“We’ve all seen column inches on the amount of black and Asian models that designers have used in their catwalk shows, but rarely do we ever hear anything on the lack of ethnic diversity amongst actual fashion designers. It’s never talked about in mainstream media.” Elizabeth-Yemi Akingbade, founder of Yemzi.
The topic of diversity has been at the forefront of fashion for a while now, most recently with the game-changing launch of Rihanna’s inclusive cosmetics brand Fenty Beauty.
As a result, this month’s London Fashion Week was notably more diverse, with designers such as Teatum Jones showcasing models with visible disabilities, Christian Serano including trans, non-gender conforming, male and curvacious models in his runway show, and Ashish’s presentation being all-round more inclusive. However, diversity among the designers at LFW was notably absent.
Earlier this week, we sat down with Elizabeth-Yemi Akingbade — founder of fashion brand Yemzi — to discuss diversity in the fashion industry and how she feels being a young, black, British designer in 2017.
How did you get involved in Africa Fashion Week?
An industry contact of mine called Leigh, who I now consider a mentor and friend, was working on the event and asked if I’d be interested in participating. We were connected on Facebook last year through a mutual friend, and months later we crossed paths at Southbank for Africa Utopia 2016. It’s so true what they say about this industry, it really is small, everyone knows everyone, especially in African fashion.
Yemzi is a brand heavily influenced by African culture and art. Have you noticed any changes in the attitudes towards African-inspired fashions in the west?
Not majorly. There has always been an interest — an exotic gaze sort of — in African print and fashion. Although I do think that we are on the radar now more than ever. We have premium consumer platforms like Alara Lagos and Oxosi that exclusively sell African designs that sit alongside the McQueens and McCartneys. I also think Africans… are slowly embracing their African heritage and culture more. Yes, it will probably take while to shake the old mindset that anything imported from the west is automatically better, but we’re getting there! Though, with that being said, the international fashion industry in Africa is new-born, and with a very promising future. I hope to show Yemzi at Lagos Fashion and Design Week soon!
If you could pick one designer to collaborate with who would it be, and why?
Maki Oh. I appreciate her craft, which is aimed at middle/upper class women in their forties. If we were to collaborate, I can see us educating young women on the wealth of their culture through the choice of local and traditional fabric sourcing, and printing techniques.
Have you ever thought about showing during London Fashion Week?
I did consider it one point, and actually reached out to the British Fashion Council, but sadly to no avail.
Do you think brands and designers are becoming more socially aware on the topic of diversity in the fashion industry, amongst designers?
It’s not a hot topic at all! The focus is only really on the lack of diversity for models of colour — which is important, don’t get me wrong — but what about the lack of representation for designers of colour? We’ve all seen column inches on the amount of black and Asian models designers have used in their catwalk shows, but rarely do we ever hear anything on the lack of ethnic diversity amongst actual fashion designers. It’s never talked about in mainstream media.
Being a young black designer from London, what are some of the obstacles you’ve had to overcome?
Affordable studio space – the bane of my life! However, I wouldn’t put this down to the fact that I’m black, it’s just a real big issue for designers across the board. London is tough but I’ve explored other areas in UK and Europe, and so far I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
It seems no designers of African/Caribbean decent were on schedule to show at London Fashion Week. How do you feel about that?
Not at all surprised, but it’s such a huge shame because they’re out there! This will shift. It sucks that so much of our culture is absorbed globally by the underground and mainstream, yet we’re not really receiving any credit or recognition for it.
As a young up-and-coming designer, what is your opinion on the way in which fashion is being portrayed to the masses?
It’s very glam, sexy, super skinny, and western. It’s basically just a case of jump on what’s hot, get a H&M collaboration, watch the runway show online, and don’t forget to hit Like and comment…
If you could suggest one thing that the fashion industry could work on to improve diversity within the industry, what would it be, and why?
Did you see that image Naomi Campbell posted on her Instagram of the Vogue new and improved diversified Vogue team? We have to start seeing more of this change across more leading fashion titles. There’s no denying black people are hugely influential in the creative and entertainment industries, so we need to start being represented demographically. That goes for beyond the fashion and modelling industries. Edward Enninful at British Vogue gives me (and many others like me) some hope!
Originally Published 29th September 2017