Employed by Design

Today's climate dictates that high-end black designers choose employment over entrepreneurship

You’re probably familiar with Giorgio Armani. He was arguably the best-selling designer in the world in the 1980s and a household name by the early 1990s. The Italian designer distinguished himself from the competition by producing high-quality tailored apparel for the mainstream and becoming the brand of choice for celebrities-a winning combination.

But did you know that black designer Patrick Robinson contributed to his success? Back then, the brother was in Italy serving as Giorgio Armani’s design director and earning over $100,000 annually. He started with the company in 1991 when he was 24 years old. “I was there for five years,” Robinson recalls. “[By the time] I left, the sales of the company had quadrupled.”

Later, Robinson spent a year and a half at Anne Klein before the company closed its high-end division. Now, nearly 10 years after his entrance into the fashion business, Robinson is heading up his own firm and showcasing his own line. But he hasn’t yet received critical acclaim. In fact, most new, small designers won’t reach this plateau either. Why? The barriers to entry into the industry are high and the payoff is low.

Experts say designers need at least $50,000 to develop the samples for their lines, and that doesn’t include the money they’ll need to produce the line should they make a sale. Plus, many need to redesign their tailored apparel or expand their product lines to address the casual dress trend. According to the NPD Group Inc., a marketing information provider, sales of men’s tailored apparel dropped by 0.5% in 1999, while sales of women’s tailored apparel were up only 1.9% for the same period.

So what’s a black designer to do to survive in today’s climate? Get a job with an established label and develop designs that reflect the current trends, say experts. “The real issue is that you do have to work for other people first, because the learning curve is tremendous and one mistake could put you out of business,” explains Gary Williams, vice president of Fashion Outreach, a nonprofit organization, and owner of the Gary Williams Showroom, a sales and marketing company for men’s apparel. “Most people succeed because they have experience,” he says. Opting for employment over entrepreneurship as a means to mainstream appeal may be a hard choice for some black designers. Most prefer going solo. But unless they begin to take an honest look at the industry, many will suffer the fate of the dinosaur-extinction.

HOW ARE BLACK DESIGNERS FARING?
In 1999, total U.S. apparel sales were $184 billion, according to the NPD. Unfortunately, black designers didn’t capture many of those dollars. According to Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the men’s wear design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, only a small percentage of the industry’s designers are African American. “The issue for [black] designers is pretty stunning. When you look in the high-fashion field, there are no successful black designers,” comments Constance C.R.White, former fashion director of Talk magazine and author of Stylenoir: The

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