Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs is a designer, fashion activist, and organizer.
I grew up in Trinidad, I didn’t grow up with a lot. My brother, sister, and I, we—if I had to put a label on how I grew up as a child—it would have probably been very low income. We shared a bedroom. This concept of living your life where you’re trying to minimize waste, using up as little as possible, and trying to be thoughtful about not consuming as much is something that is very natural for me. It’s been interesting for me see now that it’s having a moment, and is trendy.
I had been working for a large corporate fashion brand, and I was surprised by how much waste is generated in the fashion industry, and how little thought we were putting into trying to reduce the waste. I didn’t know that much about sustainable fashion. I didn’t even know that much about starting a fashion line, and I just started experimenting with having it be zero waste.
I started Tabii Just in 2012. Looking back now, I’m surprised I wasn’t more afraid. I was just excited to be doing my own thing. I had also spent ten years working in the field of psychology, so I didn’t have a lot of creative experience. This idea that I wanted to launch a fashion line, and I was actually making it happen—that was such an exhilarating thing.
When I launched LIVARI, with two other business partners, Claudine DeSola, who is a celebrity stylist, and Alysia Reiner, who was an actress on "Orange is the New Black." It was challenging for me at first. With Tabii Just, I was able to come up with an idea and make it happen. With LIVARI, we co-create everything. We each have input in every piece of clothing that we make. We wanted our line to also be zero waste. In the first collection we released, we took all of the scraps from the sample making, from our first show, and we worked with Weaving Hand. They stripped the fabric, and they wove it into another fabric, and then we used that fabric to make this cropped jacket, when those scraps were cut off of it. We try to be creative about how we’re being zero waste.
Everything in my life is centered around love, and family. The thing that brings me the most joy is the fact that, at this stage in my life, I can make decisions about work and the things that I’ve become involved in. Yet, where I’m still able to be a present and loving mother—that hasn’t always been the case in my life. I find a lot of fulfillment in working with young people. I really enjoy helping them grow and helping them sort of develop their skills, and really become the changemakers that they really envision themselves to be. But it’s the balance that I’ve been able to accomplish in my life that really brings me the most joy.
It’s been a goal of mine in every interview to bring up how race plays out in the sustainable fashion space. We’re at the beginning of the reckoning: women of color, within the sustainable fashion space, have always felt that their voices weren’t heard. I try to be intentional about where my voice shows up, and how it shows up. I want to be sure that the platforms that I work with not only feature women of color, but also center women of color. Having an inclusive approach to fashion is something that needs to be taken seriously, not just when it comes to photo shoots. Many times, black bodies are just used in a performative way. We’re not accessed for our opinions when it comes to actual decisions that are being made. When I started in the field, I didn’t really think of myself as a woman of color designer; I just thought of myself as a designer. I didn’t even think of myself as a sustainable designer. Over time, I saw how being a black woman in the space that I have a unique voice, and I have to use it.
There would be panel discussions with leaders in the sustainable fashion space, and it would be all white women—that can not be a representation of what the industry is—it’s just a representation of those that have the most access. I’ve been trying to have these conversations with white women, and it’s hard to push people past their comfort zones to really consider how we can really do better, and how we can be more representative within a sustainable fashion space. It can be tricky to understand that giving voice to diversity means you can’t always be the voice in the room, and people have a hard time with that.
It’s not a personal thing. This is a systemic problem. Racism is a systemic problem that permeates every single thing in this country. And for people of color, for black women, we live this every single day of our lives. To ask white women to make space for us, we shouldn’t even have to ask white women to be making space for us, it should be that we have a space in the industry—this is just where we belong. But there are white women who feel like they’re the voice of the entire movement. And it’s a place of discomfort for them to have to be like, I may have to actually step back in order to make space.
We need to be having more public conversations about race, and also more private conversations. It’s going to be a lot of compassionate conversations, a lot of painful moments, but I think that we can make progress. I think that there are people that are leaders the industry right now who are doing really amazing things. People like Mara Hoffman, she’s been working to make space for women entering the industry who have been formerly incarcerated.
I became involved in the Women’s March from fashion actually. One of my friends from the fashion industry was one of the women who started a Facebook page, and I reached out to her. At the beginning of Women’s March, it was a couple of white women, who had very little to no organizing experience, and they were at the helm of a movement that was becoming viral. At the time, I had local organizing experience, I didn’t have national organizing experience. Pretty early on, I identified that one of the gap areas within our organizing work was for youth. I knew that we couldn’t be having conversations about the future of our country without including the voices of people who would eventually be leading our country. So, I started the youth program at Women’s March with a couple of other people, and it’s grown tremendously since then. Last year, we organized a national school walkout that saw 1.6 million students walk out of school to demand sensible gun regulations. We have about 200 Youth Empower chapters, all over the country. We have a coalition of about 161 large organizations and youth groups.
It’s very important for us to hold each other lovingly accountable for the areas in which we could be doing better. Over the last couple of years with Women’s March, there’s definitely things that we wish we would have done differently. There are communities who have come to us and said, “You’re not doing enough. What you’re doing is not really representative of what we need.” And, it takes listening, it takes growing, and it takes openness. And it’s just like what we were talking about before, with white women, you have to be open, and learning, and growing, and changing—that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned through all of this.
My husband is Jewish, so for me, it’s been very personal to have people accuse us, within the Women’s March, of anti-semitism. We could have dealt with the accusations differently. We need to be fighting all forms of bigotry we need to be fighting transphobia, Islamophobia, and we need to really be directing the same energies towards fighting all of these -isms. How can I, as an individual, as somebody within Women’s March, continue to stand up against all of these -isms, that play out in this movement space?
So, it’s been important during this period of time to really listen to how the Women’s March has dealt with things, or has brought pain to people. And, embark on healing with the people that have been hurt, but really continuing to listen to directly impacted communities. How can we continue to build a movement that centers the voices of those closest to the problem? There’s a saying that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and that’s what we really believe in. It’s about centering the most marginalized among us.
Words told to: Laura Jones
Photographer: Anna Bauer