Black History Month Spotlight: Umindi Francis Denis Built a Female-Owned Biz That Helps Designers Break Through

In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides.

When New York Fashion Week kicks off on Feb. 7, Umindi Francis Denis will once again be at the center of it all.

The founder of Umindi Francis Consulting Group (UFCG) — a New York-based firm that works with brand founders to develop their businesses — has helped propel the careers of many shoe designers, including Gianvito Rossi and Chloe Gosselin.

Here, Denis talks about her own journey — and the biggest challenges African-American designers face.

What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe industry? How did you break in?
“After a few wonderful stints in the fashion industry, I joined the marketing and communications team at Louis Vuitton — overseeing all categories. Shoes were a big part of the business. I fell in love with how creatively the shoe offering elevated and tied into the each season’s collection.”

Looking back on your career to this point, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Starting a global consultancy nearly a decade ago allows my team and me to help founders realize their potential and build thriving businesses. That’s what I am proud of the most.”

As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle you faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
“I don’t believe my obstacles were much different than most 20-somethings starting in the industry. When I started almost 20 years ago, I was fortunate to garner an internship at Elle magazine on Nina Garcia’s team, assisting one of her assistants who was African-American. I simultaneously interned at Nicole Miller. For two years prior to this, I worked in finance and had experience running a small marketing agency in my latter years in college. At the end of both internships, Nicole Miller was so impressed by my work that they offered me a position as PR director, [a move] that was announced in WWD. I was ambitious and did an amazing job. The rest is history. I had stints at KCD, Louis Vuitton, and Bottega Veneta, to name a few. That said, I realize this isn’t everyone’s experience, so I have done my best to mentor as many young people as I can — and they are all doing phenomenally. Many hold executive-level positions at leading brands. Many young African-Americans are able to garner internships, but the biggest obstacle is the being able to tap into a network that will help support the longevity of your career and help ensure that you are receiving a competitive salary.”

What is the biggest challenge African-Americans face in the fashion industry?
“There are two big challenges African-American designers face. First, there is a barrier to entry in the wholesale business. There are a number of African-American designers over the years who have generated significant buzz within the African-American community among consumers and celebrities. But I find that because the buyers are not culturally aligned with the African-American community, they do not perceive the value in the same way. This is true for many categories in fashion. For emerging talent, e-commerce is changing this barrier to entry when designers’ digital media strategy is done right. Historically, African-Americans have also had challenges garnering access to venture capital — no matter the category of business. It is challenging to raise money to scale.”

What is the best advice you would offer other African-Americans looking to break into the fashion industry?
“Intern for an established designer or brand and do your best to grow professionally and garner experience before starting your own brand. This time will provide you an opportunity to build relationships with factories, retailers, mentors and learn how the business ticks. It will not guarantee your success but will give you a fighting chance.”

Want more? Check out FN’s 2018 Black History Month Spotlight

Black History Month Spotlight: Veteran Shoe Exec Noel Hord

Black History Month Spotlight: Pensole Founder D’wayne Edwards

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