Do Black Designers Skip Over Black Models to Gain White Customers?
Both Bekele and Knight insist change will only come when models and designers speak out against the typecasting. “You are also responsible for the way you are marketed. You can’t just go with the herd,” said Bekele. “It’s my responsibility to speak up and say ‘No, listen, just because I have curly hair doesn’t mean I have to be marketed this way. I can go ahead and straighten it and you can market me for [the] Indian market…’ Nothing really comes to you—you can’t just sit there and wait for it. You have to change your agent if you’re not happy. You have to go with somebody who believes in you.” Bekele who has modeled for Levi’s, Pantene, and DVF, among other coveted clients shares that she “was really lucky from the beginning to have an amazing agent.”
More decision-makers of color are also crucial in helping redefine what and who is considered suitable to represent a luxury brand, or how “urban” is visually expressed, Bekele believes. She cites Edward Enninful, former Vogue Contributing Fashion Editor, now Fashion and Style Director for W Magazine, as case-in-point. She says of the Ghana-born Britain-raised talent recently profiled by the New York Times, “There’s a difference since he came into W.”
Enninful was responsible for the November 2011 spread that draped Oscar nominee Viola Davis in diamonds and Dolce & Gabbana—a sharp contrast to Davis’ maid character “Aibileen”, the role for which she earned her second Academy Award nomination. For an “Art & Fashion” issue of the mag, he conceived the cover of rap phenom Nicki Minaj as an 18th Century French courtesan. “It’s about changing people’s perceptions,” Enninful told the Times.
Fellow Ghanaian Amoako accepts that perceptions—and misperceptions—come with the territory. “As a designer of color from Africa, there will be continual expectations and assumptions made about the type of clothes I make. To rise above this, I continue to speak about the purpose of my line, which is to give back.”
Naana B is created by a collective of talented artisans in Ghana, in partnership with Rural Communities Empowerment Center, an NGO Amoako’s mother founded in 2004 to furnish impoverished communities in Ghana with community centers that provide library and computer training facilities, mentoring programs, and empowerment skills programs for women and adolescent girls. “The message behind my line Naana B is more important to me than focusing on what others may label my line as.”
Knight concludes, “The proof is in the pudding.” After the runway show, the lookbook and campaign photo shoot, and in his case, the reality show, the main question that counts is do the clothes stand on their own?
“If you produce a really good quality product,” he asserts, “[people] have no choice but to respect it and accept it.” He believes that’s why he’s been able to build a following, long after his stints on Project Runway’s third season on which he was a finalist and earned the Fan Favorite prize, and the show’s 2009 “All-Star Challenge” which brought together some of the strongest past contestants of the hit reality series for a second chance to win. “Project Runway definitely helps people to take notice of me,” he concedes—“and my product is good.”
“At the end of the day,” Knight notes, “if your Isht is hot, it’s hot—regardless [of] who wears it.”