7 Insiders Sounds Off on What It’s Really Like to Be Black and Working in Fashion

As the fashion world continues to grapple with questions of how it will transform itself into a more diverse and inclusive place — while also contending with seismic shifts in the wake of a pandemic — amplifying Black voices within and surrounding the industry has been a resounding endeavor.

In this effort, FN looked to celebrity stylist and visual architect Kesha McLeod. The stylist’s megastar list of clients includes Serena Williams, P.J. Tucker, James Harden and Chris Bosch, and her network includes costume designers, artists and plenty of other stylists in Hollywood and in the sports and fashion worlds — including many that she partnered with to recently form the non-profit Black Fashion & Beauty Collective. McLeod also just released a book, “The Essential How-To Guide: Styling & Understanding Your Business,”  which breaks down the more practical and financial needs of becoming a self-employed fashion stylist.

For a series surrounding Juneteenth, McLeod took over FN’s Instagram account to speak to six of her closest friends in the industry to talk about what it’s really like for the Black community to work in fashion.

Below, highlights from McLeod’s candid conversations.

Kesha McLeod, stylist, visual architect and author

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Stylist Kesha McLeod.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Kesha McLeod

“Why do we have to work so hard? Often times I say, there’s no way I could work any harder. And you have to work harder just to prove that you’re successful?

This is our moment right now, but how long is it going to last? We need to keep our stamp on it and make sure it’s forever. The revolution was televised. It’s (on us) to tell our kids, to tell future stylists and innovators, that this is what we do and how we have been moving this whole time.

I think a lot of people thought my book would be, ‘Here’s how you style the white tee and jeans,’ and it’s not. It’s monetizing your value. My industry came to a full stop and so I had to figure out ok what am I going to do, how am I going to make money within this, and how am I going to create my legacy. And now I have a book to forever talk about it and educate other people.”

Kwasi Kessie, stylist and captain of Adidas Runners, Harlem

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Stylist and designer Kwasi Kessie.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Kwasi Kessie

“Steven Othello and I had a magazine called Laced magazine, it was a sneaker magazine documenting the culture. The tagline was “Keeping You Laced From the Ground Up.” We were NYC kids, we started our outfits from the sneakers up. Our whole life revolved around our sneakers. We created Laced in our dorm room at LIU and we wanted to turn our passion for sneakers into something that we could share with the world. That one seed turned into me eventually doing styling, getting my own sneaker with Adidas.

My super power in styling is “Mr. Make-It-Happen” so I work hard mentally, physically, I put so much into what I do. And I see the fruit of my labor but it could be so much more vast. The styling, being an influencer, being a running captain in Harlem, I was able to give back to my community. Along with being a Harlem captain, we were able to change a track that I went to high school on, and we were able to remake it and remodel it and revamp it for future runners to come. So we called it Track for Track. We have (ASAP) Ferg involved, he created a track to be donated, so that the track could be made. We partnered with the parks department and we remodeled the track in Harlem on the East Side. Things like that are what I really live for, more about lineage-passed styling. How does our name live past what we are doing in the present?”

Marci Rodgers, costume designer

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Costume designer Marci Rodgers.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Marci Rodgers

“When I got the script (for the 2017 remake of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’), I’ll never forget, I was doing research for Mars, and I came back with a sneaker. Spike Lee was like “No, Mars is only wearing Jordans.” I had to go and really dig deep into what I knew sneaker culture to be from growing up in Chicago. When the releases came out, I was always in line. I would go to Stadium Goods or Flight Club. And they were excited because this character was coming back to life. I had to take a step back and learn about each Jordan. We were very specific about which Jordan Mars wore.

I think I had a blueprint. I went back to what Mars Blackmon was in the 80s. I wanted to pay homage to New York and Spike, but I wanted Mars’s character to relate to the kid in L.A., to relate to the kid in London, because they’re all buying into the sneaker culture. It’s a huge market and always has been.”

Jason Rembert, stylist and designer, Aliette

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Stylist and Aliette designer Jason Rembert.
CREDIT: Rex/Shutterstock

“I started interning like 15 years ago. It was different. Walking into the hallways of these magazines and not evening seeing you or your culture. You always see the influence. I came in about 10 years after the influence of Misa (celebrity stylist Misa Hylton). All of the collections I loved from brands were influenced by Misa. It came from us. I hope one day my legacy is to have uplifted people. I want them to be able to have the same opportunity. That’s the only way that we are going to grow.

I work in an industry where nepotism is a big thing, it’s very prevalent. So to say that I wouldn’t be afforded different opportunities, I feel like I would be lying. I honestly do believe it. But for me that just only made me work harder. Because I knew I was never on an equal playing field with any of my counterparts who I was interning with, who I was assisting with. That just made me work harder.”

Ade Samuel, stylist and shoe designer

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Ade Samuel.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Ade Samuel

“What is being fed in the media changes the perception of how people think. When you constantly hear of this idea of an angry black woman, what are we doing to people’s minds and how are we continuing that narrative? It’s an easy cop-out to say, ‘Oh she’s an angry Black woman.’ But when you’re a Black woman, you think, ‘What does that mean?’ Strong conviction is something we grew up having to have. We have to be convicted and persistent and resilient and understand that how we are speaking and communicating to the world comes from a place of recognizing that hardship.

Accessories — especially shoes — are the most expensive part of designing. I knew that going into it. I started my shoe line when I was an assistant. When I realized that I was making good money as an assistant I put that into developing my shoe line, because I realized there was a niche, in this lack of Black women as designers. There is a lack of women and barely any Black women. When I started there were none… Most designers, especially Black designers, cannot keep a business past five years.”

P.J. Tucker, NBA player and sneaker collector

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P.J. Tucker.
CREDIT: Rex/Shutterstock

“Even back when I played in Europe, hearing about it (fashion week), seeing those pictures of Kanye. I thought, I gotta go. If you don’t know anybody and how to move and what to do, it’s tough. We are in those situations and sometimes we don’t even talk about it. We are representing no matter if it’s a room full of us or just the two of us. We know that we are setting an example.

People who know me think it’s funny that I get all this publicity (for my sneakers), because I have been doing this for my entire life.”

Dex Robinson, stylist

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Stylist Dex Robinson.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Dex Robinson

“When my client gets a publication or a cover and they say, ‘I need my stylist,’ and they tell him, ‘Oh well we work with this person.’ But I’m who they feel comfortable with. And they should be entitled to have their team on board, so that it’s not just someone trying to create this narrative.

When you get with agencies, you have other people involved with your decisions, what’s coming to you. If a Black publication wants to come interview me and they don’t think it’s a good look for me — it’s like hold on now. I want to be able to dictate and decipher what’s a good look for me. And if I’m not able to have that voice because you’re trying to create a look that is good for you, but as a whole, that’s not true to who I am. That’s an issue for me.”

Interviews from FN’s Instagram Live sessions have been edited and condensed for brevity.

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