States, is not the first black man to stand at the creative head of a major European fashion label. Olivier Rousteing currently oversees Balmain; Shayne Oliver spent time as a “designer-in-residence” at Helmut Lang; Maxwell Osborne co-led the creative direction of DKNY; Patrick Robinson once served as artistic director at Paco Rabanne and, back in the late 1990s, Edward Buchanan was design director at Bottega Veneta.
But these appointments have been few and far between, signalling the yawning gap between a post-racial fashion industry and today’s reality.
n the US, in particular, African American designers still face undeniable, difficult-to-break down roadblocks, meaning designers of colour have struggled to rise to the pinnacle of the American fashion industry. While Stephen Burrows and Geoffrey Banks have led distinguished careers, they never reached the same level of success — in terms of both the size of their businesses as well as name recognition — as others in their generation, such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Diane Von Furstenberg.
And the pattern does not appear to be letting up. Consider Charles Harbison, who launched his collection in 2013. That September, he was featured in American Vogue. InStyle called him a “designer to bank on.” Beyoncé and Solange Knowles wore his clothes. And yet, his company is currently on hiatus, unable to secure the financing needed to develop, manufacture and market its products.
“The fact that I'm not showing new work every season with my name on it, yes I do mourn that. It's my heart calling,” said Harbison. “I am the happiest and most excited, and I feel the most useful in the world, when I’m heralding the ideas that mean a lot to me and presenting artful work that I think is valid in our lives. I always feel like I'm doing that when I'm operating under Harbison in a real way.”