Black Men in Fashion: Enninful and Bembury on Adversity and Perseverance

Image Description: Salehe Bembury during a photoshoot.

CW: discussion of racism

“What’s unfortunate is I literally designed the shoes that are in the bag, and I’m fucking being searched for them.” –  Salehe Bembury

The fashion industry has seen a lot of changes over the past couple of decades. The faces we see on magazines, on runways, in campaigns, are different. Now, being Black doesn’t mean you are outcast from the industry— in fact, many fashion houses are scrambling over one another to book well-known Black models. However, this face of fashion isn’t necessarily representative of the machinations of the industry, and using Black people for advertising often overshadows the absolute dearth of Black people in the boardroom. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of Black men in positions of power in the fashion industry. It seems that however far they might rise, Black men cannot escape from profiling in their work. 

Are luxury, artistry, and authority still antonyms to male Blackness?

Edward Enninful is one of the most powerful men in fashion. Starting as a model, then stylist and shoot assistant, Enniful rose through the ranks to become Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, earning himself an OBE for his service to the arts. He is known for his visionary, modern approach. Unlike most other print magazines, British Vogue has maintained its circulation in a very anti-print market, avoiding the cuts made to its American counterpart. In every way, he is a pioneer in fashion. Ultimately, however, Enniful is a Black man in an industry with long-ingrained prejudices.

“Racism is a part of my life whether I like it or not… I’m a Black man — it isn’t the first time I’ve been profiled and won’t be the last.”

On the 15th July, Enniful shared a post to his Instagram story about an experience in trying to enter his workplace (Condé Nast Headquarters): “Today I was racially profiled by a security guard whilst entering my workplace. As I entered, I was instructed to use the loading bay.” The security guard working at the offices, hired through a third-party firm, didn’t know exactly who Enninful was. What he saw was a man who did not belong in high fashion. Condé Nast, of course, has faced much criticism this year in its revelation of the demographic breakdown of its workforce, with Black ex-employees coming forward in criticism of the way they were treated by the company.

As lauded as Enninful is, he cannot escape the realities of being a minority in high fashion. Enniful addressed this experience in an interview with the Financial Times: “Racism is a part of my life whether I like it or not… I’m a Black man — it isn’t the first time I’ve been profiled and won’t be the last.”

Enninful isn’t the only person to have shared such an experience recently. On the 2nd of October, Salehe Bembury published a very similar post. Salehe gained recognition after his work on Yeezy, working directly with Kanye on his minimalist footwear and the creative behind Seasons 3 and 4. Soon after this, he became the new Head Designer of Sneakers at Versace, and as of 2020 has become their VP of Men’s Footwear. Versace, of course, is one of the most luxurious, prominent fashion houses; Bembury, we can assume, was hired for his youth and fresh outlook, helping the brand in its transition into high fashion streetwear. And so, when police pulled up and searched him after leaving a Versace store he was understandably scared and confused, and chose to film the encounter. He then posted the video on Instagram. 

In the video, he is visibly afraid; He is repeatedly asked if he has weapons on him, and when asked to show ID is quickly told not to put his hands into his pockets. He captioned his first video upload “BEVERLY HILLS WHILE BLACK. I’M OK, MY SPIRIT IS NOT”, with the second upload simply captioned “Fear.” This is wholly understandable – 2020 has been a year of discourse on police brutality, and the reality that Black men stopped by police won’t necessarily be treated justly. The irony of the video, of course, is that inside the large Versace bag which seems to have prompted the need for a search are shoes from the store, for which he is Vice President of Footwear. Further, as he tells the police, he actually designed the shoes. Donatella Versace herself shared the video, breaking up her grid of fashion shots to show her support for Bembury, adding that she was “appalled… He was stopped on the street solely for the colour of his skin.”

“They reminded me there are not so many people who look like me in this world of high fashion… it’s bigger than me, and I could be paving a way.”

Thankfully, the incident has not stopped Bembury. The 23rd October has been the long-awaited release of his line with New Balance. Despite the adversities he might face, he is not slowing down. In a 2018 NY Times interview he mentioned advice he had received from friends, “They reminded me there are not so many people who look like me in this world of high fashion… it’s bigger than me, and I could be paving a way.”

So, what is the fashion industry doing to counter these issues? Much support seems to be coming from the marginalised creatives themselves. Virgil Abloh, for example, has created a $1 million scheme of scholarships and mentorships for Black fashion students. The crowd-raised scheme, called “POST-MODERN”, has already garnered much media support (how much of this fund is in response to criticism for a lack of diversity within Abloh’s Off-White label, or from designers such as Magnus Juliano that Abloh has not been supportive of the rise of other young Black men, we can’t be sure).

Enninful, in light of his own experiences, is clear in his opinion on the necessary moves for inclusivity, “Fashion has a part to play in this… We need black people ingrained within the infrastructure of the fashion industry, not just on the other side of the camera or appearing on an Instagram feed. People need a seat at the table.” This is something he is at the helm of, for his September 2020 issue of British Vogue (this is the most important, profitable edition of the calendar year), Enninful not only chose Black models Adwoa Aboah and Marcus Rashford, but hired a black photographer, Misan Harriman, making him the first-ever Black man to shoot a British Vogue cover. 

Undoubtedly, the more people like Enninful and Bembury continue to work and gain influence within the high fashion world, the less adversity Black men will face in the future. It is just disappointing that these trailblazers must face profiling and prejudice in order to do so.

Image credit: @salehebembury via Instagram