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Do celebrities of color have an obligation to wear minority designers on the red carpet?

While some celebrities, like Tracee Ellis Ross, are elevating designers of color, others face criticism for their apolitical choices.

Actress Tracee Ellis Ross hosted the 2018 American Music Awards.
Tracee Ellis Ross wore fashions from 10 black designers when she hosted the American Music Awards last week.
Getty Images for dcp

When Tracee Ellis Ross hosted the American Music Awards last week, she made several costume changes, as is customary for event show hosts. What stood out, though, is that Ross chose to wear clothing solely from black designers.

She dazzled in a tiered tulle gown designed by Virgil Abloh. She draped a Dapper Dan x Gucci cape over a Nicolas Jebran bodysuit, and she wore a gold metallic CD Greene dress, among many other looks. The actress identified every designer she wore on Twitter and announced that all 10 were black.

Ross, who is black and Jewish, is one of several celebrities of color choosing major events to support minority designers, who, by and large, remain marginalized in the fashion industry. In a political climate marked by racial tensions, highlighting designers of color can be a way to show pride in one’s heritage or to back minority-owned businesses.

It’s also very effective. Designers of any race receive recognition when an influencer wears their pieces, and when a major celebrity does so, it can take the designer from the sidelines of the fashion world to its center. Such was the case when Michelle Obama wore gowns from then-largely unknown designers like Tracy Reese and Jason Wu during her tenure as first lady. The two have both risen to prominence since. And Meghan Markle, who lived in Toronto while filming the TV show Suits, gave Canadian brands such as Mackage and Line a boost simply by stepping out in them during her courtship with Prince Harry.

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But this moment also has a flip side: Celebrities from racial minority groups are now practically expected to use the red carpet to market designers of color, leaving them open to criticism if they decide not to. Pressure to promote diversity that would otherwise fall on the fashion industry now falls largely on celebrities and their wardrobe choices.

Celebrities from a variety of backgrounds are showcasing designers of color

Tracee Ellis Ross likely knows more than the average celebrity about fashion’s diversity problem. Currently the star of ABC’s Black-ish, Ross worked as a fashion model and fashion editor in the 1990s. At that time, models and designers of color fought for recognition, and they continue to do so today, though some progress has been made. For one thing, the past decade has seen a growing Asian-American influence in fashion. From 1995 to 2010, the number of Asian-American members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry’s most influential group, jumped from 10 to 35. And in 2010, Asian-American men — Jason Wu, Richard Chai, and Alexander Wang — took home all three CFDA designer of the year awards, a first at the event, known as “the Oscars of fashion.”

But gains have been smaller for African Americans. Just 15 black designers are members of the CFDA, which is made up of more than 500 professionals. This year, however, a record four black designers were nominated for CFDA Awards, though none won.

Insecure star Issa Rae managed to draw attention to black designers during the event anyway. As host of the awards ceremony, which took place in June, Rae made a point to wear back designers; her starry Pyer-Moss jumpsuit especially stood out for the praise it received.

African-American celebrities aren’t the only ones using their influence to shine the spotlight on designers of color. In February, when Jennifer Lopez performed at the Direct TV Now Super Saturday Concert, she wore bodysuits designed by up-and-coming Latino designers Giannina Azar and Alejandro Fajardo. Azar is Dominican and Lebanese, and Fajardo is Venezuelan. The month before that, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told Racked about her effort to wear fellow Nigerian designers to public and private events. Adichie explained that Nigeria’s economy prompted the move.

“When Nigeria’s economy went into a recession as a result of the decline in oil prices and a retrograde government policy, there was a lot of rhetoric about ‘buying Nigerian-made products’ to help the economy,” Adichie said. “I already bought Nigerian fashion, but I thought it might be interesting to wear only Nigerian-made clothes. I hoped to bring a bit of attention to Nigerian fashion, especially to the smaller names, and I also wanted to do my bit in supporting Nigerian-made things.”

Her efforts helped give designers like Ladunni Lambo as well as Rukky Ladoja and Obida Obioha, co-founders of the fashion label Grey, a boost. Ladoja said Adichie’s support has let members of the African diaspora know that they can shop for Nigerian fashions.

While an economic recession led Adichie to wear Nigerian designers, a tragedy inspired actress Tiffany Haddish to wear a traditional Eritrean gown to the Oscars in March. She wore the piece in honor of her late father, who was from the country. The move earned her applause from fellow Eritreans proud to see their traditional dress at such a high-profile event.

But celebrities aren’t just paying tribute to designers of color on the red carpet; they’re also doing so during cover shoots. Last year, when GQ named Colin Kaepernick its citizen of the year, the former NFL star wore only black designers for the photo spread. Notably, he went beyond high fashion, choosing the Harlem store Harlem Haberdashery to make a leather blazer for the shoot.

“He wanted to wear designers of color and/or designers who were women,” his stylist, Rachel Johnson, explained to Refinery29. “He wanted to give an opportunity for designers to be featured in the magazine who wouldn’t normally be, especially for a cover shoot of this magnitude.”

But some public figures aren’t always inclined to lift up unrecognized designers or designers of color. In this climate, simply dressing how one wants, without consideration of the politics of that choice, can have consequences.

Constance Wu and Henry Golding faced criticism for not wearing Asian designers

After the Los Angeles premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in August, the Hollywood Reporter published an article criticizing cast members for not wearing red carpet fashions designed by Asian or Asian-American designers. Star Constance Wu wore a gown by British label Ralph & Russo. But the Hollywood Reporter pointed out:

“In this era of sociopolitical fashion messaging, one might have expected her to wear a gown by an Asian or Asian-American designer. Indeed, several such designers rallied to support the film and helped build buzz for its Aug. 15 release prior to the premiere.”

Crazy Rich Asians stars Henry Golding and Constance Wu at the film’s Los Angeles premiere.
Crazy Rich Asians stars Henry Golding and Constance Wu were criticized for wearing Tom Ford and Ralph & Russo, respectively, to the film’s Los Angeles premiere.
Getty Images

And actor Henry Golding, who plays Wu’s love interest in the film, opted for white American designer Tom Ford for the event. While some cast members and the director of the film did wear the work of Asian or Asian-American designers, the fact that the main stars did not was apparently a betrayal of sorts to the anonymous sources quoted in the article.

“Constance talks so much about representation, but there is no show for it,” one source complained.

Representation, though, can play out in different ways. Wu has discussed the issue in terms of Hollywood casting practices, but that doesn’t mean she must wear only Asian designers or work with only Asian makeup artists or hair stylists. Also, celebrities go to tons of events. They might wear designers who share their ethnic heritage for one event and one who doesn’t for the next. As first lady, for example, Michelle Obama rotated designers from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.

Celebrities of color already carry a huge weight on their shoulders, serving as role models, acting as racial ambassadors, and addressing the pressing social issues of the day. It’s unfair to demand that they choose red-carpet looks based on their ethnicity in addition to the other demands placed on them. This expectation also lets white celebrities off the hook for their sartorial choices. They, too, can use their influence to boost the work of designers of color.

But no one celebrity is responsible for fashion’s problem with inclusion. Factors such as immigration policies, hiring practices, and student recruitment play a role in how many people of color succeed in fashion. Although celebrities can certainly draw loads of attention to designers of color, they alone can’t transform the industry. The fashion world should be held accountable for its own diversity woes, not the public figures who’ve overcome extraordinary barriers to get to where they are today.

The fashion industry will have to look within to be more diverse, and it has already made some strides in this area.

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