This week, we consider the appropriation of Black beauty culture, dissect the systemic racial biases of photography, and dig into a worldwide labor crisis.

Design & Imagemaking

Empowering imagemakers of color behind the scenes has become an increasingly key topic over the past few years. When Simone Biles was featured on the cover of Vogue in July 2020, the magazine faced critical backlash for its problematic portrayal of the world renowned gymnast. Online commentators like New York Times national picture editor Morrigan McCarthy, lamented the choice of longtime Vogue photographer Annie Leibovitz and contended that the publication should have hired an imagemaker with a better understanding of how to best photograph Black skin (preferably a Black photographer). 

The need for a specific technical skill set to properly light and photograph Black skin is a consequence of unconscious racial bias that has been built into photographic technology since its inception. In a New York Times feature on the subject, Sarah Lewis explains that “light skin became the chemical baseline” in the development of color film technology, and explores how  this categorization of “light skin as the norm and other skin tones as needing special corrective care, photography has altered how we interact with each other without us realizing it.” Mainstream digital cameras – like those on our phones – are often still calibrated based on the same color-balancing baseline of original color film cameras, which prioritize the accurate portrayal of lighter skin tones at the expense of darker skin tones. Overcoming this inherited bias requires dedicated effort on the part of photographers. 

Leading Black filmmakers and photographers have developed innovative lighting techniques to ensure the flattering portrayal of darker skin. Recently, photographers Dario Calmese, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, and Summer Murdock, embarked on a collaboration with Adobe’s Creative Cloud to create a set of portrait tones that cater specifically to Black and brown skin. Calmese explained the breadth and inclusivity of the project to Dazed Magazine, noting, “We weren’t just looking at Black skin from Africans, but also at the skin of people from South East Asia and the Middle East. We are centering the subject and helping to assist photographers in making them look great.” With a dedicated range for Light, Medium, and Deep, “the Premium Presets are calibrated to accurately portrait the rich tapestry of skin tones in every corner of the globe.” This new collaborative effort is just one recent example of how emerging Black imagemakers are working to dismantle the built-in biases of photographic technology and set a new standard for inclusive representation.

Design & Imagemaking

Also on our radar:

Bretman Rock makes history as the first openly gay male to be featured on the cover of Playboy magazine.

Christopher John Rogers and Esteban Cortezar collaborate in creating costumes for the New York City Ballet.

Business of Fashion spotlights China’s most promising emerging design talent.

Dress Politics

Last week, Refinery29 profiled fashion and costume historian Shelby Ivey Christie with an interview that explored the issues surrounding the endless appropriation of Black culture through beauty and fashion, “from intricately laid baby hairs and glittering acrylic nails to the overlooked designs of folks like Ann Lowe and Zelda Wynn Valdes.” Christie uses her social platforms to “[delve] into the oft-overlooked contributions of Black creators while weighing in on modern-day cultural touchpoints,” and points out that “You can be in a continual cycle of anger and agitation because every day, every week, there’s somebody copying something that we’ve done.”

While call-outs regarding appropriation of specific types of clothing are often fairly clear-cut, the issues surrounding appropriation of beauty styles like nail art are somewhat less widely discussed. A recent piece in The Cut by Asia Milia Ware examines the significance of nail art in Black culture. As intricate manicures and long nails become increasingly popular and donned by many white influencers and celebrities, it’s important to reflect and recognize their cultural significance for Black women. Nail artist Aja Walton explains, “there are endless labels and restrictions placed on Black women whenever we choose to confidently illustrate ourselves,” with nail art offering an avenue of resisting and rebelling against conventional beauty standards that are at odds with personal and cultural preferences. Another artist interviewed in the feature, Tolani Rosa, further emphasizes that “It’s very important for Black women to feel unapologetic in the things we deem beautiful.” For many Black women, who often continue to be unfairly stereotyped and marginalized, opportunities for creative personal expression and confidence are highly valued. The cultural significance of nail art in Black culture was the subject of a 2019 paper published in the Journal of Fashion, Style, & Popular Culture, in which research showed that “the participants’ choice of nail fashion represented a form of expression as they negotiated their daily identities and that they were exhibiting creative and innovative ways to share their expressions.” Considering this cultural context, it is important for people who are interested in participating in this “trend” to think critically about their motivations and intentions. As Milia Ware writes, “the nail styles born in the Black community aren’t a trend — they’re a part of our history and culture.”

Dress Politics

Also on our radar:

Labor Issues

In Issue 10 of In The News, we examined the human rights crisis around cotton production in Xinjiang, China. But a recent exposé by risk intelligence company Versik Maplecroft shows how these types of human rights violations are not limited to a single region, but have manifested in different ways in several key manufacturing regions globally. While many businesses are quick to blame such issues on the web of crises dealt with over the past year, the report “Worldwide Decline in Labour Rights Strikes At the Heart of Global Supply Chains,” provides data-based evidence of how “these recent events are more than an aberration. They form part of a sustained trend where the rights of workers are under increasing threat from multiple directions.” As summarized by Business of Fashion, the analysis shows significant increases of “violations including forced labor, modern slavery, and child labor” between 2017 and 2021 in 11 key manufacturing countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and India. While some progressive steps have been taken to tackle the issue, such as the renewal of the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the passing of the Garment Worker Protection Act in California, this progress “does not necessarily reach the informalised and under-regulated corners of the industry” such as emerging markets like Myanmar and Ethiopia, where labor conditions have worsened recently “because of unrest, political destabilisation and violence.” As noted by Sofia Nazalya, human rights analyst at Verisk Maplecroft and author of the report, “This decline…presents a set of dilemmas for ethical procurement for which there are no easy answers.” She concludes that, “In a climate where volatility appears to be the norm rather than the exception, companies would do well to innovate human rights due diligence measures so that supply chains not only overcome the challenges of current restrictions but become future proof.”

Factory workers in Havana, Cuba, are seen sitting and working at sewing machines.

Image licensed under Unsplash.

Labor Issues

Also on our radar:

The Indian government has approved the creation of seven mega textile parks to give a boost to the garment production sector and generate jobs.

The Telegraph’s recent feature on Boohoo’s fast fashion factories opens the door for criticism of our assumptions that ‘Made in Britain’ (or ‘Made in America’) is synonymous with ethical labor practices.

Business & Retail

Business & Retail

Also on our radar:

Black in Fashion Council (BIFC) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) published the first-ever “Black in Fashion” Index report.

Rihanna announces the opening of Savage x Fenty retail stores.

The recently launched Impact Fund for African Creatives (IFFAC) is billed as a long-term capital vehicle supporting African creative entrepreneurs by awarding grants and early-stage investments to qualified businesses.