Breaking Into The Fashion Biz

It's an industry cloaked in glamour, yet black designers need more than just talent to thrive.

Internationally known fashion designer Jeffrey Banks knew as a child growing up in Washington, D. C., that he wanted to be a designer. “I was only 10 years old when I designed an Easter suit for my mother,” recalls Banks, 43. “The dress was raw silk and it had a banana-colored, wool jersey coat that buttoned to one side. I picked out the fabric, went to the dressmaker with my mother and even picked out the accessories. She loved it and wore it with lots of pride.”

Today, millions of people around the world are wearing Banks’ designs. From Bloomingdale’s in New York to fine shops in Japan, his name appears on everything from shirts and suits to neckwear and small leather goods, even sunshades and prescription eyewear. Last year, his two companies, Jeffrey Banks Ltd. and Jeffrey Banks International, had sales of almost $20 million.

“Fashion is not art,” states Banks. “It often comes very close, but at the end of the day it’s commerce. The more you know about business, the better designer you’ll be. Many young designers don’t realize that they can’t go to a bank or the investment community without a business plan. They just think that everyone will look at their sketches and see their talent shining through.” But, he adds, “there are a lot of talented people who aren’t working and untalented people who are.”

While the number of young black designers is growing, many are having a hard time staying afloat. One reason is that many lack knowledge of the business. It can cost millions to launch a line of clothing, and finding capital is difficult. Getting your designs in major department stores can also be an uphill battle, and the undercurrent of racism in what’s known as a “cliquish” industry can also serve as a barrier.
But there’s big money to be made. The American Apparel Manufacturers Association estimates that last year, more than $138 billion was spent on apparel and related products. In 1995, African Americans spent $19.2 billion on apparel–the fourth largest expenditure in black households in the U.S., according to a report by Chicago-based Target Market News. Studies indicate that African Americans, on average, spend more on most clothing items and accessories than other races. Yet, few of those dollars are finding their way into the hands of black designers such as Banks.

SO YOU WANT TO BE A DESIGNER
Today the fashion industry is comprised of multibillion dollar corporations. Gone are the days of mom-and-pop garment shops. Preparing yourself for work in the industry involves more than simply knowing how to sew. In fact, many designers don’t even know how.

Karl Kani of Karl Kani Infinity, a BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 company, took his urban wear designs to local tailors and eventually built a $59 million enterprise–all without any formal fashion training. But “there are few people who make it in this business without school,” explains Adrienne Jones, a professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, one of the nation’s top fashion design schools.

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