I have been conflicted by the fashion industry and my place within it for a very long time now.
My life in fashion began in retail. After years of obsessing over United Colors of Benetton's progressive publication Colors magazine, one of my first jobs was working at UCB in the exclusive Sydney suburb, Double Bay. I bought into their Saatchi-and-Saatchi-designed dream of an inclusive world where fashion could educate us about global inequality, feminism, war, famine, racism, AIDS, and (in)humanity. In other glossier publications, I adored images of goddesses such as Iman, Yasmeen Ghauri, Beverly Peele, Alek Wek, Jenny Shimizu, and, of course, Naomi Campbell. I bought Cross Colours (“clothes without prejudices”), my ultimate style icons were Nina Simone, Grace Jones, and Lisa Bonet—and I still think Sade is the epitome of cool. Turns out, the industries of fashion, beauty, and entertainment didn’t appreciate these women and “brands” as much as I was led to believe.
Early on I became acutely aware that the marketing machine muscle behind the fashion system is tirelessly pumped to target and manipulate our self-esteem, as we yearn for acceptance. All of those highly stylized images of white women—Linda, Christy and Cindy—were created to make women feel bad about themselves, so they would go out and buy things to compensate for the hurt this was intended to cause.
To challenge this sense of deficit, we are procuring more things, at an exponential rate that is killing the planet (with current CO2 levels the highest in human history). This finely attuned rhetoric of lack also plays a major role in the propaganda of racism—of the haves and the have nots—that seeks to create and exploit positions of power and oppression. Paradoxically, black and brown bodies are often manipulated to fill a deficiency in “representation” in fashion.
I wanted to launch my own clothing line to challenge these practices and celebrate those faces that I loved because they reflected my own. I did this in partnership with my friend Ramon Martin, a true white ally. Almost nine years ago, we began a women's clothing brand named Tome, based upon the hope and ideal of a new democracy in fashion. It was an “every woman” brand that spoke to women of all races, sizes, ages and walks of life. It actively engaged with sustainable practices and ethical manufacture and divested of commonly held beliefs of what constitutes acceptable notions of beauty and style. Basically, there were no coiffed and painted women in sadistic little black dresses and teetering heels.
Prior to starting Tome, I learned how to consciously dress women of color, of various ages and sizes. This idea developed organically through lived experience. I made choices, informed by instinct, to represent all women, not because of passing trends or fetishized tastes for people of color disguised as anti-racism, but because I could do anything I wanted with my platform and actively sought to represent beauty that I found to be marginalized. Tome never romanticized ideas about who and what women are, instead it offered realistic clothing that celebrated them in all of their forms.
Almost immediately, Tome received tremendous support and attention from the industry at large—a privileged position for one of the youngest brands in the Vogue Fashion Fund in 2013, where incidentally all ten judges were white. Inclusion in the competition was validation in itself and because of this approval, business boomed in 2014 and Tome was admired for its representation of diversity. This was not the standard at the time. Often, all-white casting with tokenistic placement of black and brown faces and bodies was the common practice.
Six months after our Spring/Summer 2016 show was celebrated for its representation of multidimensional age, race and size at NYFW, Tome’s largest e-comm account launched the collection online. Without approval they used an image of a black model from our runway on their site, cropped her head out and photoshopped her body to racialize her as white. Although shocked and appalled I felt immobilized by the power dynamic. We depended on this account to survive financially and didn’t want to risk any kind of confrontation that would put that at risk. I felt a kind of paralysis, and I still want to know - who made the decision and who approved it, did it come from above or was it an unregulated moment of racist autonomy? How many people were in on it, and was it discussed or even noticed before or after it was decided upon?
My own history involved silence in the face of pain. I grew up brown and gay in suburban Sydney, Australia. This in itself presented a myriad of unwanted attention and challenges, and it firmly cemented my desire to fit in and fly under the radar. The experience of daily microaggressions and bullying from my youth still exerts powerful influence over me to this day.
I remember feeling paralyzed in these moments because who was I meant to complain to that my boss was a bigot, or from whom could I ask for support to work through my discomfort, anger and shame?
When I was a fashion buyer in my early twenties, I had a white woman for a boss, who was a legend in Australian fashion. She would casually and caustically pass anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, and anti-Indigenous remarks on the regular. She would routinely cut the heads of black models in scrapbooks she collated from our buying trips, once stating, “What’s that black girl doing in those white women’s clothes?” I am horrified that powerful people whitewashing and beheading images of beautiful black women is a theme that has followed me throughout my career. She prevented me from booking a high profile model of color, using disparaging terms such as “junglebunny” and “jigaboo” to express her disdain, while I, at the age of 23, sat in the same room aghast and uncomfortable. Funny that I should feel embarrassed for her cruelty.
She owned the company outright, and as such, I remember feeling paralyzed in these moments because who was I meant to complain to that my boss was a bigot, or from whom could I ask for support to work through my discomfort, anger and shame? This speaks to a wider issue of who has the power in the industry, and whether that allows for transparency in relationships. In situations like mine, journalist Bonnie Morrison described to me the dynamic perfectly, “Who do you tell, what do you say, does it look like self-dealing and is it every stereotype of people of color: angry, entitled, wants a free ride, sees racism in everything?”
These are the challenges around speaking up. I make no claim of defense for my silence, other than my admission of the truth of limitations, real or imagined, placed on those of us within the fashion industry, by those who have power. In hindsight, I could have done more; I should have demanded more. I didn’t use my position of privilege to call out racism when I saw it because of fear of repercussion to my own career.
My experiences helped shape my vision of what kind of boss I wanted to be. I have at times failed on this pledge to myself to always respect and make space for my colleagues and employees, by repeating patterns of bad behavior. I have not always protected others in the way I had hoped I always would, and will admit that in moments of major stress I have been dismissive and aggressive to employees and once even a young model (a moment forever immortalized on YouTube!) I have done a lot of work on this and myself and worked hard to break these learned patterns of behavior. I am still working on this today. As a friend helped me understand whilst writing this piece, I feel a “strong sense of responsibility to people of color in the industry to challenge business as usual and point out pathways to a more diverse, inclusive, and reflective culture.”
I had a small thriving business, lauded for its small part in pushing these cultural changes, and yet ultimately the praise did not match the profit margins and the brand closed in 2019. Because Tome closed for commercial reasons, I left behind debt, some owed to contractors, some of whom are women of color, some of them friends. This is extremely painful for me to acknowledge, and since closing the brand I have tried to make up for the mistakes of my professional life, by continuing to pay back some of the debt.
I have learned that we are all casualties of a system we actively participate in. As a self-proclaimed anti-racist, intersectional feminist, and climate activist, I still work, indulge, and find refuge in, benefit from, exploit, enjoy, and uphold long-held racist systems purely by participating in the fashion system. I am both victim and perpetrator of the pernicious powers of what Angela Davis refers to as “the connections between global capitalism, and globalized racism; racial capitalism from the era of slavery to the present….”
Vital conversations around the intersections of race and fashion beg the question of how to affect change in a broken industry, where elitism and white supremacy prevail. Largely white leadership and white representation have been the dominant factor even when exploring and exploiting people of color and their cultural identities. This was my experience until I myself became a leader. And yet, I live in this world and I consume, so I am an active participant in racial capitalism. While we are functioning, working, creating, and selling, within a white supremacist system, how we act as individuals within these systems matters and ultimately shapes the culture.. I think what also matters in fashion, across the board, is robust and enforced accountability.
I echo the advice of Mory Fontanez, a values-based business coach, as to how to change the culture of fashion businesses. To become more intrinsically inclusive beyond just optics requires bringing in inclusive talent at all levels of your business hierarchy, and actively investing in their growth by building an anti-racist environment for this talent to flourish. This integration can only further be enhanced by providing and making space that is conducive to accessing opportunities for all. Then we must provide empowerment for these recruits to have autonomy and to lead. Representation and recognition are key, as it provides opportunity to listen to the needs of employees of color, so we can understand what empowerment means to them.
This is what I set out to do with Tome—to make space for people of color to be seen and to shine. And ultimately, to prosper.
Written By : Ryan Lobo
Copy editor: Sonjia Hyon