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Vera Wang or Therez Fleetwood?

24 May 2006

Last week, one of the Afrotoronto readers who was reacting to the Are You Size Sexy article, brought up an interesting topic. He mentioned that some of the issues with size discrimination, demonstrating themselves in the marginalization and rigid uniformity of societal beauty standards, could be helped by having more sistah’s enter the fashion world to create clothes for women like themselves. But then he also brought up a challenge to this solution. 

“How many sistah’s do you know,” he wrote, “would pass on their favourite White designers for the stylings of a fellow sistah? Even if the clothes fit like a dream, I don''t believe that many sistah’s would be willing to part with those famous brands.”

His comment happened to coincide with my visit to the Distillery district last Friday. It is Canada ''s finest collection of Victorian era industrial architecture; forty four historic buildings set among thirteen brick lined acres. For those Torontonians who have not visited it yet, you have to. It’s a beautiful enclave of visual arts, culture, performance theatre, music and history. The cute, little coffee shops, romantic candle-lit restaurants and brick paved streets make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. Beer and jazz lovers, you are covered too.

I only had one issue with the place though. As I visited the various galleries and studios, I could not help noticing the general lack of representation of Canada ’s ethnic groups. That was until I came across The Blue Dot Gallery which was featuring African Canadian visual artist John Clinton’s sculptures. The sculptured piece which caught my attention the most was called Lou Lou.

It depicts a black woman holding bags from Holt Renfrew, The Gap and Nike to mention a few. What is haunting about the piece is the fact that she does not look like she can afford them.

Does that sound familiar? Well, it brought up all kinds of allusions and questions. A day or two later, when I saw the AfroToronto reader’s comment, I could not help thinking what a coincidence it was. Is he right? Is he making sense? Is he exaggerating? Choice and personal tastes aside, I wondered exactly how many sistah’s would choose Vera Wang over Therez Fleetwood simply because one is black and another is not. 

Vera or Therez?

Vera Wang, an Asian American, is known as the ultimate wedding dress designer for celebrities including: Jessica Simpson, Melania Trump, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Sharon Stone. Wang is perhaps the most recognized wedding dress designer in the fashion business. Her style is described as luxurious and sophisticated. In the tradition of Paris couture, she uses rich fabrics, luxurious details such as hand beading, and the best craftsmanship.

Therez Fleetwood is an African American bridal designer who cleverly combines African tastes with haute couture.  Known as one of the principal designers of ethnic bridal wear, her wedding gowns have graced the pages of magazines such as Essence, Ebony, Black Elegance and In Style Weddings. She uses exquisite fabric such as Nigerian Ashoke clothe (which has metallic threads woven in patterns similar to Kente cloth), Guinea brocade from West Africa, as well as a variety of silks and satins, and is also known to use hand beading in a style which is inspired by the African dressing style.

A Therez Fleetwood gown. Photo courtesy of www.therezfleetwood.com

Is There a Lack of Black Fashion Designers and Fashion Houses?
 
There could be more but there are already a considerable number of black designers and fashion houses from the more popular Phat Farm, Roca Wear, Lady Enyce, Baby Phat, Sean John, Marie Claudinette Jean (Wycleff’s wife), Fetish by Eve, Beyoncé’s House of Dereon to the less known Geri Benoit-Preval, Heather Jones, Kendra Francis for Franke, Carlos Antonio Reaves, Chi Chi for Vintique, Bonga Bhengu, Ozwald Boateng, Bongiwe Walaza, Sylvia Owori, Santa Anzo, Claudia Pegus, Deola Sagoe, Everett Hall, Thulare Monareng, Tracy Lee, Tracy Reese, Deon John’s Phyne Clothing, Calvin Southwell, Khutala Mokgohlwa, Linda Kulu, Ngozi Odita for Harriet''s Alter Ego and so many more. Even the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni’s daughter Natasha Kainembabazi Karugire, is a fashion designer. Those in the black Canadian pageant beauty circuit will be familiar with Keesha, the spectacular designer of Sokoto Gear, an Afrocentric fashion line. She created the winning evening dress for Miss Black World Canada 2002, April Mullings.

 


Business seems to be good for fashion designers, right? But is it really? We all know that many rappers and other celebrities are jumping into this forum and creating their own lines. The market is saturated with them. However many of these lines, especially the ones created or endorsed by people who are not real designers, do not last. This therefore begs the following questions: do they fail because of lack of black support? Are black people not buying these products and opting for white designers? Is it that blacks find their own black-made products inferior? The cry that blacks do not support black business has been heard since the beginning of the last century. Could it perhaps be because some black businesses fail to understand the black market? To be more specific to this case, that they fail to cater to the varying bodyscapes of black women? I am no expert in the fashion industry, but I believe these are valid questions.

Do Black People Support Black Businesses?

It’s not just a question of whether sistah’s would prefer to shop from Vera Wang rather than Therez Fleetwood, or from a white designer rather than a black one. The fundamental core of this issue is, in essence, the question of blacks patronizing black businesses. In some parts of Africa, clothes that are made in Africa are considered inferior. People will rather wear second hand clothes from Goodwill or cheaply, badly-sewn Chinese clothes than clothes made in their own African factories. I am not sure of the dynamics in Canada since I see a lot of black rappers clothes being worn by teenagers. 

One thing is for sure though. To attract the black community’s dollars, one needs to understand the market. For example, understanding that many black women have big derrières, would it not make sense to make clothes which flatter their figures? How hard can it be? How about considering the affordability of these clothes? Many people complain that black people don’t like reading. Maybe the fact that “black books” cost more than the average books, discouraging even the most avid reader from buying several of them, could be a factor.

Basically, it works both ways. Both the client and merchant have to give and take. I am sure we’ve all been to some black businesses where the customer service skills left very little to be desired and ruined our experience. Businesses have to provide good products as well as good services. They cannot take it for granted that just because they are black, they will automatically have black patronage. As for the consumers, many of us are supporting. Perhaps we can support them more.

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