“I am a black woman working in fashion. It’s not only what I do, but who I am.”
Fashion is one of the few industries where women are in the majority. We have all-female editorial teams, and women (in the modelling industry) are generally paid more than men. It is an industry where women’s issues, women’s bodies, women’s time and women’s rights are by and large respected and celebrated. How bloody brilliant! What a total privilege, that I have never once had to worry about my gender being a hindrance at work. My race, however, whilst it has not been a hindrance, to say I fall under the ‘ideal candidate’ bracket would be stretching the truth.
Have I faced ‘out and out’ racism whilst working in fashion? No, but here is where I feel it is necessary to note my privilege. I am a light-skinned black woman and I am middle class, with a neutral London accent. My name, Chloe Forde, doesn’t indicate any notion of ‘otherness.’
I am aware that the above makes me more ‘palatable’ or ‘more relatable’ to someone who may not have been so kind to my darker-skinned counterpart interviewing for the job. A CV with a West African sounding surname may well have been put to the bottom of the pile.
For the sake of this piece I can only talk on my experience. I have worked in fashion for over 10 years and began my career as a freelance assistant working my way through the industry and I am now a freelance stylist. My first real job as a stylist, was as part of the core team on the X-Factor, I have styled covers for some of my favourite magazines and styled adverts for high street brands. Every day I feel so lucky to have had the career that I have had so far. Through work, I have met lifelong friends, travelled the world and had experiences that I will forever cherish.
There are so many moments of joy that will stay with me forever. And I feel loyal to this industry that has allowed me to earn a decent living, spend my days surrounded by fantastic women and given me the space to be creative. I’ve not once dreaded going to work.
So to pull out the negatives feels almost like I’m bitching about my best friend behind her back, but 10 years ago, before Edward Enninful was editor-in-chief of Vogue, when being black wasn’t particularly ‘in’ and publications weren’t hiring black women by the truck load, or even really putting them on their covers, it was a different environment.
I remember the first time I heard an editor say ‘oh I’ve been lumbered with shooting the black girl, great!’ I was 19 years old and on my first week of work experience, wide-eyed and delirious with excitement to be sat in a conference room with proper adults talking about fashion. Her colleagues chuckled, one patted her back with a sense of condolence, six adults, all white. I’m not sure how I felt, but I remember chuckling along too, probably in the hope that nobody would notice that I was in fact black.
Now as a 32-year-old woman, looking back and putting that incident into writing makes me feel nothing but sadness for the teenage me so desperate to succeed. I don’t think there is any other time in my life where I have felt the desire to shrink my blackness. I have always been proud of my identity. The women that raised me and the young women raised alongside me are largely women of colour. Why would I think we are anything but brilliant?
Fast forward, it’s 2013 and I’m no longer the work experience being allowed to sit in and listen to a fashion meeting, I am now a proper assistant, whose opinion is sometimes asked, and whose place in those meetings is required. I have a voice and the team I work with are glorious. There is no mention of being lumbered with a black girl and diversity is something we have all learnt to embrace.
“I have always been proud of my identity. The women that raised me and the young women raised alongside me are largely women of colour. Why would I think we are anything but brilliant?”
Once a year, a black woman will grace the cover of the industry’s top magazines. It is usually the likes of Thandie Newton, who is fair-skinned with caucasian features, slim, and has straight hair, but she is a black cover girl nonetheless.
As a black woman hired as a full-time member of staff, I am on the Payroll, I don’t feel ‘othered’, I am not forced to push my blackness to one side. I have a seat at the table.
This is still all ‘before Edward Enninful at Vogue’ and at events, shows or dinners I am still the odd one out. Not something I usually notice straight away, I’m usually too busy catching up with old friends, looking at the collections, or drinking the prosecco that’s being handed around like tap water. But in a quiet moment, at the dinner table that looks dressed as beautifully as if it were a wedding, amongst colleagues from a variety of publications, I will notice that out of the 40 chairs, only three of them are filled by women of colour. I can name the handful of black PR’s, editors and assistants across leading publications and if we’re talking about designers you’d be hard stretched to name double figures.
But today, over five years have passed and the shift is real. Shooting a black woman isn’t a chore, it is now a necessity. We have had Skepta the black UK Grime artist sitting front row at the Chanel show. Virgil Abloh is the black artistic director at Louis Vuitton. Stormzy and (black) friends were on the cover of Elle. Halima Aden, the black hijab-wearing model was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And of course Edward, Edward Enninful the London raised Ghanaian man at the helm of one of the most iconic fashion titles in the world, British Vogue.
As a culture, we have worked hard to be recognised, to be equal, to be heard. Things aren’t perfect, they are still massively disproportionate. Black has always been beautiful but it seems the fashion industry is starting to see it now too. I take great pride in being a woman and even greater pride in being a black woman.