A new collection launched at Bergdorf Goodman this month, Mosaic: Gee’s Bend & Greg Lauren, spotlights 96 upcycled textile pieces created in collaboration with quilters from “the rural Alabama community of Black artists who trace their history — and craft — back to the enslaved people of Pettway Plantation.”
Greg Lauren – designer and nephew of fashion titan Ralph Lauren – explains to WWD that, through conversations over the past year, he recognized an opportunity to use his own privilege and platform “to change what has often been the exploitative nature of fashion.” Lauren recounts his own missteps, noting that his initial interactions with Gee’s Bend Quilts were essentially superficial and appropriative: “I Googled quilts, saw geometric red and white images, screen-shot them and up they went on the mood board.” After a deeper exploration over the past year, Lauren decided to donate a portion of proceeds from his collection to the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which aims to preserve and promote Black artwork in the South. He then decided to take this a step further via a direct creative collaboration with the quilters.
The Mosaic collection is unique in its forthright credit towards the Gee’s Bend quilting community. Oftentimes, designer-artisan collaborations simply mirror the problematic power dynamics of cultural appropriation by glorifying an iteration of white saviorism in which Western designers force their own aesthetic preferences on craftspeople to ‘help’ them – thereby stripping them of creative agency. Furthermore, the artisans who create these products are rarely credited for their work, and are instead typically referred to in a sweeping anonymous fashion. Interrogating his own position in this dynamic, which is deeply embedded within the fashion system, Lauren expresses his intention to approach “relationships with…marginalized communities, in a more responsible way than it’s been done before. With this we set out to create a proper model through which creatives should and can collaborate with artists and artistic communities, and one that is about volition and consent.”
In contrast, all 14 participating Gee’s Bend quilters are individually credited for their contributions to the Mosaic collection. Mary Margaret Pettway, the lead quilter on the project, worked to advocate for a mutually beneficial agreement to the terms of the collaboration, which included a level of creative input and community recognition, as well as financial compensation and profit sharing. The collection will be presented at Bergdorf Goodman through November 8th as part of an immersive installation that features portraits of the quilters and voice recordings in which they discuss their process. Reflecting on the experience of creating the collection, Lauren notes that “proper and equitable collaborations are not easy, and they don’t necessarily make financial sense to a company, but you have to do it to create a better model.” Likewise, Dr. Jonathan M. Square, who consulted on the project, writes, “I hope fashion industry stakeholders take note. This is a model of equitable collaboration.”
A recent report by The Center for Public Integrity investigates issues related to wage theft faced by immigrant workers, often in low-paying jobs such as clothing production. One case detailed in the report is that of Audelia Molina, a Mexican immigrant and 30-year resident of California who was cheated out of almost $23,000 of wages during her time working at a garment factory in Los Angeles.
Reporters Susan Ferriss and Joe Yerardi explain that Molina’s case is far from unusual – unfortunately it’s closer to the norm, and representative of “a toxic cycle centuries old: Immigrants perform some of America’s lowest-paying, arduous jobs, and are among those most victimized by employers failing to pay them fairly.” Legally, anyone – even non-citizens – whose job is covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act is entitled to the minimum hourly wage and additional overtime pay after 40 hours a week, but it is common for immigrant workers to face employer intimidation when they attempt to assert their rights.
Analysis by The Center of Public Integrity confirmed that issues of wage theft disproportionally affect foreign-born workers. This problem is significant within the fashion industry: while 16% of all U.S. workers are foreign-born, 42% of all workers performing cut-and-sew garment assembly are immigrants. Public Integrity’s research also revealed that the cut-and-sew garment industry has the second highest rate of federal wage-violation cases in the last 15 years. The UCLA Labor Center has been warning of an impending “crisis” in wage theft from immigrant workers since a 2010 report finding that, “low-wage, mostly immigrant workers in L.A. County lost an average of more than $2,000 annually, adding up to more than $26 million per week.” Even when legal action is pursued, reviews of claims can take months or years to process through courts – and when workers prevail, the businesses often simply never pay up.
While the Garment Workers Protection Act, recently signed into law in California, takes some steps towards improving this situation, further reforms will be needed to help eradicate the prevalence of wage theft in the industry. Even more than legislation, lasting change may be contingent on disrupting the way we consume fashion. Research has shown that “incentives for wage theft begin with pricing: On average, the price per garment that manufacturers received from retailers was only 73% of the price needed to support paying workers even minimum required pay. In some cases, retailers paid $4 per garment rather than the $10 needed.”
Learn more about garment makers in the United States by watching Remake’s Made in America.
Take a deep dive into the discourse around the history of labor in the U.S. in Clothed in Meaning: Literature, Labor, and Cotton in Nineteenth-Century America.
Also on our radar:
Design & Imagemaking
A recent showcase as part of Milan Fashion Week – ‘We are Made in Italy’ – gave five emerging BIPOC designers the opportunity to take center stage: Sheetal Shah, Nyny Ryke, Romy Calzado, Zineb Hazim, Judith Saint Jermain. The showcase was part of an initiative spearheaded by Italy’s Afro Fashion Association, founded by Michelle Francine Ngonmo, and in collaboration with fashion designers Stella Jean and Edward Buchanan.
Stella Jean explained to Forbes that she dedicated herself to the initiative for the last year after recognizing that, “The racial issues in Italy were no longer acceptable. I could not remain silent and hold a fashion show if nothing serious was happening.” Indeed, there is no shortage of examples of racism and cultural appropriation on the part of Italian designers, and these issues have proven to be endemic in the Italian fashion system: from the endless controversies of Dolce & Gabbana, to repeated usage of blackface and slavery imagery by designers like Gucci, Prada, and Marni.
Ngonmo contends that the best way to change this problematic system is to offer greater opportunities to BIPOC designers behind the scenes. Her work with the Afro Fashion Association aims to create a platform for these designers: “With a database of nearly 3 thousand BIPOC designers in Italy, it seemed absurd to Ngonmo that there were no members of color that were part of the National Italian Fashion Council or part of Milan Fashion Week last year.” Although Ngonmo founded her organization six years ago in 2015, it was only after the racial reckoning of 2020 that key players in the Italian fashion industry began paying attention to her work and supporting progress on issues of diversity and inclusion.
Through the ‘We Are Made in Italy’ initiative, she hopes to provide hope to Italy’s aspiring BIPOC designers that “the glass ceilings are permeable, and that inclusivity in the creative sector is an ongoing, essential, and imperative part of Made in Italy.”
Also on our radar:
Business & Retail
A new initiative developed by Kendra Bracken-Ferguson aims to help facilitate access to essential business resources for Black founders of beauty and wellness brands.
Founders Studio has consolidated an array of corporate partnerships, including Shopify, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Salesforce, and Afterpay, to provide free services, valued at $100 million, to participating founders like Lauren Napier of Lauren Napier Beauty and Lucien Aymerick Eloundou of Charbon Plus. But Bracken-Ferguson expresses to Beauty Independent that her aim goes beyond offering financial resources, but to create an entire ecosystem dedicated to supporting Black founders: “a platform that combines community, education, mentorship and capital for Black beauty and wellness founders at all stages of their journey.”
While many Black-owned brands have seen sudden growth over the past year as retailers scrambled to meet their pledges and promises, this rush in demand can put significant stress on small startups attempting to navigate major retail partnerships and ramp up production. Bracken-Ferguson points out, “It’s one thing to have a brand and to go on a shelf, it’s another thing to have long term sustainability.”
With Black founders making up only a miniscule percentage of venture capital funded businesses, lack of capital support and business guidance can hinder a brand’s success even amid skyrocketing demand. Founders Studio participant Lauren Napier explains that the reason this initiative is “so timely and critical is that the generational wealth that allows significant levels of funding from friends, family, and networks is simply not as widely available to most Black founders due to systemic economic oppression, lack of confidence in Black and women founders, and flat-out bias.”