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“When I go into a design studio, I want to see everyone at the table and involved: someone who looks like me, my dad, my husband. I want the designers working with me to know their experiences are valuable, their skills real, their voices heard and respected. That’s also the future I want for my daughter,” Williams wrote in a post marking the launch of the debut SWDC collection in August.
However, this vision is still far from the reality today.
“The only Black person in the room”
Vince Lebon, an Australian sneaker designer and founder of footwear brand Rollie, has experienced the lack of diversity in fashion first-hand.
In 2017, he won a global competition to work at Adidas’ innovation hub, the Brooklyn Farm, but when he walked into the design studio, he said he was the only Black person in the room.
“I did question at the end, why are there not more people of colour?” Lebon told Inside Retail. “I don’t think it held me back, but at the same time, why are they not getting the opportunities?”
That question is even more baffling given the pivotal role Black culture has played in the birth of the multi-billion-dollar sneaker and streetwear industries.
“When you go back to the days of Run DMC, and basketball in particular, the Black community really championed sneakers in day-to-day wear. But when you think about who was designing them, [it was] white, middle-aged men,” Lebon said.
The first 20 Air Jordans were designed by two white men, Peter Moore and Tinker Hatfield, until 2006, when D’Wayne Edwards created model 21. Edwards was also behind model 22, and he later started Pensole Footwear Design Academy, a design school in the US with a focus on training designers from underrepresented communities.
“Sneaker culture is really defined by Black culture, but we haven’t had the opportunity to design in that space,” Lebon said. “It’s certainly changing, but a lot of the big decisions haven’t been made by Black people. That’s the way it’s been for a long time.”
Lebon believes it is in brands’ best interest to make their design studios more diverse: “Who better to design for that space [sneakers and streetwear] than people who are actually born in the culture and are part of the culture?”
At the same time, he thinks the focus shouldn’t just be on race: “It’s about diverse backgrounds and cultures, even multi-disciplinary channels — they bring fresh perspectives,” he said.
Williams expressed a similar point of view in her post about the SWDC collection.
“I’ve always surrounded myself with people from different backgrounds, cultures and walks of life. I know the value of diversity in making us better. When you have diversity, you discover new perspectives, which leads to new ideas and ultimately toward better results,” she wrote.
While many businesses have committed to hiring more people of colour following consumer pressure in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lebon noted there is still very little diversity in the senior leadership ranks of major brands.
“If you really want to make a big change and have a big impact, you need to have representation in decision-making,” he said.
Need to see it to believe it
Fixing the fashion’s diversity problem not only requires brand leaders’ mindsets to change, but also designers’.
“A lot of [the lack of diversity] is because people don’t think it’s possible,” Lebon said.
“Prior to me launching my own brand, I wanted to be an NBA player because I was very good at basketball and that’s what the world told me I could do.”
He believes that training and apprenticeship programs like Pensole and SWDC are critical to changing the makeup of design teams and showing people of colour that it’s possible to have a career in fashion.
Pensole has partnered with several leading footwear brands, including Nike, Adidas, Foot Locker, New Balance and Under Armour, on programs to hire more designers from underrepresented communities.
“The more people [of colour] that can land a job, the better chance the next minority kid has of getting in,” Lebon said.
In the future, he just hopes it won’t take flying halfway around the world and winning a global design competition, like he did, to be a designer for a major sneaker brand.