Black History Month Spotlight: DTLR’s Antonio Gray Has Been Creating Inroads for Black-Owned Businesses His Whole Career

For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ series. For 2020, we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodberry-Spencer, to design the series’ logo.

Fashion industry veteran Antonio Gray has a perspective that few in the marketplace have.

Prior to joining DTLR in 2006, the Baltimore native held several positions at a pair of popular regional apparel retailers in the ’90s and 2000s: Merry-Go-Round and Changes. During his time with the latter, Gray worked as a buyer and bought from several black-owned apparel startups from Washington D.C., a group of brands referred to by locals as “DCTs.”

“It was cash-and-carry, so I would go and buy from them and fill the trunk of my car,” Gray told FN. “I was able to relate with these businesses, so I would buy these lines.”

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Although he was at the forefront of stocking shelves with products from black-owned businesses, Gray believes industry-leading companies are realizing the power of supporting them today.

“There were a few [black-owned] brands, those brands sold, and then companies invested in more brands. When you fast-forward to today, all of the major companies are awake now. They recognize there is a need for inclusion and that inclusion can bring them revenue. That’s retail reality,” he explained.

Here, Gray talks about the need to nurture and encourage black business owners and decision-makers.

Why did you choose to enter the fashion industry?

“I knew I had the potential to be a “garmento” from very early on. I come from a culture of everyone wanting to look good. Once I got into a store, I got a discount and I got to see and talk to folks. I still keep in contact with Karl Kani and I can recall my first Magic [Trade Show] in the ’90s. It was fun and I loved it and I wanted to see how far I could take it. Thankfully, it’s still going.”

How did you learn that your vantage point mattered in this industry?

“I’ve always been aware of that because of my culture and, because of the efforts of the creatives in this culture, I’ve been in a particularly good place to help translate that into good retail.”

How did you find your voice?

“There’s a few things you need to be successful in this industry. You need a high taste level and, with that, you need the disciplines to be able to run a good business. And the part I think I have that separates me is authenticity. I think I have an authenticity and integrity that’s been able to be helpful in the moment and have staying power. If I’m working with a brand that might not have the perspective of the years that I have in this industry and may be trying to do something, it may not necessarily be about ‘Can we buy this line? Will we make money on it?’ Sometimes it’s ‘How can I help them get better?’ And they may not get an order today, but years from now they may be the hottest thing in the marketplace. The patience I have and caring for [the business] as much as I do may be missing [from others].”

How do you leverage your blackness as a strength daily in your professional endeavors?

“My strength is I genuinely understand our core consumer, and when I’m in the marketplace, I can speak with them and I can understand what their needs are. And then, when I’m in the boardroom setting, I can communicate that and explain the value of this consumer better than anyone else in that room. Because of my blackness, I can have authentic conversations in the neighborhoods that we serve with the consumers that we serve as well as in boardrooms with decision-makers. That intangible of having lived this experience and not guessing about this experience makes me authentic in this space.”

How do you help other people of color gain access to the industry? 

“I feel like the industry has come a long way from where it has been. When I first got in this industry, there were few people of color continuing and now we have contributors in design, in marketing, there’s stylists, there are store owners and certainly more buyers. However, I feel for me, as someone who has seen this from the beginning, I can offer guidance that others that have not lived this can offer. That’s inside and outside this building with our vendors and our partners.”

What barriers exist in expanding opportunities for African Americans in the footwear and fashion industries?

“The greatest barrier, and that next hurdle that we need to jump, is we need more ownership, we need more decision-makers. We have a ton of creatives in this marketplace, but until we have actual decision-makers making the decisions, I don’t necessarily know we have truly got to the place where we need to get to.”

Why is it important to support black-owned businesses?

“That’s how we progress. Numbers validate things that opinions never have and when demand is shown in dollars and cents, it’s undeniable. We live in a world that if the customers speak with their credit cards then companies will adjust. That’s how we got to this place.”

What capabilities do people of color possess in overcoming diversity and inclusion barriers?

“This might be less about fashion and more about what we’ve been through, but we’ve proven that we can come through many tough circumstances and continue to persevere. It’s in our history; it’s connected to every part of the black experience. We’re fighters and we always make a way and that includes in fashion. Things don’t come easy, but we’ve proven to be relentless. It reminds me of a quote: ‘Sometimes you can’t get over things until you have to get through things.’ As a people, as a culture, we’re the best at that.”

What is the role of companies and their leadership in overcoming barriers?

“It’s a responsibility of every company to be more inclusive of all people. Obviously this is Black History Month, so we’re speaking of black people, but there’s pockets in this marketplace that need more inclusion of women, more inclusion of hispanics, and I could go on and on. From my vantage point, the collective contribution of everyone with a seat at the table and everyone with a voice has always proven to be more valuable than when there’s only a few voices in the room. It’s bound to get you to a better place than if you’re missing parts of society. Twenty years from now, there will be more inclusion, so the companies that wait will be a step behind. The time is now and the competition is already doing it. So anyone who continues to have those barriers, they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage.”

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