Image by Kempe Scanlan.
A displaced Black professional re-locates his value and in doing so divines his next chapter.
Written by Kibwe Chase-Marshall
Last winter, I was navigating a precarious life juncture. On the precipice of turning 40 within two months of the new year beginning, I had become aware of a sobering, if not disturbingly comical, realization: I was halfway through my journey. The situation reminded me of my club-going days when 2 am signaled that I had better make the rest of the evening count because— though the night had not yet expired—it was no longer by any means “young”. As I saw it, I had twenty years ahead of me in which I was obligated to pursue the full extent of my creative potential, or I would risk leaving these capacities untapped forever.
I had spent the majority of my career as a Black creative professional amid the throes of the fashion industry’s notoriously inhospitable waters for people of color. From the late ‘90s until the aughts, I worked on 7th avenue as an apparel and accessories designer, before earning an undergraduate media studies degree at Brown University and pivoting to fashion editorial writing in the then-burgeoning style-news blogosphere.
From fittings at factories as a senior-level designer to the sitting among the ranks of editors at NYFW presentations as a contributing writer, I garnered a rare 360-degree perspective of the fashion industry and the mythically influential, taste-making community of which it is comprised. What became apparent to me in 2018 was a deeply disturbing truth: fashion as an industry has an insidious Black people problem, which it is begrudgingly attempting to incrementally parse and correct while simultaneously preserving the hierarchical privilege of those who have previously benefited from a Jim Crow era analogous, back-of-the-bus positioning of all things Black, especially Black professionals (say that three times fast). This means that those who broker power for a living in this industry have set about upon an “Emperor’s New Clothes” performance of commitment to inclusivity that bears little resemblance to The real work of first dismantling structural discrimination and in its place architecting a more equitable and meritocratic professional ecosystem. Like the lone child who dared to inform all in earshot that the Emperor—whom they had vociferously lauded for his exquisite sartorial taste—was, in fact, naked, I spent a year calling an industry on its racial bluff.
In the Hans Christian Andersen tale, hearing the child’s declaration of truth, all those observing the naked Emperor join in proclamation of his nudity; my 2018 experiences were far from similar. My name was expeditiously inked onto professional blacklists in both the design and editorial communities, proving that if it was tough to find a job in fashion as a Black professional, it was impossible to do so as one who dared to speak truthfully about that fact.
I had expected as much and had set forth checking my ego at the curb while rolling up my sleeves and picking up a tray, waiting tables at a local cafe in order to make ends meet between my increasingly dwindling freelance writing and design opportunities. It proved a tough road to hoe, especially because at the time I felt the weight of a superficial shame imposed upon me by those who gate-kept access to the design and editorial opportunities I knew I was capable of flourishing within. It was an insane moment: I was attempting to digitally organize an outcry for an industry intervention while simultaneously clocking endless hours on my feet serving entrees and frothing lattes, then rushing home to giddily pitch and write stories or detail garments for factory tech packs overnight. As the year wound down, I realized that—news flash—it was officially 2 am at the club, and I had better make plans to reclaim control of the rest of the evening or figuratively risk squandering the entire night itself, the night, in this instance, being the rest of my life.
I realized that too many of my Black peers in fashion had let the clock run out on their vitality as they waited patiently for an industry moment of reckoning that too many of their non-Black colleagues were resisting at all costs. Whether or not this moment was indeed on the horizon, we would be aged out of viability for inclusion as the industry perhaps vests in ageism almost as passionately as it does in covert racism and defacto sizeism. It all became so clear, and “presto”, just like that I turned an ideological corner.
I realized that I was in too many instances pursuing the affirmation of those shockingly more committed to my failure than their own success; they would accordingly forever dangle unattainable carrots of opportunity before me. Yes, goal posts would be moved, finish lines would be erased, and hopes would always be dashed by these individuals, institutions, and spaces because they felt that they benefited from this exploitative dynamic. Re-locating my value saved me here; I am a prolific designer with technical skills and richly informed tastes that are extremely difficult to come by in an industry where many increasingly parlay positions based upon their photo-documenting of recent vacations as opposed to their knowledge of how to correctly construct the tailored shoulder of investment-caliber outerwear. I am a thoughtful and accomplished writer who—using fashion, film, music, television, and the digital dialogue as lenses—connects cultural dots of value, that too often go ignored. If you don’t want me on your team, that’s often more about you, your biases, and your inadequacies that it is about me, my talent, and my capacity to make you money. I was done trying to impress people who didn’t impress me.
I vowed to locate those spaces, those rooms, those teams, those communities, and those institutions that affirmed my value, well aware that this would be an uphill climb; I am a Black, gay, gender presentation-non conforming man. I am well aware of the capacity for the politics of identity not to work in my favor; it has been present in my immigrant journey from the Caribbean island of Trinidad to the US, in my educational journey within predominantly white, competitive academia, and throughout my creative journeys in professional spaces within which I was most often the only Black (and also, most often the only gay, gender presentation-non conforming) individual.
Embracing this hybrid identity became central in the texture of my day-to-day life, as I put down my waiter’s tray and picked up my smart-phone, joining the community of gig-economy professionals in Southern California who call coffee shops our offices and Venmo our accounting department. As 2019 began I sought client-based work that allowed me to bring my entirety to the table, and be valued for doing so.
It hasn’t been easy—these opportunities aren’t easy to come by but I’ve been extremely fortunate to locate key projects upon which I’ve been pulled in and encouraged to bring my identity-inclusive A-game. What’s even more inspiring is that this redirection has granted me the clarity to map a “next chapter” during a time in which doing so is most crucial.
I won’t quite spill all the beans yet regarding what that chapter might be (something about counting eggs before they’ve hatched has never quite been my style) but I will say that I’m increasingly inspired by the manners via which dynamic storytellers influence vital change, and I want to be a part of that work.
I’ll always be a designer (in fact, I continue to consult in the activewear space currently) and I’ll always be game to breakdown the last season of ready-to-wear or couture shows in terms of top collections, emerging trends, and key colors-of-note (once a market editor, always a…), but my talents extend beyond fashion as a single medium. This isn’t just self-aggrandizing; my degree in modern culture and media is from Brown University where I received a Weston award of merit in video production (insert brown-skinned, manicure hand emoji here). In the whirlwind of last year’s advocacy efforts, I let myself forget for a minute that as a true creative, there is abundance in the endless canvases upon which I can paint, media via which I can speak, and mics which I will dynamically rock. The poignantly timely question then becomes, “Is you rockin’ wit me?”
I dedicate this declaration to Shonna Carter, Lola Ogunnaike, and Ashley Mosley-Dickens, three women who have lent endless support, guidance, and inspiration over the years (via lunch dates, window shopping sprees, and instant messages) and continue to do so daily (via texts, DMs, and—refreshingly—phone convos).
Kibwe Chase-Marshall was born in Trinidad, raised in Washington, DC, styled in New York City, and schooled in Providence, RI…all before falling head-over-heels in love with Los Angeles. Follow his journey on Instagram: @byanyseamsnecessary