Who Gets to Use a Black Choir? Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

This won’t be easy.

As the fashion industry wades through the arduous process of attempting to right years of systemic oppression of minority voices through borrowing of ideas and cultural artifacts without recognition and inclusion, the journey will be an ugly and uncomfortable one.

There will be moments in which a mirror is held up to the industry and reflects back to it all of its shortcomings. There will be times when some of fashion’s traditional stakeholders will question whether they even belong in the space for which they were once the most powerful gatekeepers.

And situations like that of rising black designer and Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond and fashion industry publication Business of Fashion this past week must crop up.

Such instances will leave some minorities questioning whether this industry to which they contribute their blood, sweat and tears will ever get it right. And they’ll cause leaders — in publishing, retail, luxury fashion and elsewhere — to question if their steps toward inclusion will ever be enough and whether some minorities will ever endow upon them, as Black historian Crystal deGregory puts it, “the right to make things right.”

These unpleasant moments are needed to get fashion beyond the broad and comfortable assumptions regarding effective diversity and inclusion to doing the difficult work of actually executing it authentically on a daily basis.

Sometimes that means boiling D&I down to seemingly granular questions like: “Who Gets to Use a Black Choir?”

In the matter of borrowing, stealing and copying in fashion, if anyone ever needs evidence of how rife this industry is with infringement and ripping off, look no further than any court docket in any city where major fashion brands are headquartered. The list of labels suing each over alleged instances of trademark infringement (see: copycatting) is endless.

But when it comes to the appropriation of racial and cultural ideologies, there is no court of law to rule on what lands, what falls short and what offends.

In his criticisms this week of BOF, Jean-Raymond described several instances over the past year in which he felt slighted by the publication, including a purported promise of a cover moment that was later rescinded. The absence of details, though — and BOF did ultimately feature three minority cover stars on three separate covers as part of its BOF 500 rollout — make that situation too complicated to assess.

However, there are teachable moments. When BOF decided to employ a black choir to perform at its BOF 500 gala in Paris on Monday, it came mere weeks after thousands gathered at the historic Kings Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y., and saw Jean-Raymond pay homage to the understated contributions of black women to all facets of society. The designer presented his Pyer Moss spring ’20 collection against the backdrop of a black church, complete with a sermon and performance by a black gospel choir.

“Kerby and his team made a conscious decision that they want to celebrate our culture in a performance art aesthetic, and it positioned him in [a proud moment for] our community,” explained Bimma Williams, a former Adidas manager and co-founder of Claima, a professional development firm for underrepresented groups in the sportswear industry. “He also chose to present something that is so important to our culture — the black church, gospel and music. That thing is such a sacred part of our culture, that if anyone outside of the culture touches that and doesn’t incorporate us into it, it’s 100% appropriation.”

Model on the catwalkPyer Moss Collection 3, Runway, Spring Summer 2020, New York Fashion Week, USA - 08 Sep 2019
Model on the Pyer Moss spring ’20 catwalk in New York.
CREDIT: Masato Onoda/WWD/Shutterstock

It is unclear whether black decision makers were involved in the planning and execution of the choir performance at the BOF gala. However, notes deGregory, since “culture is porous,” there is a fine line to be walked in determining what constitutes appropriation and who gets to engage with and present for consumption the ideologies and customs of a community.

“Culture moves. It doesn’t stay in one place,” she explained. “When people see, feel and experience something that’s not native to them, that doesn’t make it less desirable to them — nor does it prohibit them from wanting to share it with others.”

However, if a fashion publication, brand or entity decides to celebrate a culture or engage with it in a public way, that entity becomes a “purveyor of someone else’s story,” added deGregory. In this case, it is a “privilege” that comes with a responsibility “to the people whose story it is.”

(Notably, several designers and fashion power players who attended the BOF gala, took to social media to support Jean-Raymond’s perspective on the event and its use of a black choir. Brother Vellies founder and designer Aurora James posted to her Instagram stories, tagging BOF, “Not everyone gets to have a black gospel choir. I’m so confused. Aren’t we supposed to be celebrating diversity? And inclusion? Not appropriation?”)

Getting at Inclusion

When a company attempts to be diverse and inclusive — whether it’s via a moment at a fashion gala, within an advertising campaign or elsewhere — if it doesn’t land, that company should expect to be held to task by the communities it seeks to represent, noted D’Wayne Edwards, a footwear industry veteran and founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy.

This is a critical part of the painstaking process of getting it right.

“I’m cool with [brands attempting to be inclusive], because it creates an invitation for us to hold them accountable, because they made a concentrated effort — in their minds — to do something I’m assuming they thought was good for [the black community],” Edwards added. “That means now we can ask them what else they plan to do that they think is good for [our community] — and keep holding them accountable [to those objectives].”

To that end, many fashion players seeking to answer the call for greater inclusion — and hit the sometimes-moving goal post of authenticity — have found themselves looking to a list of emerging prerequisites.

“[Diversity and inclusion] means having multiple measures in place: On the leadership and employee side, you have goals, benchmarks and checks [and balances], and you have employee resource groups in place,” explained Claima’s Williams. “You have D&I and bias training; you have grassroots and community initiatives in place. You have leadership buy-in, and all those things are working together to solve issues.”

Of course, to drive these efforts, another mostly agreed-upon D&I imperative is that brands make room in their highest ranks for more diverse voices.

However, companies must expect that the challenges of executing those large, ambitious goals will often manifest themselves as practical questions, like “who gets to use a black choir?”

Often, to effectively address these kinds of issues, it means fashion firms must be open to being uncomfortable. It means they must expect to have to constantly refine their list of D&I prerequisites and move beyond box-checking to embrace a full range of minority voices, especially the ones who aren’t concerned with maintaining the status quo.

“Brands have to engage their biggest [detractors] — not just the people who are easiest to please,” deGregory said.

Or, as Edwards puts it, fashion firms must challenge themselves to move beyond “the one or two black people in the room who don’t want to rock the boat — who are just happy to have a seat at the table.”

“The more that people like Kerby — who have a platform and a voice — are able to talk, they need to keep doing that and asking questions,” he said.

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