Employed by Design

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

First How-to Guide to Fashion Written With Black Women in Mind (Perigee, $15). “We have a lot of talent out there, but they need money to support their businesses.”

The majority of black designers run small, independent shops that don’t reach the general public. “You can’t make it doing custom goods. To make money you need to be mass marketed,” states Audrey Smaltz, owner of the Ground Crew, a company that handles backstage production for major fashion shows all over the world. Traditionally, designers were able to bring their labels to the masses by developing partnerships with retailers or by getting large firms as investors. However, high-end fashions are declining in popularity among consumers, making these designers less attractive to investors. “That’s why these young black designers are starving,” Smaltz contends.

Racism also keeps black designers from making the cut. “When you pick up Vogue, Elle or Bazaar, they’re always citing the designers to watch, but they’re never black. The African American phenomenon never happens. We’ve gone through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and there is not one black designer that has made a lasting statement,” insists designer Mikel Kilgour. He and his wife, Sweet, design the women’s collection for Dion Scott, a company owned by Dion Lattimore and Scott Torrellas. He also serves as the firm’s creative director in a consulting partnership. “The [high-end] market does not embrace talent from African American designers because people associate a certain lifestyle with the garments they purchase, and black designers aren’t considered status symbols by the population at large,” he proclaims. “So you might as well work for somebody else because the industry isn’t going to make a black designer a star.”

The fashion arena wasn’t always hostile to newcomers. In the past, department stores were willing to try out smaller companies, designers, manufacturers and other professionals. That’s how Patrick Kelly, Willie Smith and Stephen Burrows-high profile African American designers-made their marks. However, increased competition from specialty stores and discount retailers and a change in consumer preferences have forced department stores to change their strategy.

“Why shop at a high-end department store when you can get the same styles at Old Navy?” remarks Anthony Mark Hankins. The designer, who specializes in turning high-end apparel into more affordable substitutes, has partnerships with Sears and the Home Shopping Network. He says today’s savvy consumer can “create a designer look by shopping at alternative retailers,” and it’s at the expense of department store revenues.

As a result, larger retailers are sticking to brands that have a proven track record. They’re also getting rid of goods that take up a lot of space, such as furniture and large household appliances. “Now department stores such as Macy’s and Sterns largely sell cosmetics, clothes and certain houseware items because these have high profit margins,” suggests Teri Agins, author of The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business (William Morrow, $25). “The lion’s share of the [department stores’] business goes to their anchor brands, such as Liz Claiborne,

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