Does Ethical Fashion Have a White Savior Complex?

Does Ethical Fashion Have a White Savior Complex?

With Blogger and Stylist, Dominique Drakeford

“Ethical fashion,” “organic cotton,” and “wellness” conjures Instagram images of carefree, smiling women, posing yogi-like in a field of wildflowers, backlit by a golden sunset, wearing a flowing floral ‘70s inspired dress. The question Dominique Drakeford might ask is: “Is the woman in your imagination white? And, why?"

If you think the world of ethical fashion or conscious fashion is free of structural racism, and it’s attendant issues of tokenism and cultural appropriation, writer, stylist, and creative consultant Dominique Drakeford will be the first to tell you it isn’t. Her blog, MelaninASS (Melanin and Sustainable Style), is unafraid to call out the underlying racism she believes is rampant in this space with articles like “Who the Hell Only Wants to See WHITE WOMEN in Sustainable Fashion?”

Drakeford ruffles feathers with her viewpoint, but she reminds us how the environmentally-forward ethos of “sustainable” or “conscious” fashion are deeply embedded around the categories of race, gender, and sexuality. Her passion and commitment to this idea is about presenting fashion as holistic and self-healing that is inclusive and fair. We learned more about what sparked this passion for her and her vision for the future of fashion on a cloudy Saturday morning in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.


Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?


My name is Dominique Chanel Drakeford. I love my entire name, that's why I say my middle name. I am a publicist and consultant for sustainable fashion brands. But my primary focus is being the lead person behind MelaninASS, and the content creator, creative director, and head honcho behind Melanin & Sustainable Style.

Where did you grow up?


I grew up in Oakland, California.

And when did you move to New York?


It's a bit blurry — New York tends to do that, but I think I've been here for about six or seven years. I came here to get my Masters' Degree from NYU in Sustainable Entrepreneurship in Fashion, and then I've just been here ever since.

So, had you always planned to work in sustainability?


No, I've always been an earth nerd, and being black in Oakland and being an earth nerd doesn't always coincide with one another.I found myself in spaces where I was either taking youth backpacking in Yosemite, or doing urban youth development work, or teaching repurposing classes. And, it organically formed into this space where I cared and loved the environment and loved fashion and style. Growing up, I loved Missy Elliot; I used to dress so crazy in school. I had like CDs hanging from my neck, I tied shoestrings in my hair, and little did I know that this eclectic style that I had merged with my love for the environment, creating this space for ethical and sustainable and conscious fashion in a weird, interesting way.

So, fast forward, you are now, as you said, you do PR, and you have your blog, I'd love to talk a little bit more about your blog.


It started as a passion project, and much like any social movement, it came from a place of frustration. I was extremely frustrated that being in the sustainability space, I never saw women of color represented on the panel, I never saw women of color represented in the audience, and all of the discussions around people of color were women as laborers. We're working in India; we're working in Africa, and that frustrated me. Additionally, black-focused, black-centric magazines, such as Ebony and Essence, they weren't covering sustainability, or sustainable fashion, and that frustrated me. So I kind of just had all of these Oprah "a-ha" epiphany moments like, something in my core is frustrating me about how sustainability is represented, and I needed to put that into the atmosphere.

The blog focuses on women of color in the sustainable and ethical space of fashion.


Yes, initially. Now it's people of color. There's some men sprinkled in there. And not only highlight the great work that's being done in these spaces,but also discuss the things that are hurting our community like cultural appropriation. It's extremely important to tackle those subjects — cultural appropriation doesn't just happen in mainstream fashion; it happens in the sustainable fashion community as well. So, I want to talk about the issues as well as celebrate the successes that people are doing.

I think that's interesting, the things that you talk about within sustainability because sometimes it's perceived as a “do-gooder” culture, and to recognize that actually, the same bad habits in some respects that exist in mainstream fashion carry across in conscious fashion is absolutely necessary.

Some of your articles are provocative and call-out the sustainable fashion industry, what's been the reaction? How do people respond to these points that you make?


I've had a lot of different responses.

I'm very unapologetic because a lot of things need to be said that haven't been said, and I don't mind ruffling feathers. So, for people of color, they're starting to realize that a lot of the racism, injustices, or challenges of being a woman of color in [sustainable fashion] are real, and they never really felt like they've had an outlet or a platform to speak about it. [MelaninASS] is a place where women of color especially can feel celebrated and understand that sustainability has been so much a part of their culture, yet, the mainstream platform hasn't given them the notoriety, if that makes sense.

The culture has been commandeered?


My inbox is always full with "I love what you're doing, I finally feel comfortable about my challenges." Or, "I'm excited that there's a place where we're all celebrated, understanding that my great-great-great-great-grandma has been sustainable." They have a safe space where they can be vulnerable and excited to celebrate with other women of color. I've also gotten a lot of praise from white people, as well, which I have mixed feelings about.

I find that a lot of white bloggers are very receptive to my writing and wanting to be an ally — if you will — and do their part to help with issues of visibility and representation, to dismantle racism within this space. But there are some women who find it hard when women of color are being open about the challenges they face in sustainability.

I think a lot of it is that there's a white savior complex in this space. I feel like those are the women, who don't realize they have a white savior complex and have never been told, "You know, you have a white savior complex, let me tell you why and let me tell you how this is hurting the movement as a whole." If we don't start to dismantle these issues, progress isn't going to get made.

It's so crazy to me how white people, or white women, don't consider the optics of some situations, you know? I was looking at some celebrity's Instagram the other day and she was doing a philanthropic trip to Africa, and in the image, she was dancing with the children and laughing. And while it’s admirable and helpful to their community, I think to myself how strange it is for these kids to have this experience, and what does it mean to them? You just have these random, white people dropping in that are contributing money, and also getting their photo op, disseminating it to their followers and then leaving. I’m not saying it’s wrong, necessarily, but it’s generally a strange dynamic.


It's extremely strange! I think that America's DNA has such a colonized view and again, it's so normalized.
America is built on exploitation, it's built on disenfranchisement, it's built on inferiority complexes. And so, when we point it out, especially in the community that's supposed to be doing good, hell breaks loose. I have no issues challenging people who don't see themselves as causing more harm, being more of a detriment than you are, and for me, if you're in a conscious, a sustainable community, this is the community that is supposed to be taking it to the next level. This is the community that is supposed to thinking differently, thinking outside the box, having conversations, engaging in activity, and engaging in just dialogue that challenges the status quo — and doesn't normalize racism. This is the community that's supposed to evoke change and really supposed to be the pioneers in revolutionizing the industry, but I find that, way too often, it's not.

When it comes to the topic of visibility, I really love when you point out that there is a lack of outward visibility or powerful visibility for women of color, within fashion and specifically within sustainable fashion. What do you think is the driving factor behind that issue?


I think it's maybe two-fold. Sustainability has become this elitist movement. You're looking at price point, and a woman of color's not going to be able to afford this, despite the fact that she's probably the one sewing my buttons. She doesn't need to be represented, because she's not going to buy my clothes. In fact, a well-known blogger and influencer has a sustainable fashion brand, and she wrote that only white, thin, and tall women should be represented in her brand. But she also calls herself a feminist, and played the victim, like, "I really wish this weren’t the case, but, that's the only thing that's going to sell." Now, part of the issue is in your branding, if you start having all this diversity all of the sudden, you're probably right, it's not going to sell. But if that was the DNA of your brand from inception, it would be a different conversation because the community that you garnered from the very beginning and your value system from the very beginning would have told a different story.

I think bringing diversity to powerful positions is super important. To me, that's something that really needs to happen and I can say that I always worry that it's going to turn into an issue of brands thinking, "Oh, we'll have people of color making our clothes, and we'll throw some beautiful women of color into our campaigns,” but the executive team and the boardroom is white. That's problematic.


I think diversity [shouldn’t be an act of] tokenism. I don't want it to be, "Okay, I want to get this black girl so I can feel diverse." No, I want you to authentically want to have people of color. Being able to sort of dismantle these things that are going on is hard, but I'm really, really working hard for the next generation.

But I feel like when things are difficult, they're meaningful.


I mean, yeah, that's when real change happens. It's when you really push and have these challenging conversations.

You mentioned that MelaninASS began with fashion, it's now more lifestyle, more wellness-focused. Do you feel that there is a relationship between fashion and wellness?


Most definitely. I see beauty, fashion, and wellness as a Venn diagram with sustainability in the middle. When you break it down: the women who are making your clothes, they're subject to God knows what toxins, right? So that's immediately about health. And even when you're looking at it from an economic point of view, you're looking at the sustainability of livelihood, your day-to-day, how are you interacting with your community, how are you making your money, how are you pushing — how does this equate to your happiness? All of that boils down to your wellness. And so, when we're looking at fashion, I think the story that your fashion tells, whether it's vintage or whether it's "environmentally sustainable fashion," all of that has to do with how you see yourself, right? Fashion is part of our skin, and it's a political, social, economic, cultural voice for us. And again, that has to do with your wellness, your well-being. I see it as all connected — fashion, beauty, wellness. It's a fashion lifestyle, and how you choose to identify politically and culturally through supporting conscious consciousness.

I couldn't agree more. So, I want to talk a little bit about your personal style. MelaninASS has a lot of really beautiful fashion. You always have incredible style. How would you describe your personal style?


Definitely eclectic. My style is a reflection of my identity. Depending on what my purpose is for that day, or how I'm feeling, will determine if I want to be sexy, sporty, classy....

I just, across the board, like to wear as much ethical fashion as possible. But I don't have one style whatever evokes power into my spirit is what I'm about to wear.

I'm a stylist, you're a stylist, and I find that when people meet me for the first time and they know I'm a stylist, the first thing they ask is "What's on trend? What should I be wearing?" My immediate response is, "Well what do you feel good in? That's what you should be wearing!”


Right, right! That's it!

What is your advice for women to find their authentic style?


I despise the word "trends," and I'm pretty sure that's a sin in the fashion world. But, when I was younger, I used to leave the house wearing whatever made me happy. Like, I even sometimes wore hangers from my belt loops. It was the most insane style, but it made me happy and my parents supported it. I think I've always been attached to that philosophy. Literally, wear whatever the hell makes you feel confident as a woman, as a person. I think it's probably the most overused word, "confidence," but sometimes we have to break down what confidence means to you. Literally, get a notepad and write down what does being a confident person mean to you, and whatever those adjectives are you eat it, you swallow it, you sleep with it, you hold it dear, it becomes part of your mantra, your mandala, your soul. That is how you choose what you're going to wear every damn day.

So, given all we’ve discussed, and I know this is a pretty big question, if you could imagine a better fashion future, what does that look like for you?


For me, a utopia in the fashion world would be one where authentic culture is at the core of everything, minus racism.


Photographer: Lee O'Connor

Make Up: Chichi Saito

Words: Laura Jones

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