Last week we hosted a panel discussion on zoom with five iconic individuals from the world of 90’s denim and streetwear. The conversation revolved around the subject of certain denim brands being deemed ‘lesser than’ within the larger industry and the subsequent racial prejudices that have existed in the market as a result.

Denim Dudes invited the most renowned names from that industry to speak: Donwan Harrell, (Akademics and PRPS) Alyasha Owerka-Moore (Phat Farm, Alphanumeric, Fiberops), April Walker (Walker Wear), Bobby Joseph (FUBU) and  (Cross Colours) the panel was moderated by Simone Berry.

The 1 hour 45 min conversation is a must-watch for our industry and the topics covered offer an insight into the early days of 90’s streetwear denim and the meteoric rise of those legacy brands. If you can make the time, please watch the video below. If not, I have shared some of the key talking points and quotes underneath.

Simone kicked off the panel with a hard-hitting question: “When its Black brands and Black culture its considered only for Black people. But when its white brands and Black culture, it’s for everyone”

The consensus across the panel was that the appropriation and aggregation of trends that the streetwear industry created, as well as the monolithic way in which the fashion industry pigeonhole brands reflect the prejudices in our world in general:

“I think there’s a lot of creative looting going on in the fashion industry. It becomes mainstream when someone that doesn’t look like us makes the things that we’re making. Then it’s for everyone.”  explained April Walker.

TJ Walker, co-founder of Cross Colours explained to us that this is a bi-product of America’s  years of segregation, having grown up in the Southern states and witnessed this divide first-hand:

“If someone who’s Black does something, there’s a certain perception associated with that,” he said. “There was always the theme of segregation where people were separate but equal. I think that’s just a mindset that we need to grow out of.”

And not just segregation but also discrimination. Donwan Harrel is a huge name in our denim industry, having built PRPS and now Art Over Chaos from scratch. But back when he founded the infamous premium denim brand, he intentionally hid his identity to get ahead.:

“I wanted to create something that was quite commercial; a luxury commercial line. And I felt like I had to create a company… and be the silent founder where the brand and the integrity of the product took precedence… and then bring my face to the table thereafter. The unfortunate thing is I had to do that. But the fortunate thing is it worked, I had to take this calculated backseat role just to get the brand to take off. It’s definitely eye-opening throughout my career; how you are pocketed and subjugated to these groups. But you learn to work within the confines of how they pocket you, you know?”

So why does this conscious or un-conscious pigeonholing take place? We have all heard the conversations around the word ‘Urban’ being used to describe almost every Black owned brand in the 90’s. A term that has been rejected by many who view it as a generalised and blanket statement. Why did the predominantly white fashion world do this? Whilst many theories were discussed, the most powerful came from Alyasha Owerka-Moore:

“Racism stems from resources and economics. So if you’re a salesperson and this new burgeoning industry is happening and you don’t want to take the time to understand what’s going on, you’re not looking for nuance. It doesn’t matter if it’s skateboarding or snowboarding or hip hop or denim or, you know, it could be could be a bunch of black skydivers! It doesn’t matter. They’re going to put it in one place and call it ‘Urban’ which is code-word for Black. It’s an assumptive box and it’s a lazy, racist box because it’s just an easy way to put us all in the same place to sell stuff back to us.”

All of the panellists have experienced labelling, micro-aggressions, unconscious bias or out and out racism throughout their careers in the denim and apparel industry. The stories are infinite no matter who you speak to and no matter what position they held, from management positions to design assistants. Our moderator, Simone Berry has held both VP and director positions at globally recognised brands yet she has multiple stories of being held back due to what she refers to as the ‘colour of my resume’

“I feel like I lived in a diversity bubble because I was raised in Jamaica, I went to Canada and my family is very diverse. When I moved to America, I was working in streetwear, so everyone around me was a person of color. I just had this ecosystem and I was never really exposed until the [2008] crash and it all went away. And I was like “wait, why are people looking at me? Why are they dismissing me? I ran a 300 million dollar business. I was shipping monthly before you even knew what that was. I had Asian and European distributors” and they’re looking at me like, “so can I see your tech pack?” And I am applying for a vice president position! “Why do you need to see a tech pack?!”

So how can we do better as an industry to put a stop to the unfair playing field that we have established and continue to reinforce on a daily basis? Interestingly, many of the panellists looked to themselves as well as the wider industry for change. Both TJ and April shared a similar outlook when it came to collective power and gaining back control.

“We have to control the narrative” urged TJ. “We have to be the ones that are actually creating our own validation in this situation. When we do that, then we control it… That’s where it has to go. And that’s what it has to be” April added: “I think that lateral cooperation creates vertical movement. And I think that there is more power together than on our own; it’s proven to be in our history. So we have to utilize that to empower each other in our stories”

With social media platforms, direct-to-consumer business models and online retail opportunities at our fingertips, there has never been a better time to take ownership not only of the narrative but also the industry itself. With trade shows and fashion shows on hold, showrooms holding far less power and the traditional magazine format crumbling, the old gatekeepers of fashion are losing their kudos. Gone are the days when stylists and editors, agents, distributors and buyers held the purse strings. Today’s consumer gets to cut through all the noise and interact directly with a brand in the palm of their hand. And generation Z are an inquisitive, no bullshit demographic who value obscure knowledge over corporate spin. These are the perfect conditions to take back control. Bobby Joseph recently jumped on this opportunity and launched his own namesake label.

“When I decided to do the Bobby Joseph brand, I stopped caring about the gatekeepers. I stopped caring about the insults. I stopped caring about being dismissed or labelled or pigeonholed. And I just focused on my brand. Now, we are our own gatekeepers in terms of: how hard do you want to work? How connected do you want to be? How enthusiastic and energetic do you want to be? So holding on to how it once was or who said what in the past… that’s just a waste of time moving forward. How connected to other brands and people and movements… those are the things that are important now”

All the designers on the panel have proved themselves through sheer persistence. Their passion to start brands, build empires and literally create and nurture a culture has consistently driven mainstream trend through the past three decades. It’s their talent and perseverance that has brought them to where they are today, although many would argue they have not been given half the credit they have deserved. So how can we as the consumer do more to support those brands and individuals and educate ourselves and others about the past? TJ tells us to put the work in:

“It might it might not be easy to find that black company that is doing a great job at what they do. But take the time and go through the internet, do whatever you need to do and find them. You know, do your homework! It’s not easy but who said it was? Because it hasn’t been easy for any of us”

After years of being overlooked, ignored and not given credit, maybe now the industry can collectively acknowledge the impact these individuals and so many others like them have had in shaping our denim world. And in doing so, we can make better and more informed decisions in the stores and in the workplace. As April so beautifully puts it:

“The good news is we’ve never been at this point in history when we have the attention of the world. So I say we put our foot on the gas pedal and let’s make some noise”