On September 9, the opening day of New York Fashion Week, a group of young Black women staged a silent demonstration. The 20-something ladies wanted to acknowledge the first time in their lifetimes that Essencemagazine—a formidable Black women’s print beloved by scores Black girls for 40 years—does not have a Black fashion director. The group of professional and educated women, many of whom are fashion and media insiders, also stood in protest of the added fact that there are no Black fashion directors at any mainstream fashion or lifestyle publication.
Dressed in all black, the walkers carried signs depicting every fashion director in Essencemagazine’s 40 year-old history. Large signs in bold font read “I Am Susan Taylor,” “I Am Kevin Stewart,” “I Am Harriette Cole.” Signs also read simply, “I Am A Black Fashion Director.” The demonstration was informed by the iconic 1968, “I Am A Man” march.
The walk began at the Essence magazine headquarters at 50th street and concluded at 63rd street in front of the Lincoln Center, the new home of New York Fashion Week.
CLUTCH magazine was on hand for the demonstration and walked in solitary and support of the cause.
The organizers were moved to action after discovering Essence magazine hired a White fashion director. The walk’s participants were primarily inspired by Michaela angela Davis, a fashion and media veteran who boldly spoke out to several media outlets, and exclusively to CLUTCH, about her sadness about the print’s shocking decision.
Davis was not only a muse for what the organizers deemed, “Fashion In Action!,” she was an on-hand organizer, and trailed the ladies for the entire walk.
CLUTCH spoke to the “Fashion In Action!” walk producer Quan Lateef, a burgeoning media professional and host of the popular New York-based radio show Avenue Pink. Lateef partnered with Davis and assembled the walk participants. With the help of assistant Bayyina Black, Lateef even organized a police escort to accompany the women as they peacefully marched.
“I’m so humbled right now by the grace and power of this Black girl movement,” Lateef shares. “We came out here with love as the driving force and remained peaceful and compassionate throughout.”
The group of women didn’t speak one word. They allowed their own image—brave and fierce young Black women to be the only speaker.
Lateef further explains the demonstration’s motivation. “We chose to make this a silent demonstration because we were not angry or bitter. We didn’t need to shout or holler. We’re just over it!” Lateef continues, “Whether the powers that be heard it or not, our silence spoke volumes.”
The walkers were passionate about the demonstration, and many were moved to tears. Bayyina Black, an organizer and walk participant, explained that the demonstration was bigger than Essence. “When I first heard of Essence magazine’s decision to hire Ellianna Placas, I was definitely shocked, but was not as upset as I thought I would be.” Black shared that it wasn’t until she engaged in the planning of “Fashion In Action!” that she realized it wasn’t just about Essence magazine. “I had a very real and open dialogue with Michaela angela Davis and realized this issue was a lot bigger than Essence.” Black continues, “On a larger scale, in the year 2010 there is only one woman of color, Nina Garcia, who is a fashion director in the entire fashion industry.”
The “Fashion In Action!” New York Fashion Week march proves that it’s not about complaining but moving to action in order to evoke real change. The demonstration also represents a shift of the hip-hop generation’s cultural memory. The Black protest tradition has been largely about singing, wailing, and, at times, even screaming. The walkers’ decision to remain silent, and, at a point near the end, stand in stillness, was a powerful and moving display to bear witness.
At the peak of the walk the women generated a slew of fascinating reactions from the city’s spectators. One man yelled, “Why aren’t you speaking!” People passing by stopped and read the signs, questioning who many of the names were. A little Black girl said, “Mommy! Look at the models!”
Once the demonstration reached 63rd street, and the ladies stood silently directly across from the Lincoln Center, there was full-on crowd. More police officers, smiling supporters, confused fashionista on-lookers, and even Harriette Cole herself, who reported live for BET News. Cole interviewed Davis on-site and asked about the demonstration. Davis said it is more of a tribute and homage to the women who paved the way.
A lauding salute it was indeed. After the tribute ended, we spoke to Jasu Sade, one of the participants who marched in 4-inch stilettos. Sade shared she was still overwhelmed by the emotional high of it all. “We did it for the right to illustrate our own stories and to restore our legacy.”
In the end, participants kept a hold of what is likely to become piece of Black American memorabilia. We held our “I Am A Black Fashion Director” signs all the way home, back to Brooklyn.
And the movement continues! New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs will host a panel discussion, “Fashion Takes a Trip to Post-Racial USA?”, featuring Esther Armah, Michaela angela Davis and Isolde Brielmair. The critical discussion will talk “progress, power, presence, diversity in the world of publishing and media” on Friday, September 17, 6pm at 41 East 11th St. at University Place 7th floor. CLUTCH will be there, and we hope to see our New York-based readers there too!
Photo Credit: The brilliant fashion photographer Marc Baptiste was on hand to document the tribute. Baptiste bestowed the images online exclusively with CLUTCH.