Quick. Which of these looks is “high-fashion”? Which is “urban”?
The answer to the second question is none of them, according to Mychael Knight, the designer who created all of them.
“I will correct someone very quickly when they say I am an ‘urban designer’ or a ‘hip-hop designer,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with [designing hip-hop-inspired sportswear], but it’s just not what I do.”
As for the answer to the first question, Knight, who is black, cites an “invisible barrier” that reserves “high-fashion” anointing for a privileged circle of designers—very few of which are black. “Tracy Reese and Rachel Roy – they’ve penetrated that, but I don’t ever really see any placement of them in fashion magazines”—an indication that Reese and Roy are not readily on the mind of prominent editors and stylists.
Perhaps observant of this trend, some black designers early in their careers choose to use white models, particularly for lookbooks, which are prepared for press and buyers, and on their websites where customers seeking high-fashion looks (assumed to be white) can immediately imagine themselves in their pieces. Though Knight regularly casts models of color for both his runway shows and his lookbooks, he can guess why some African-American designers skip over black models altogether.
“When you open up a fashion magazine—a Vogue or an Elle,” Knight points out, “you never see black models. You think, as a black designer, ‘well, if I need my brand [or] my product to get noticed I need to use the white models.’” It’s like high school, Knight explains. “People feel like they to need fit in.”
Model booker Carole White gave New York Magazine the racial breakdown as it applies to models. “Asian girls do really well. You can’t have too many, but they do really well, and it’s quite easy to book them. For Black girls, it is more difficult.” White is further quoted as saying, “[Black models] have to be utterly amazing. There will be less work. It takes much longer to establish them… because clients don’t take the risk on black girls so much.” For this reason, White admits agencies are “very, very picky” when it comes to signing black models. “Maybe you’re not as picky with the white girls, because there’s more work for them.”
With African-American models facing a shrunken market, getting passed over by black designers only further threatens their livelihood. It also perpetuates old school notions of what, and who, represents luxury versus the aesthetic of the street.