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At New York Fashion Week, Black is the new black

Percentage of Black designers is up significantly

New York Fashion Week kicks off on Thursday with a roster of designers noticeably Blacker than in previous seasons.

“The official calendar is almost 30% representation of people of color and over 20% Black designers,” said the Council of Fashion Designers of America president CaSandra Diggs. “It’s really important that we recognize this development because it’s a lot of the work that the CFDA is doing.”

The official NYFW September calendar features more than 110 designers who will show from September 9 through September 14. Big name designers like Telfar, LaQuan Smith, Prabal Gurung and Jason Wu will show their latest offerings alongside calendar newbies like AnOnlyChild, Public School’s co-designer Maxwell Osbourne’s garments made of dead stock; CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists Fe Noel and BlackBoyKnits; CFDA’s 2021 American Emerging Designer of the Year Theophilio; and Tia Adeola, who aims to use fashion to reimagine history for people of color.

While anyone can design clothes, hire models and rent space in New York City for a runway show, the CFDA helps Fashion Week function as what is essentially a trade show, scheduling and managing events, and serves as an important gatekeeper that allows each show to get attention from editors and buyers. To be featured on the CFDA’s calendar, designers must go through an application process in which they’re asked about their brand and business. 

The work Diggs is referring to began in June 2020, against the backdrop of a pandemic, social justice protests, and a nationwide racial reckoning. The board of the Council of Fashion Designers of America released a statement promising to “create systemic change within our industry.”

From the designers making the clothing to the models on the runway to the department store buyers and editors determining who will be considered the “next big thing,” the fashion industry has been slow to embrace Black and brown people. For instance, only in 2018 did Vogue hire a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, to shoot its prestigious cover. His photograph of Beyoncé for its September issue was a first in the magazine’s 126-year history.

The steps the CFDA undertook included creating a database of Black talent to help design houses fill openings, establishing a mentorship program for Black students and recent graduates, creating a diversity and inclusion training program for CFDA members, fundraising to support social justice organizations, and challenging it’s members to make sure their workforce and products are “representative of the Black talent within the industry.”

“I feel so blessed to be on the calendar,” said Jacques Agobobly, the designer behind Black Boy Knits. “I am excited at the opportunity to be sitting next to some of the other great Black designers that I’ve admired my entire career.”

For Agobobly, who is a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Finalist (the fund was formed in 2003 to help emerging designers get their footing), it’s about the chance to share his work on a larger scale. “To have the support and opportunity to do so at this point in my career is monumental,” he said.

Agobobly’s relationship with the CFDA began while he was an undergraduate at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. He received the CFDA Scholarship, which allowed him to pay for his senior year. “This year, my brand was selected as a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, which has been an amazing blessing,” he said. “To have this amount of support from the organization has been so liberating. Being Black and doing this from the ground up without any financial backing and mentorship in the beginning was defeating. I finally have the support I need to achieve new heights in this industry through the help of the CFDA.”

Rather than put on a runway show, menswear designer Paul Richard will host showroom appointments for his brand Pierre Blanc to celebrate his clothing line’s growth while putting his perspective on luxury menswear on display. “It feels like a dream come true to be hosting an event during New York Fashion Week,” Richard said. “I went from contacting designers in hopes of assisting them at their NYFW events — no one would respond — to being my own event. It has come full circle.”

The number of Black designers strongly influences the diversity seen on the runway. The Fashion Spot, a website that tracks show castings for racial, age, and size diversity, as well as noting transgender/nonbinary model inclusion, found that the percentage of models of color at the Fall and Spring shows in New York increased steadily from 2015 until taking a step back at the Fall 2020 shows, which were greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Smaller shows and presentations led to fewer castings and sadly less diversity,” The Fashion Spot reported. The numbers are moving back up again, with more than half the models at the Spring 2022 shows being people of color.

Models and Normani walk the runway for Savage X Fenty Show Presented by Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 10, 2019 in New York City.

Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Pre-pandemic, The Fashion Spot found the September 2019 NYFW shows saw an all-time high of diversity thanks to inclusive runway castings from brands like Chromat, Gypsy Sport, Prabal Gurung, Savage x Fenty, Tome, Christian Siriano, Michael Kors, The Blonds, Opening Ceremony, Marc Jacobs, Coach, and Marco Marco. Before those September 2019 shows, the CFDA put out a call to designers to cast more diverse models.

Diggs was named president of the CFDA in August 2020, after 19 years with the institution. She most recently was the chief administrative and financial officer and is the first Black president in the organization’s 60-year history. In her new role, Diggs is tasked with strategizing how to shift the CFDA to reflect fashion’s modernization.

“CaSandra is an innovative thinker with a strong understanding of organizational and business operations,” council CEO Steven Kolb said in a statement announcing her promotion. “Expanding her role will provide the CFDA with more opportunity to meet the needs of the membership in a broad and diverse way.”

Diggs is working not only to create a more inclusive fashion week calendar, but adding programming to ensure more designers and fashion professionals are supported in their business. 

“I’m just really excited about the work that CFDA is doing with its programs and really making a concerted and a very intentional effort to craft a more diverse calendar and more diverse representation within their programs themselves,” said Diggs. “The work is now starting to have impact, and we see that from just the amount of representation that’s on the calendar.”

Diggs is especially excited for the emerging brands on the calendar. “I know how hard it is to be part of Fashion Week,” she said. “I know it’s a very costly endeavor. To watch the creativity of how those brands present and even the digital releases that are on Runway360 [a platform that launched during the COVID-19 shutdown that allows designers to show their collections digitally]. I get really excited about that. Everyone is doing the best they can to be creative, thoughtful, and really do it in a way that’s economically advantageous for them and responsible to the environment.”

Channing Hargrove is a senior writer at Andscape covering fashion. That’s easier than admitting how strongly she identifies with the lyrics “Single Black female addicted to retail.”