Story by : Desmond Sam
As a black creator the biggest obstacle you can face are resources. We seek opportunities that can help us transform dreams into reality. The crumbling truth is that systematically POC mainly, black folk in America are not given the upper hand when it comes to thriving financially. Success is not something that happens overnight and the key is the incubation period, where growth and success materializes. It’s fighting that innate feeling of “you can’t” and truly believing in your core that you can. However, once you have that belief within yourself, what’s next? Well, that is where community pillars such as AFROPUNK step in.
AFROPUNK is a leader of establishing community based events for POC alternative subcultures that lacked a platform. Founder, James Spooner conceptualized AFROPUNK with what was simply a documentary showcasing the black underground. Once he realized the impact visibility can give to a community, he teamed up with music manager Matthew Morgan in 2005 to birth the now global and worldwide staple, AFROPUNK Festival. The prosperity of the AFROPUNK brand led to a legacy that has grown to become so much bigger than anyone involved could have dreamed of. Now almost 17 years later, an empire and vessel has formed to become the leading factor in amplifying black voices across all mediums from music, film and fashion.
AFROPUNK’s influence expands through Millennials to Gen Z-ers and has always inspired black youth over the years to celebrate their blackness in ways they didn’t know possible. They helped amplify the beauty in community, how radient melanin can beam in the sun and the strength we have when we are abundantly together. The newest venture of AFROPUNK, The Black Fashion Accelerator keeps true to the brand’s ethics and integrity to provide resources to specifically African American artists.
Their current collaboration is with The Build Black Team at Shopify, the number one E commerce platform trusted by millions of businesses and entrepreneurs around the globe. They founded The Black Fashion Accelerator Program, breaking yet another glass ceiling within AFROPUNK’s legacy. This program is the most progressive answer to an institutional question, how do we level the playing field for POC in marginalized communities? What do artists need to be equipped with to stand a chance in a sea of white corporate sharks? AFROPUNK’s persistence to not just develop space but to single handedly reclaim it has been unmatched.
The Black Fashion Accelerator Program is a six month program that grants 9 fashion founders access to all the resources needed to facilitate a profitable and successful business. This year’s participants were Bronté Laurent, Archie Clay III & Tajh Crutch, Corin Lindsay, Sophia Danner-Okotie, Melissa A. Mitchell, Paakow Essandoh, Sylvester Ndhlovu, Valerie Blaise, and Jelisa Smith. Additionally they received guidance from selected guest mentors including program’s lead mentor, Chis Bevans the creative director for DYNE. They celebrated the close of this intensive program on a sizzling summer’s eve this month with a fashion exhibition held at the Shopify’s creative space located in SoHo. The night featured presentations of all the inaugural class’s designs, a knockout performance by artist on the rise Laya Face, sounds by DJ Out Of Office and it wouldn’t be an AFROPUNK event if it wasn’t hosted by NYC legend and ambassador Gitoo. Overall the energy was the perfect mesh of amplification and celebration. Such a beautiful night of commencement for these designers and it was great to see the aftermath of what this outlet can offer.
What intrigued me the most about the BFA program was the support it was giving specifically to black female designers. While some fashion programs will only include maybe one or two females for inclusivity reasons, The Black Fashion Accelerator included a marvelous group of 5 female designers that each stood uniquely strong on their own. Linkedin stated this year, “During the pandemic, 17% of Black women said they were “in the process” of starting a new business compared to just 10% of white women and 15% of white men. While these stats are impressive and show the resilience and determination of Black women, they are 2X as likely to be turned down for business loans; further, only 3% of Black women founders are running mature businesses”. This is absolutely absurd, but sadly a blatant example that in this country we are not given the same privilege to prosper especially, a black woman in the US. I was thrilled to speak with these designers, to give them their flowers and learn more about what they have experienced as a female in the fashion industry.
We spoke prior to their show, and my interest peaked to find out exactly how the past few months have completely revolutionized their business model and mindset within the fashion industry!
Jelisa Smith. – House of Fleek
How has this journey impacted you thus far? What’s it been like having the AFROPUNK co-sign and being the first class of the BFA?
So far, the journey through participating in the BFA has not only provided me with resources to further scale my business, it also has given me a determination to continue to grow my business and encouragement to pursue more opportunities. As a result, I decided to launch a new, sustainable swimwear line and participate in Miami Swim Week this year to make a positive impact in the fashion industry. Being co-signed by AFROPUNK has given me more confidence in my creative abilities and makes me feel like I finally earned one of my stripes. I’m glad to be part of the first class of the BFA and hopefully, I can make an impact and set a precedent for the future program participants
How do you think your brand challenges fashion and what is the impact you would like to see your brand make within this world?
Like most fashion brands, I challenge fashion with my originality and exclusive designs, but I really enjoy challenging inclusivity and representation and also incorporating sustainability into my brands. I strive to always include different sizes and shapes in my brand and hope to promote body positivity, while also encouraging other black women to make an impact in fashion. As for sustainability, my goal is to make an impact in the fashion industry by becoming a leader in sustainability and fashion technology. The amount of waste created and poor practices from fashion is substantial and hopefully, other fashion brands and retailers will be influenced to take proper measures to reserve resources, keep the environment in mind and incorporate better labor practices.
Bronté Laurent – Bronté Laurent
What led you to the Black Fashion Accelerator (BFA)?
Honestly, my best friend sent it via Instagram. We reminisced about my very first design which I made for AFROPUNK in 2015. The vivid memory still rings through my head of sitting in my Brooklyn loft until 4 am creating my first design just for AFROPUNK. So when I saw their initiative to have a black accelerator program I knew it was for me.
I love how your brand blends luxurious silhouettes with a casual twist. As you play in the realm of luxury, what are some prominent changes you’ve seen?
Wow, you get me! This is exactly what I want people to see when they see my brand. I’ve seen the cry for sustainability by millennials and gen z in 2018 bring eco-friendly materials to the forefront. That’s important and a prominent change.
Valerie Blaise – VAVVOUNE
What are specific resources you believe lack within the fashion world?
Funding. While searching for grant and mentorship opportunities it was difficult to find programs aimed directly at fashion designers/companies. The Fashion industry is a huge multi-billionaire industry and I think there should be more financial support for young designers out there to get their businesses off the ground.
What do you feel is the role that leather goods and bags play in the full spectrum of fashion?
It’s essential. Everyone needs some type of bag to travel around in and carry their personal and critical belongings. Bags also play a huge role in Fashion. It’s the last accessory we put on to finish a look. It can elevate a casual look and even out a bold look or elevate it. A lot of the iconic Fashion companies we know today started off by making bags solely.
If you could alter one aspect of the fashion industry, what would it be?
If I could alter ONE aspect of the fashion industry, it would be the reliance on seasons year after year. I think people should release and wear clothes however they feel. This seems small, but to me it pushes us out of the set formula and time frame that designers always stick to. I think we should (and could) release collections whenever we feel it should come out.
I saw that you have recently done a collaboration with Coach! How was that experience for you? I see that you are a designer as well as an artist. Do you think there is a clear distinction between art and fashion, or do you fully see them being one in the same?
Working with Coach over the last year has been a treat. I was commissioned to customize purses and accessories for customers that purchased items in store. I worked one on one with each customer to determine the best design for them. As both an artist and designer, I see the world around me much differently. I have a broadened view of what art is, what makes a design “ POP” and how to ultimately handily the business of it all. I do see art and fashion moving interchangeably. I think it is just a matter of what focus is. One day you can be creating on canvas and the next day – you can be a walking canvas. Either way, expressing yourself artistically can (and will) come through everything you touch when you are a creative.
Sophia Danner-Okotie – Okotie
What are some observations that you’ve made as a Black woman in the fashion industry?
There’s a lack of knowledge for us to successfully grow our fashion businesses. Especially when it comes to funding. We feel like we have to bootstrap our entire businesses and it’s hard to scale doing that.
What has been the importance of sustainability for you and your brand? How do you approach being sustainable?
Sustainability is at the core of what we do. We approach it in three tiers. By providing sustainable employment for our team of artisans that are historically underpaid in Nigeria. We reduce waste in our studio by turning them into new accessories. And finally on the consumer end, we provide them with garments that are quality and can be worn in multiple ways. This elongates the life cycle of the garment.