Does race still matter?

Posted by Kathleen Fasanella on Jun 19, 2009 at 3:36 pm / Rants / Trackback

After talking to a new designer, I’m wondering if I need a reality check.

This designer -a 40 year old black professional woman with an advanced degree- is new with two collections under her belt. Like many designers today, it’s been hard to get off the ground. She’s wondering if it’s hurting sales that she used a black model for her clothes because a buyer said they weren’t interested in an urban streetwear line. I saw the line, it’s not urban. The styling is definitely architectural, similar to Junya Watnabe.

Without linking to her because I don’t want to put her on the spot, I would say her model is attractive and nicely proportioned. She doesn’t have any obvious tattoos or piercings (that is a turn off for a lot of people, sorry if that annoys you). She’s not a professional in that she’s skeletal but she is taller and thinner than the average woman with some upper arm definition. Isn’t that supposed to be in style now? Michelle Obama has some muscles. I don’t think this model looks “urban”, whatever that means.

I told this designer her problems were more likely related to a challenging economy and to not take the comments of one stray racist to heart. But now I’m wondering if I’m an idiot because I can’t believe that race could still matter to people in this day and age. It annoys me that someone could call this an urban line. I am well aware there is no parity of national origin in design or modeling but do people really care about the race of someone’s model to the extent they won’t buy?

77 Responses to “Does race still matter?”

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Alison Cummins
June 19th, 2009
3:53 PM

Yes.

If she uses a Black model, then she needs to mix it up and also show a white and possibly an Asian model.

If she uses only a Black model, that’s a “statement” telling the buyer that the target consumer is Black women. The implied corollary is that non-Black women are not interested.

I’m sorry. It’s crummy.

sarah
June 19th, 2009
8:58 PM

I don’t know about fashion, but I live in a borough of NYC and my neighborhood is called “urban” by whites mainly because it is racially mixed. Even here “urban” really means “non-white”. So I would say, possibly. It’s hard to guess why one particular person would say that though.

Noora
June 20th, 2009
2:05 AM

Agreeing with Alison Cummins, absolutely. ‘Tis the truth, most unfortunately. Whatever you project when marketing, if different from the ‘status quo,’ is a ‘statement.’
Professionally, the buyer could be speaking through the eyes of their customers, who make those sorts of assumptions at a glance.
The designer is ahead of her time, really, to only use a Black model. Alternately, the situation reminds me of the designer mentioned in a previous post who refused to make a line that ‘hung’ together, preferring her personal preferences and artistic talent over the eye of her customers. People who are new at being self employed often think they will attain more freedom than if they were working for someone else… well, yes, free to have as many bosses in the form of clients. But at least one is still doing what one likes.
Regarding the effectiveness of her approach, extra research in target marketing may benefit her so that she can find better ways of reaching her end client: those whom I presume are more open-minded and can appreciate her marketing theme. Though a penniless artist myself, I’d love to see the approach she took.

Arnikka
June 20th, 2009
2:23 AM

Wow—I’m really hoping that more people will chime in on this subject, in planning for photos of my line, I’ve begun to wonder about this.

Cidell
June 20th, 2009
5:35 AM

I’m not a designer, but yes, it still matters. I would recommend your designer in question look at lines with crossover appeal like Tracey Reese and see who and what she has in her portfolio. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

kristin
June 20th, 2009
7:01 AM

HI Kathleen:

Tis I, the designer in question. (I feel like there should be some big smoke and mirrors for my big entrance);-) . I actually had another model (white) lined up as well but she had to drop out at the last minute for another job. Hence, I was left with one model who happened to be black. I would think in the age of the Obamas, Italian Vogue printing a whole issue dedicated to Black models (not that long ago), even America’s Top Model with Tyra Banks , retailers would get over it and look beyond at the clothes, styling, the brand etc.. I have more non-black customers buying my clothes at vending events then black customers who all look at the same photos. Hence, what is up with the boutiques/retailers? It may be the economy and smaller boutiques trying to stay afloat btu I am only talking about doing Trunk Shows.

Maybe Alice is right but I do have other pictures/rotating images of non-black models wearing my clothes. I invite anyone’s opinion on this. And I really do not understand why using only a black model is “ahead of my time”? I really want to know why Black is so intimidating? If using a Black model “devalues” my clothes/brand, versus using a white model, then we are far from being in a post-racial America just because we have a Black president.

Noora
June 20th, 2009
7:43 AM

Ahead of your time, I think, because not too many small businesses are marketing in that manner and you (correctly) see nothing wrong with it. In a post-racial world products/services would not have to me marketed to segments because people would just see the product for its inherent worth. That’s how it should be… but marketers spend a lot of time trying to get around the prejudices of others.
Then throw into the mix our consumer culture where people shop for items they “identify” with personally on some level… this doesn’t necessarily mean that people dislike, just that they don’t identify. So if you are marketing with only a Black model, you may have to search for a clientele with wider life-experiences.
It may be annoying now, but who knows, maybe it will open other opportunities you didn’t see before. All the best…

Vesta
June 20th, 2009
7:48 AM

OK, I don’t think this is all in the retailer’s mind. But first let me say, yes, race still matters. I went through the same thing with our photos. I had a lot of Latina and Asian women in my photos, and my marketing consultant pulled me out into a more diverse mix, meaning more whites, lol. With my product (baby carriers), we were fighting against the impression that this is an “ethnic” activity. It needed to appear more mainstream. And if the majority of women couldn’t see themselves in at least some of the pictures, then they would think “this isn’t for me”, even if subconsciously. Funny thing is, I’m Caucasian. But I have a brown soul, as my (pale Mexican) husband says. Oh, and it’s not just race. It’s also gender. Some of our colorways were only shown on male models. We had to re-shoot the same colorways on women, for the same basic reason.

Anyway, about this particular brand. When I read the name of the brand, strangefruit, my first thought is of Billie Holiday. I don’t know how many of you know the song. But it’s, well, quite a statement (*warning, don’t click on this link if you’re visually sensitive – it’s not an easy thing to see*):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_Fruit
It’s a great song, btw. I’m a huge fan. Perhaps that’s why it’s the first thing I thought, but I can’t be the only person who knows this song, right? Kristin, why did you choose this name?

Second, the logo is edgy, for lack of a better word. It certainly says urban to me.

Third, the photo shoot was done in a distinctly urban setting. Warehouse/industrial.

Fourth, some of the materials and accessories are urban/edgy (I know I’m over using that word, but my daughter is bugging me to leave, so I can’t think of something better right now), like the vinyl and baseball-style cap.

I would never call this “streetwear”. But I would absolutely call it urban, based on what I see on the web site.

Look, I know it’s easy to call someone racist or backwards when they pull back from what you’re offering. I’m the first to call a bigot a bigot. But I also think that sometimes we don’t know how ethnic we ourselves are, precisely because we ARE so entrenched in our own ethnicity. That’s certainly a huge problem with whites in this mostly white country/culture. We’re so white, we don’t even know when we’re *being* white.
http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/
It happens in corporate cultures all the time. I recently heard about a company setting up a “brown bag” lecture series to discuss diversity issues. My brown friend was absolutely floored. But HR had no idea why.

What I’m trying to say, Kristin, and I hope it doesn’t come off wrong, is that I think that you don’t even realize how ethnic your brand construction is. Even with a Caucasian, or Asian, or whatever model/s thrown in there, it would still come off as urban. And the name . . . ?

Marlene S
June 20th, 2009
8:58 AM

These comments really surprised me! The first thing I see is the stye, the fabric, the fit. The model may be noticed in passing. The obvious things… What annoys me most, is the new stance the models are frequently using, especially in the wedding dress shots. Top designers have been using Black models for ages, so why is this an issue. Sometimes, I think, we over analyse. Kathleen is right. The economy is such, that everyone is tightening their belts. Just because one ‘buyer’ made a comment, please. If you’ve got the stuff, it will sell. The most difficult part of selling a line, is letting the comments of some buyers roll off your back. You are not going to please everyone, so find those that you can. Anyone remember Bevery Johnson, Iman…? Good luck Kristin

Carol Kimball
June 20th, 2009
9:03 AM

We’ve got to deal with reality, however unpleasant it may be, because if we can’t make a go of our businesses, we’re not going to be a force in the marketplace to change anything.

When times become economically tough, the tendency is to swing to the conservative. “We know that lines promoted with Wonder-bread, tall, skinny models will sell, so give us that.”

The trick is to find a non-standard balance that reassures the buyers, while helping pull opinions forward.

I am not advocating getting successful by knuckling under, with the wishful promise of changing once things are going well. Rather, edging in.

al sutherland
June 20th, 2009
4:24 PM

Unfortunately” race’ will always be an issue.But i think its more about “hate” and” ignorance”!!
These days retailers/consumers are seeing to much “RED”
“be true to your brand it will be true to you”

kristin
June 20th, 2009
10:53 PM

This is a really great discussion and I really appreciate the input and disparate view points. It’s all good as it helps me to further define my brand from a marketing standpoint.

@Vesta, strangefruit is not solely attributed to Billie Holiday song. It was actual a poem written by Lewis Allen which preceeded that infamous song. The poem became an anthem for the anti-lynching movement which Billie Holiday and others sang. I contemporized the context of the song and gave it a new meaning. I define “strangefruit” as someone who dares to be different, dares to be a leader, dares to be “strange” which I interpreted into fashion. Fashion to me is how one defines themself. . I started as a T-shirt designer which was more street wear/ urban but the irony is that most of my customers were non-black,college girls who wanted to be different. Yes I had also had black customers but equally non-black (white, latino, asian, armenian etc. . .). With that base, I was still able to evolve the designs to appeal to a wider audience. even today at an arts festival, I sold designs to all non-black customers of very differet age groups even. They all knew the meaning of the brand name but in the end, they see styles they like and that looked good on them. There is a good point that the brand name is rooted in a racial turmoil but at the same time it’s not a didactic brand based on that interpretation alone.

There is a strong historical context but it’s a history that affects us all. Hence, why should it matter so much the root of the name, the color of the model, especially if the majority of my customers are non-black?

Vesta
June 21st, 2009
6:18 AM

I guess what I’m saying is that there are enough clues in the brand presentation, including the name, that the roots of the brand are black, streetwear, and urban, regardless of which consumers are ultimately buying it. So it should not come as a surprise to you when store buyers pick up on that. And it certainly shouldn’t imply to anyone that those buyers are racist. Does that make sense?

Of course lynching is a shared historical context of most of us. But that doesn’t make it a race neutral statement, does it? Really? I mean, if I named my brand sisepuede, I wouldn’t have any right to get upset if store buyers read that and prepared themselves to see apparel from a Latino perspective. It’s just setting buyers up for confusion if you pitch them one thing, then expect them to ignore the cues and see a different thing. Every brand construction is intended to set a context and tell a story. It’s not fair to then turn around and ask them to ignore the brand construction and see the clothes in a vacuum.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s a bad thing that the brand has its roots in those things. It is what it is, and you are who you are. What value is there in being an independent designer, if you aren’t able to express your unique perspective through your craft? But don’t be surprised when buyers perceive the nuances and identify them as something that won’t sell to their customer base. There should be plenty of venues for your products, just exactly as they are.

nowaks nähkästchen
June 21st, 2009
9:25 AM

I have nothing to do with fashion business, so my view is that of a consumer… and a psychologist.
It’s not so much a question of race, it’s a question of stereotypes.
We all use stereotypes in social contact and it’s a good and important thing, because in like 99 percent of all cases that gives us the information we need, without having to think about it. When you buy something in a shop you do not have to know the personality of the woman at the cash desk, you just have to know her function and that you have to give her money and can expect to get your purchase. This already is using a stereotype, the stereotype about how someone at the cashdesk will behave and the stereotype about how a customer will behave.

There are people who do not have the ability to understand those social stereotypes and to use them, those people are simply not able to life on their own. Just imagine you would have to ask yourself about every, really every person that crosses your way, who this person was, what she might want you to do, whether you might want her to do something, whether you should react on something this person does or not or on what part of the behaviour of this other person you should react, what kind of reaction would be required of yourself,… you would never even arrive at the supermarket. Our human brain is just not able to make so many decisions every second of our life, at least not quick enough.

So using stereotypes is good for us and we use it all the time. And as we know (not intentional, but the deeper part of our brain knows it) that stereotypes are good for our functionning as human beeings, good for our sanity, we use them all the time. Because they help us to filter all the information our brain gets every second, to make quick and unconcious decisions about what 5 % we should look at and about which 95% of that useless information we can ignore.

The consequence is, that marketing has a lot to do with stereotypes, because as a customer I don’t check any shop in detail, but I will only stop at shop windows that already have passed that filter. That’s what marketing is about. Using stereotypes, to catch the attention of those customers who are likely to buy what I have to offer.
(I live in a German city where a large part of the population is turkish or has turkish roots. If a hairdresser has only pics of turkish-looking models in the window that will be the biggest part of his or her clients. Others might even fear, that the hairdresser might not speak German. On the other side will a turkish woman most likely not go and see a hairdresser who only shows blond models. The customer might think, that the hairdresser isn’t able to dye black hair well or that he/she will not be able to do her favorite hair style. No different race, both would be caucasian, but have for example different taste in some respect.)

So if you want to do something that breaks stereotypes… that is a nice idea once you are established and your clients will recognize your brand and therefore also see that you played with those stereotypes and will enjoy that.
Or you find a different marketing strategy, addressing a maybe smaller market than what I buyer would be interested in.

And here I agree with what others already said: The buyer probably will be able to see behind the model and recognize the pattern and the desing… but he will look at the pics with the eyes of his customers. Who well never come close enough to look, if the first pictures do not pass the filter.

Yvonne
June 21st, 2009
12:09 PM

Unfortunately, yes race does still matter. As a black female designer living in an implicitly biased society, while I don’t focus on race, there is always the question in the back of mind if certain challenges are related to my race. However I don’t necessarily see the buyer’s comments as racist… aside from the models and the name (which I don’t think most would have picked up on the historical context), I see the line as edgy and “Alternative” which could definitely be equated to “Urban”. I agree with Vesta and nowaks; it’s more about your brand construction and whether or not your branded message is speaking directly to your intended market.

kristin
June 21st, 2009
1:00 PM

Thanks to you all for your insightful feedback! It’s a great help in brand strategy as I move forward. It’s in the early stages so there is always room for growth. And thanks again Kathleen for posting this “rant”. ;-)

Eric H
June 21st, 2009
1:01 PM

I’m not a designer, so caveat emptor.

Vesta, it’s funny that your “brown friend” would be floored by a “brown bag” lecture. We have them all the time and our demographic is probably about 45/45 brown/white with most of the balance being black. Apparently, the context has been loss. I guess these days all bags are white and say “Always Low Prices.” If you bring something to eat out of (wow, people really do that?), it’s probably not a paper sack, it’s probably a branded line of plastic containers (something Target sells under the Martha Stewart brand). Still, someone who might be offended by this sounds like someone who is spring-loaded to be offended — is he/she equally offended by *all* uses of the word “brown” except when he/she uses it?

When I hear “urban”, the first few things I think of are, in no particular order, FUBU, Sir Mix-a-lot, baggy clothes, baseball caps turned sideways, and women dressed … um, … like “professionals” (and I mean Li’l Kim professional). The strangefruit collection is reminiscent of *none* of those. So I immediately conclude that, yes, race still matters. But I’d blame marketers rather than racists for this particular problem.

The “urban” tag has been used by marketers — many if not most of whom are white executives who knowingly market to target demographics (this charge has been leveled to explain the rise of gangsta rap) — hawking goods to the “black” market. But rather than say, “black”, they use “urban,” and the two words have become interchangeable in some contexts. Why should such a euphemism have come into being? I’d throw out these possibilities:

1) There is some crossover into the latino and asian immigrant markets.

2) It may be a PC reaction to those who protest the balkanization of America, the loss of the “melting pot” ethos. Today, that is a conservative position, but it is a continuation of the Progressive (Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Jackson Turner) protest against hyphenated Americans (Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, etc.) that hit its zenith during WWI when “German-American” became suddenly unpopular.

3) It is a recognition of a truly emerging market. After all, rural blacks probably have the same fashion sense and disposable income as their white counterparts, i.e. cheap denim’n’t-shirts and none, respectively, so “urban” makes more sense than “black”, much as “metrosexual” refers to urban whites who have similar tastes and spending patterns.

I would defer to Kathleen’s sense of anthropometry regarding whether there really is a difference in body shape, but the image projected by the “urban” tag is that black women are larger, especially in the posterior. So the use of the black model may portray that to “skinny white women”, even though this particular model seems to be more “white” proportioned (awesome legs, though). It’s a matter of signaling, and if there really are anthropometric differences, this kind of signaling may be beneficial.

Except when that wasn’t your intent!

My guess on this, though, is that those differences in shape are better explained by income than by race. Michelle Obama is an upper middle class black woman and is shaped accordingly. Lines that are aimed at her would succeed as well with white women.

Kristin, I guess I’m saying that you are the victim of euphemistic marketing and erroneous demographics/anthropometry, not racism.

Alison Cummins
June 21st, 2009
1:25 PM

Eric, if you don’t know that the archetypical african-descended bottom is nicer than the archetypical european-descended bottom… then you haven’t been looking.

Alison Cummins
June 21st, 2009
1:40 PM

Also: shape and class. I have not closely inspected Michelle Obama’s bottom, but in general if you’ve never accumulated fat then fat doesn’t have a huge impact on your shape.

Once you’ve accumulated fat in your hips and thighs it tends to stay there, so if you are a person who accumulates fat there then once you gain weight you have probably had a permanent effect on your overall proportions even after you lose fat everywhere else.

When you accumulate belly fat, you lose belly fat when you lose weight.

If Michelle Obama has always kept fit and maintained her weight, then white women who have always kept fit and maintained their weight will not look that different from her. Yes, this is a class thing. But if she and Hillary Clinton were each to gain thirty pounds, they would probably put some of those pounds on in different places and their shapes would diverge more than they do now.

Even when fit, toned and of proportionate weight, the archetypical african-descended shape and the archetypical european-descended one are different; it’s just that the differences are less prominent.

Vesta
June 21st, 2009
2:05 PM

Eric, my brown friend is not usually very tightly wound, except with this one company. Being from a science background, I, too, am used to “brown bag” seminars. But this series was a) not the first (apparently) misguided attempt to embrace/foster diversity (which still hasn’t worked, after years of trying), and b) the first/only such “brown bag” series, which makes the terminology pop out. The corporate types, unlike the science types, don’t brown bag-it so much, or even branded-plastic container-it so much. They’re more likely to Starbux-it. Anyway, I think he had just had it up to his eyeballs with this particular company being so “white” (in this case upper-middle class American white) that they didn’t even understand how “white” they were, and couldn’t figure out why they weren’t attracting more diversity to their workforce. So each new, clueless, attempt was icing on the cake. They later started referring to this sought-after demographic as “people of color”, which made him even crazier. A diversity of perspectives and experiences is about so much more than color, as any of us know without thinking too hard.

Anyway, at this point I’m dragging the conversation away from Kristin, which I don’t want to do. But it’s been very interesting all around. Thanks, Kathleen.

Alison Cummins
June 21st, 2009
2:14 PM

Oh, and Vesta: I’m Canadian and work in a corporate environment that is probably less inclusive that it would like to think it is. I am totally stymied by the “brown bag” problem. I must admit that I don’t get it either. To me, the “brown bag” is a little Kraft paper lunch bag. A “brown bag” lecture series is one held at lunchtime where you bring your own lunch: you can’t go out to eat because you’re attending the lecture series on office premises, but the company isn’t buying your lunch. You bring your own.

I don’t happen to use disposable lunch bags myself, but I believe they are still sold for that purpose and the shorthand of “brown bag” for “home-made lunch brought to eat at the office” is meaningful to me.

Is the shorthand not meaningful to younger folks? Is there a derogatory association with home-made lunches of which I am not aware, that would carry over to the “brown”? Is this a well-known issue, such that the choice to use “brown-bag” instead of the well-known more PC alternative “____” is a statement in itself, such as choosing to use the word “coloured” in the 1970s?

Clearly the problem is completely obvious to folks in your geographic location and social group, but it is just as opaque to those of us outside it. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’d just like to feel a little less stupid.

Alison Cummins
June 21st, 2009
2:17 PM

Oops, sorry Vesta. I posted before I read your response to Eric.

(By the way, in my corporate environment, more people bring their own lunch than do not. Folks in sales who are used to spending money to impress clients may be an exception.)

kristin
June 21st, 2009
4:38 PM

LOL Eric. That brings back memories.

But I wanted to know if any of you understand what the “brown bag” reference meant in the Black community. Brown paper bag was a mechanism for racial divide and discrimination amongst Blacks. If your skin color was darker than a brown paper bag, you were excluded from Upper class Black society and social circles, such as “Jack and Jill”, Black sororities and fraternities, even some Churches. It dates back to slavery when light-skinned slaves were given preferential treatment over darker skinned slaves. The brown paper bag became a litmus test for acceptance, beauty, status,etc. . Zora Neale Hurston was the first to unveil this black-on-black discrimination in her writings.

So the “brown” term in the bag lectures, may trigger this painful legacy of “colorism” even though it’s a completely different context and association to the Brown bag lunch lectures. Which is what I’m trying to do with “strangefruit”. .

It’s amazing how the discussion of race can branch into many relevant directions.

http://www.sptimes.com/2003/08/31/Columns/The_paper_bag_test.shtml
http://www.topix.com/afam/2009/03/does-sean-combs-use-the-brown-paper-bag-test

Anir
June 21st, 2009
4:44 PM

I agree with Vesta–I also looked over the images on Kristin’s site including some of the early stuff where there is a white model. The models you choose aren’t really arty in their presentation–although I like some of the poses. And IMHO the photos could be more arty. Present the images of the clothes in a more arty way and I think you’ll get less ‘urban’. What I see now is kind of a self consciousness in the photos–the earlier photos look very amateur–of the models. They all have a kind of gritty feel to them–rather than sleek–because the model doesn’t seem to know how to showing off the clothing–the photos seems to be more about her. There are a couple of exceptions–I think the photo of the olive green skirt, brown top and net head wrap works–although I hate the model’s posture.

Also I don’t think the type face used for company name–if that’s the logo okey–supports the look/feel of the clothing designs. And while I also thought of the Billy Holiday song I think the name is fine–just needs to be presented differently/ visually different.

So I don’t know if the person who said the collection is ‘urban’ or not. But I do think the collection needs to be presented differently to override/negate that reaction. I really don’t think the model’s skin color is the problem, since I would say the same about early photos with the white model.

Anir
June 21st, 2009
4:46 PM

What I meant to say is that I don’t know if the person who said the collection is urban is racist or not.

Eric H
June 21st, 2009
5:53 PM

Vesta, that makes sense. Reminds me of this Dave Chappelle bit. Incidentally, I don’t seem to find much of interest at Stuff White People Like. I’m not even fond of mayonnaise.

Alison, I’m married. I have no comment on bottoms. Legs okay, but bottoms no. And b00bs are right out. However, I will say that I had a few actual Africans in class at university, and they were mostly remarkable for being short and thin, so I’m afraid the “african bottom” may be a product of something other than strictly African descent. Africa, after all, is a large continent with a wide variety of people in it.

Incidentally, perhaps we are overlooking a possibility here. With Michelle in the White House, maybe there’s a new marketing strategy begging to be introduced? For one thing, Michelle apparently has terrible taste and could use some help. For another, Kristin **could** appeal to the urbanite if she wanted to (I mean, to people who buy “urban”), but really she’s shooting at someone with much better taste (imho) and much more disposable income. I like the new stuff much more than the older stuff. Call it “Urban Breakout”? “Urban/Chic Crossover”? “Supra-urban” (as opposed to sub-urban, cuz Betty Homemaker sure isn’t the target demo)? “Uptown”? “Grown-up Urban”? “Hip Haupteur”? Yes, that’s really corny, but playfulness has a role in brainstorming.

Sorry, now I’ve got the theme from The Jeffersons playing in my head and I have to quit.

Eric H
June 21st, 2009
6:05 PM

Just saw Kristin’s comment about paper bags.

I used to work with a man who was ashamed to bring burritos to school. He used to trade them for bologna sandwiches. Now, they’ve anglicized them to “wraps” and they’re considered to be very middle class (much more so than bologna). But again, some of these “racial” stereotypes are more about class and income than about race. Wasn’t that a theme of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Noora
June 21st, 2009
6:53 PM

Yep, Eric has me over here in stitches…
My Mom is significantly darker than a brown paper bag and had an awful time of it growing up with her peers. She drilled into my siblings and I all about the brown paper bag saying…. and was determined to marry a light-skinned, middle-class man who could take her and any children she had (my older sister) out of the stigmatization. She was born in the ’30s and pledged AKA. In a word, my Mom was quite determined to break the color barrier: the color barrier inside the black community.
I’ve been pondering this for quite a while today over the name choice: Strange Fruit. I don’t know the Billie Holiday song (to embarrass my Mom, lol) but I wonder if she faced criticism as an artist singing of something so graphic and violent as Strange Fruit. I suspect not, as her reputation was such by that time (I presume) that people would have been more accepting of the concept.
I say all this to say, Kristin, not to worry at all about those who have stigmatized what you have to offer. From what you have said here, the people who do buy from you and relate to your product may not be those you expected. But they seem to be people who are open-minded which usually comes from having traveled, and maybe have lived amongst other people. Such people, of whatever cultural background, tend to appreciate variety as well as the breaking-barrier message that you seem to have incorporated into your product. To say it in a more material way, those who travel also have money. So it looks like you’ve tapped a decent market.
I’m going to assume you are carrying the same legacy of Strange Fruit into a different artist venue, using a political and social context… If such is the case, and you are speaking against oppression, I think the blend is very innovative and classy.

Alison Cummins
June 21st, 2009
6:54 PM

Eric,

What’s the expression? Oh yeah, “I’m married, not dead!” (My beloved and I went to see a show with lots of mixed-sex fight scenes at the Montreal Fringe Festival last night. At the end we weren’t sure what the point was, but it sure was nice to look at all those fit young bodies interacting away on stage. And there was one astonishingly well-muscled young man we both wished we could see more of, meaning both see him again and see him less dressed, even though my beloved has a strong preference for one gender and it’s not male.) Oh yeah, there’s that other expression: “I don’t care where you get your appetite, as long as you eat at home.”

Don’t confuse size and shape. Even someone small and thin can have high, round buttocks: in people of African descent this is often related to the curve of the lower back (and presumably related muscle placement) as least as much as padding. Yes, Africa is a big place and genetically *much* more diverse than either Europe or Asia, but a flat, saggy butt seems to be a peculiar affliction of some northern europeans and east asians.

Kristin,

Thanks. I’m well aware of consciousness of skin colour but I had no clue about brown bags being a demarc. Now I know, and Vesta’s friend’s fed-up-and-had-it-to-here-ness makes huge sense.

Vesta
June 22nd, 2009
6:16 AM

Kristin, that same “colorism” exists in the Latin countries, too. Take a room full of Mexicans (in Mexico) and line them up by skin color. You will invariably also be lining them up by income/wealth. It’s a legacy of the Spanish colonization. As a pale (freckled, even) woman walking through a market not frequented by tourists, I was automatically assumed to be monied, and solicited like crazy. Political leaders, business leaders, all of the upper class are pale. The reason that Americans think of Mexicans as dark and short is that the tall and pale Mexicans have no reason to leave a good situation right where they are. It’s the darker people who must leave to look for opportunity up north.

Now I wonder if my brown friend knows about the “brown bag test”. I just assumed I understood his frustration, but it could have been deeper than I knew. It just goes to reinforce that it takes a lot more than desire to create a diverse environment that is truly welcoming to all-comers. And it’s almost impossible to create that environment without the active, on-going input of those you’re courting. You just don’t know what you don’t know.

kristin
June 22nd, 2009
6:51 AM

Yea I hear you on that one Vesta. Asian communities as well, the whiter looking you the better you are perceived and accepted. i.e. Kibuki make-up, Korean women using white powder for their faces to make them look more porcelean.

I think I’m going to definitely change my logo. I hope it’s okay if I can add you all to my mailing list for newsletters, promotions, stories, etc.. . Sorry, for the non-sequitur. I was pondering that this earlier this morning thinking about some of the comments, esp Eric’s. ;-)

Lanz
June 22nd, 2009
9:00 AM

Kristin, I’m a fellow (black) fashion designer just starting out too, and this is really a great subject to me, because I thought about the demographic of my line in the beginning. So I have taken great care to never have just one race representing my line. I think we as designers need to know what the buyers are looking for, and present things in a way that does not compromise who we are, and at the same time, gets the consumers that we are looking for. If that means that maybe you need to get just an asian model and a hispanic model together in one lookbook for a collection, then so be it. We can’t expect the buyers to get our concepts, if we have projected it in a certain way- even unknowingly. Be it the logo, models, or presentation of the site, the buyers know what they are looking for, and unfortunately, they may have certain perceptions when they’re viewing a lookbook, and we can’t help that. It’s very sad that using a black model in an industrial setting automatically means urban, but we are not as far along as we all would like to think we are- black president or not.

After we have established our line, and have been accomplished for a little while, we can basically present our collections however we choose, and our demographics and credibility won’t change a bit. For example, a few years ago, a very well known line (I forgot the name- it might’ve been Moschino, but I may be wrong) used nothing but black models in all their ads for this one particluar spring collection. The collection was the same types of things they always do, and it didn’t bring that much controversy, because it was the same high fashion brand, in fact, it was looked (of course) at as artisic. Also, I am so sorry that the other model had to cancel at the last minute, that is soooooooo annoying.

kristin
June 22nd, 2009
12:07 PM

HI Lanz

Yeah I hear you. In fact I am a very multi-cultural person and was excited to have two models, completely different looks, but alas. . . It’s just so strange that most of my customers are
non-African-American (White, Latino, Asian etc . .), so that is why I never really gave it much thought using Marlena, a black model. If my customers, who looked at the same lookbook, looked at me and still bought my stuff, then it’s the buyers who obviously have a different ruler to measure my line’s sell-through.

But after some of the feedback, I see where I can make some adjustments and I am scheduling my next photoshoot momentarily but you know, they aren’t cheap so it will happen whenever I can afford to do it. . btw. If anyone knows any Angel investors who just looooves investing in the arts, you can definitely send them my way. . ;-) There is no shame in asking right?

Kathleen
June 22nd, 2009
1:22 PM

I’ve been reading this from the sidelines, discussing comments with Eric as he wrote his on the couch. I was unaware of the meaning of strange fruit. Kristin asked me if I’d heard of Billie Holliday’s song and I said sure since she’s a mainstay and I’d likely heard everything she’s done at least once. Obviously this buyer was more into popular culture than I’ll ever be and I think it is more likely the buyer used a semantic short cut (urban streetwear) to describe a line that is marketed with in-crowd cultural nuances -as is fairly common with streetwear lines that I am (was) unaware of. The summary is, if you intend to appeal to a broader gamut of the market, coupled with the imagery as it is, changing the name of the brand would be a logical first step. Again, perhaps being similarly unaware, the logo per se doesn’t signal target ethnicity (to me) so changing that alone wouldn’t have the desired effect -again to people like me. On the other hand, people like me shouldn’t be a primary demography since we care very little about fashion.

Re: Eric, marriage and presumably imposed blindness to b00bs and butts. Eric was trying to be funny, pandering to stereotypes of what married men are supposed to say (I’m more likely to point out attractive women with cute figures than not). Jealousy is rarely logical or justifiable which explains why I had no problem sending flowers to the (presumably former) love of his life after her surgery last month. Not to suggest he’s not deserving of pity for being married to me generally, but not for the baseless vagaries of a jealous wife.

Kristin: I understand why you think you fishing for an investor here is a good strategy but if there were an angel investor lurking on this site, they would be more knowledgeable than average and would use more stringent criteria to determine which company would be a good bet. Such an investor wouldn’t be investing in the arts but in manufacturing. It boils down to nuances and reorganizing priorities which we discussed over the phone. It’s not that being new is a crime, it’s that your organizational processes must instill confidence to buyers (and investors) that you can deliver. There’s always room for somebody who is good.

Read Seth’s entry: It doesn’t hurt to ask.

nowaks nähkästchen
June 22nd, 2009
1:34 PM

Thanks for explaining the “brown paper bag” background.

I life in Germany and brown paper bags mean just nothing here. (Yes, we have seen peolpe using those bags in US movies, But that’s all.) Except you can buy strong brown craft bags to put your organic waste in it throughout the day before you bring it out to the organic waste bin. :o) And some bakeries use thin brown paper bags to sell their bread and buns, but there brown is just a colour, other companies will use white, pink, green or whatever the owner prefers.
(When I was a kid we would have our sandwich for school either in wrapped in white paper or in small transparent plastic bags. Today kids mostly will use reusable plastic containers as will those adults who bring lunch to work. Or ziplock bags or other plastic bags.)

But as I said… it has nothing to do with race, only with social context.

Strangely here most people are white, but they all want to get as dark as possible in summer. Strange world…

And forget you butt-theories. I am as white as white can be (means show me some summer sun and I’ll turn lobster red within no time) but I have a large and not low derrière. Has nothing to do with race, just some have and others don’t.

kristin
June 22nd, 2009
2:15 PM

Awl Nowaks, my God mother is German, an amazing opinionated, political woman who I love dearly. She actual doesn’t like my clothes because it’s just not her style/taste but she supports my artistic endeavors and still sees the potential. Even said it would do well in Oregon where she lives now.

And Kathleen, no I am actually not ready for funding as of yet. . ;-) I would rather slowly build it and continue to sell on my own. PLus I still freelance as a graphic designer so I’m doing okay, just have to work at my own pace even if its at a “snails” pace. Changing my brand name isn’t an option at this point since I already have a following and giving into “the Man” just be accepted by buyers is completely against the brand’s nature.

There was even a store in Berlin called Strangefruit that carried some high-profile lines (doo-ri, Ann Demulemiester, Commes Des Garcons, etc. .). I am not certain if they are still open. But nevertheless, people seem to respond well as long as I build my following, I believe buyers will come around. Some suggested that I would do better in European/Global markets. . so we’ll see. .

Carol in Denver
June 22nd, 2009
2:25 PM

I thought over the weekend about whether to comment here, or not — but I think the readers on this site are careful readers and writers, and will take my comment with the CONSTRUCTIVE meaning that I am hoping for.

I’m a white professional woman who is reasonably well-read, and I did not know the cultural reference to “Strange Fruit”. I agree with Kathleen, that “changing the name of the brand would be a logical first step.” Now that I know the context of the name: if I found that label for sale in a store, not only would I avoid the clothing line, I would probably leave the store and never come back — I don’t want to have anything to do with such horrible events. If it were a boutique I might let the owner know why — if it’s a big store they would never know why they lost a customer.
Here are some hypothetical analogies — would readers here be interested in a Western Wear line named “Sand Creek Colorado” (slaughter of peaceful native Americans by Colorado militia in 1864)? How about a Japanese-design based line called Nanking 1937 (massacre and atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army after it captured Nanjing)? How about comfortable urban clothing called Basij Militia (turn on your television)?
The point here is that cultural context is a minefield — what you think you are communicating often is NOT what comes across. If your goal is commercial success, rather than an (expensive) artistic statement, I would think long and hard about going forward with the brand name “Strange Fruit”.
Here is a thought experiment: I’m sure any of us would be honored if the First Lady selected clothing from our line to wear. I’ll bet a box of cookies that her staff very carefully researches the whole package about any such clothes — and they would talk her out of your garments because of the name of the line. She cannot afford to waste time & energy on needless controversy.

Peace to all — Carol

Alison Cummins
June 22nd, 2009
2:40 PM

I actually think strangefruit is just fine as a brand name. Just be thoughtful about your overall presentation.

Your current collection speaks to me of violence, with its military and hunting themes. strangefruit gives that violence a social context – a face. Future collections may have different themes, and I think strangefruit is generative enough that it will work with many different themes.

Alison Cummins
June 22nd, 2009
2:41 PM

Oh and Kathleen – Eric *was* funny. I never thought you were jealous.

Carol Kimball
June 22nd, 2009
2:43 PM

There are now two “Carol in Denver” posters. I am the Carol Kimball one.

Noora
June 22nd, 2009
3:27 PM

Hola, Vesta. I’m over here in the Dominican Republic, my husband is Dominican. From my view, I don’t think Latinos know about the brown paper bag in that historical African-American context. I could be wrong. I drive down the streets here and the color separation is quite obvious as well. I think it is a lot different in Mexico where the color barrier may be different, though, because there are people of all colors in all ranks of government here. However, you won’t find a lighter-skinned person living in the barrio. I think that is because the class separation is just so tight that it has filtered down from colonial times in the form of skin color.
But people hawk at me, too. Here it’s just because they recognize Americans (or foreigners) from a mile away. We walk different, have you noticed that? We also tend to be built different (hormones in the meat and milk up north? could be) and our bodies are shaped differently as well.
To chime in on the conversation about body types, after admitting I know little about this sort of thing, I do thing a lot has to do with the food additives used or not used in different places.
I’m still struggling to understand the color theme here.
I really don’t think your brown friend has underlying issues like what I’ve mentioned. For the company, and really for any setting, sincerity is the best way to get diversity. Maybe that is what was eating him. Pun unintended! ;)

kristin
June 22nd, 2009
3:39 PM

HI Carol
While I appreciate your opinion but in all due respect, you missed the point completely. You really need to understand the context of the song before posting knee-jerk reactions to the name. “Strange Fruit” was written in PROTEST AGAINST the atrocities of lynching in the South. Simply seeing the name in a store is almost equivalent to censorship which is what happened when the song was in released in 1939. Even with much protest of the right-wing and Joe McCarthy himself, it still got aired on the radio and played in clubs sung by Ms. holiday. In fact Meerpool (the real name of the song writer) NYC English teacher wrote the poem after he saw a young black boy hanging from a tree. This image haunted him so much, it compelled him to do something the only way he knew how. he wrote a poem/song which was the first of its kind expose racism at its ugliest. . He was placed on the “communist list” and anyone placed on that list (writers, intellectuals, artists, musicians) were all supporters of civil rights. Hence, the song was the seed for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s which is a major fabric of our society. So leaving a store that simply bears this name suggests you do not support that or as I said, don’t know the full story.

And I hate to say this, but the younger generation doesn’t even know the its history, they just like the name and my clothes. If they want to know more, they can read up on it but let’s be honest, consumers buy what they need and buy what they like. I’m just sneaking in the politics by making history fashionable. . that’s it. . At the end of the day what they care about most is carrying brands that sell. . . and I still have to prove myself. .

I thank you for your input. .

-kristin

Noora
June 22nd, 2009
4:08 PM

“Making history fashionable”?
About lynchings?
I wanted to think there was a lofty message involved. If that had been the case, I know many people who would have gone out of their way to buy from you, whether they loved the design and fit or not.

kristin
June 22nd, 2009
4:17 PM

??? to Noora. Obviously you didn’t read my last post. typical.

Miracle
June 22nd, 2009
4:27 PM

Once my publicist told me it is better to shoot clothes on mannequins, and even edit the mannequins out. This gives the appearance of “floating clothes”. I didn’t quite understand why it was that important and she advised that staging the shoot frames it for the viewer and they either respond or don’t respond. Shooting in a non-desrcript way allows them to frame the clothing themselves.

This is the second F-I DE line that I’ve viewed that made me think that a lot of you are shooting yourselves in the foot with model/location photoshoots. As a buyer, I either respond or don’t respond, but your staging can actually detract from the clothes. Models should be very non-distracting and backgrounds should be grey and plain, or shoot on mannequins, otherwise, I can’t focus on the clothes because there is so much going on in the shoot. I can’t merchandise it in my head. The focus is on the entire photo, like it’s an editorial, instead of being on the clothes, so I can write an order.

I don’t think it is JUST a matter of race, it’s CONTEXT as well, and I’m not so sure it is wise to go for the artsy shoot when it can create commercial roadblocks.

And yes, high fashion designers use black models, but this isn’t a high fashion shoot. Also, when you’re flipping through Vogue and you see someone like Alek Wek or Chanel Iman, they are one of many faces.

One last thought– I am black and wouldn’t use solely a black model. For certain buyers, you will make them question fit. Think of the difference between denim like Paige and Apple Bottoms. You could be sending a non-intentional message about the fit of your line through your choice of model, when you only have one ethnicity of model represented. Even though your model is a model and is of model proportions, you can still send that message.

When in doubt- use a mannequin.

Carol Kimball
June 22nd, 2009
5:13 PM

Re: Kristen re: Carol in Denver
Though I am a different Carol (and confusingly, also live in Denver), she told you that she’d be offended by the “Strange Fruit” label if she’d had the historical context. Your response, that she wasn’t understanding your take on it, is an important point that I feel you’re missing. Your decisions to keep or change the aspects of your business should be based on the ways people can misunderstand as well as buy in, because flipping through a magazine or strolling past a shop window, you can’t have their attention long enough to explain. If you can connect with enough people who tie in with your vision for your line to be successful, then there’s no need to change anything. You did come here asking about the apparent discontinuity.

Also, we should remember that people may be answering with posts as yet undelivered by their server. If someone’s clock on their system is out of sync, so may their comment be. I had thought I had read all of the queue here, but a couple popped in above where I had last been reading. The longer I take to make a careful reply, the more chance several new posts may have come in. I don’t often open a new window and refresh the thread, even where there’s so much going on as here. The last one, right now, is Kristen’s to Noora at 4:17, and by my clock it’s 6:13.

Eric H
June 22nd, 2009
5:39 PM

Kristin, if you aren’t already a member, have you thought about the forum? I don’t know how you propose to go about adding people to your newsletter, but soliciting in the comments probably isn’t going to get you as far as joining the forum.

Re: commenting about b00bs and Kathleen, I am very lucky to be married to the love of my life, who is generous to a fault. We spend a good deal of the little time we spend in public tsk-tsk-tsking at the awful look of flat butt jeans. I wish I had the money to fund PSAs about this, either as “The More You Know” type ads, or Schoolhouse Rock shorts.

Yes, I’m just your butt, I’m only a butt, and I’m stuffed inside these bad jeans.

Anir
June 22nd, 2009
6:11 PM

I agree, to a point, with Miracle. What I meant by arty was to use the background and model to sell the clothes–so that it’s a whole of a work–creates a statement about the designs–rather than use the background and model to create a nebulous stage set–so to speak. Mannequins might be a good default, however I like to see clothing on a live body to judge, as a customer. Mannequins can’t really show what is dynamic about the clothing. Perhaps buyers have a different frame of reference. In any case the shadows in the photos do detract from showing the clothing clearly. And I didn’t see the clothing as militaristic–although I think some of the poses and accessories might make them appear more so than less. Again something to think about in presentation. I think this is really less of a problem though than just getting clearer images.

While I think Carol Kimball has a point about misunderstanding–I think in the long run one can’t make decisions on that solely. I mean as Kristen said many of her customers don’t even know about the Billy Holiday reference and like the clothing and the name. Also, anyone–if they lobby hard and long enough can change the meaning of anything–perhaps not universally–but in some populations. Which of course is both good and no so.

FWIW, I’m a lighter skinned ethnic person (rather not say what ethnicity)–and the color prejudice cuts both ways. I know of one person, the lightest in their family, who was referred to as ‘white girl’.

kristin
June 22nd, 2009
6:35 PM

HI Carol Kimbal. . yeah, it’s a great discussion regardless of disparate points of view. Not asking for “approval”, just advice. It would be great if there was some sort of forum for all new designers (such as Lantz) to be so lucky to have their lines be critiqued and “scrutinized” in this fashion. It only helps. Just have to take it with a grain of salt and know what’s relevant and what isn’t to your brand. For instance, “stereotyping” will never be acceptable in any form, let’s see what else, oh, I ‘m not making Lynching fashionable — obviouly the commentor ignored the what Strangefruit really is about, and military colors are considered violent. . . but you say “tomatoe” and I say er. . “tomatoe” (with the short “a”). . lol.

I’m also a professor (graphic design though) who critics students’ work hours on end. And I can be brutal with the sophomores but it’s for their own good, no malice.

Eric: I’m not a member but will be. what do you mean by “soliciting the comments”? is that a member thing? And I’m also married to the love of my life. Just got married last Oct. so congrats on that. . .the whole butt thing is another issue, my. . . but Obama has even patted Michelle’s behind on occasion in front of the cameras.. ;-)

Miracle
June 22nd, 2009
7:09 PM

Perhaps buyers have a different frame of reference.

When you stage shots like that, you’ve effectively merchandised it. And either it fits or it doesn’t. It’s too difficult to mentally extract the clothing from the staged shot and put it on a blank canvas so you can picture it in your merchandising mix. When you see the line in person, of course you can do that, but having the need to do that kinda defeats the purpose of look books and photo shoots.

So the danger is that you get past people who might have otherwise liked the line, because they didn’t like it in the context of the shoot. Since it’s very hard (or expensive, or both) to do photo shoots and get it right, it’s easier to default to a mannequin and now I understand why they are preferred in certain circumstances.

I put my money on it, that if the clothing were shot as flats, or on a mannequin, the feedback would be very different. Buyers would be able to “get” the line without being distracted by the staging or the model. This is why a lot of magazine editorials are shot flat and separate, so that it’s easier for the consumer to visualize the wardrobe or cut the pieces out and mix and match them.

There are different strategies, sometimes, when going for the trade vs going for the consumer.

kristin
June 22nd, 2009
8:09 PM

Thanks so much Miracle.. .!

Maura
June 22nd, 2009
8:18 PM

WOW!!! just came in on all this and I think it’s a wonderful read. I know about the song from Billie Holiday and also Souxie covered it in the eighties(which ripped my heart out). The inspiration for the song feels like a memory so old it belongs to someone else. Looking into it sounds good.

When I saw “Strange Fruit Clothing” I just saw a name that a designer gave her line for her own reasons I did not assume the correlation. I remember wondering about trans sexual reference and then all I could see was the jacket…. I mean damn.. Its a nice jacket…

After looking at all the pictures I could find, I came to this, “Well I suppose I’ll just have to see it in person when we finally make it through Philly” Because honestly .. I didn’t feel like I could really get the sense of it completely… I was squinting or turning the pictures… and I love looking at fashion shots. I’m a hairdresser/painter/metal smith who gets Barneys email just for her fix..(getting in PASSION is one of my secret dreams). I do have to say a name is a link or a key; a way to get people involved personally with an “artists story” having history or background..behind a name is a powerful thing…a thing of richness, and of individuality. We create from the middle of ourselves or from a place so far outside we reach for it on tip toe… the NAME is….

Then of course I wondered about the RACE thing… Did you ever hear John Lennon’s song “Woman is the —— of the World” ( I don’t know how to …I grew up in a place where if you ain’t that color you don’t use that word). Anyway…I wondered if it was true; is it more of an issue being black and a woman? I’ve always felt it was naive and possibly slightly (head in the sand) blind to think otherwise; but I don’t know this from personal experience.

I forgot to mention, Miracle has my vote on the best info…

Alison Cummins
June 22nd, 2009
8:34 PM

“typical.”

What’s that supposed to mean?

Look, some people take horror very seriously. No matter what you’re advocating, they are never going to support a brand that mines lynching or the holocaust or war for marketing imagery. They just aren’t, and it has nothing to do with being too ignorant to understand your intent. If you make the choice to go ahead, you are going to appeal to people who think like you and alienate people who don’t, and you’re likely to generate strong feelings both ways.

Strong feelings are a good thing.

And, I put it to you, if lynching arouses strong feelings of revulsion in people such that it creates an aversive to your brand (or to any store that carried it), this says something good about people. There’s an argument to be made for reclaiming your history, but there is also an argument to be made that there is nothing to reclaim here. Not everyone has embraced a postmodern education, and there’s no need to be rude to them about that.

Ok, so *your* customers are postmodern. Fine. I’m cool with that. Really. I don’t really get postmodern myself, but I’m not your customer so it’s not a problem.

But please show a little respect for people whose gut reaction is not cool the way you are cool. You have been generously given a great deal of thoughtful input from diverse sources. You may not use it all, some may be misguided or not what you were looking for. But please be respectful anyway.

Wacky Hermit
June 22nd, 2009
9:12 PM

Ordinary consumer here, of what some people would term “white ethnic” and others “hispanic” depending on what contorted definition of “hispanic” gets used. My parents raised me to believe that all people are people and black people are just people who happen to have dark skin, just like some people happen to have blue eyes. And then I moved to Los Angeles and learned differently– from black people themselves. I was not to look them in the eye and greet them as I greet everyone else. I learned that real fast after being threatened for doing so.

This is a difficult thing to say and I hope nobody will take it personally, but I find that many (and certainly nowhere near all) black people are so used to being treated as a separate class that when people try not to treat them as a separate class, they spurn the effort. I cannot think of any other race besides black where someone would even think a clothing line was marketed solely to that race. But this impression exists precisely BECAUSE there’s a movement to make things “just for” blacks– black TV shows with black stars, black music, black this and black that. I don’t fault the promoters of these things for seeing the world that way and I certainly would do nothing to stop them from marketing their products however they wish. But I think it’s important to realize that the longer this persists, the longer it will take to get to the post-racial world we all desire, where a designer who happens to be black can promote a line of clothing using a model who happens to be black and it will never occur to anybody that the clothes might be only for blacks.

Kristin, keep up the good work; the fact that it didn’t at first occur to you that it might be perceived that you were marketing solely to blacks means that you are getting us closer to that world.

marlena
June 22nd, 2009
10:47 PM

Just food for thought: if the name of the line “Strangefruit” is offensive or off color to some, why is “Banana Republic” acceptable? Is that not racist and offensive? http://en.wikipedia.org/Banana_republic. Just as sad as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.

Alison Cummins
June 23rd, 2009
7:05 AM

Marlena,

In my own case, I am not offended by “strangefruit” but I am offended by “Banana Republic.” Since I’m not a Banana Republic customer, it’s just not a problem for them so all is fine.

There’s no giant committee that makes rules about what is “acceptable” or not. It’s just the marketplace. There are mothers who would never buy a product called “Poo Pockets” either, but it’s a successful diaper brand. It might be even *more* successful with a better name, but that decision is purely up to the owners. Not an “acceptablity committee.”

marlena
June 23rd, 2009
7:42 AM

Alison,

Acceptabilty Commitee? Really?

Hopefully you don’t really believe that I am actually implying such a thing exists.

It was food for thought not just for Caroll from Denver, but for all of us that may see one meaning so clearly and it strikes us right or wrong and then not realize how drawn we can be to other stereotypes, or how many blind decisions we make daily.

It was not an attack or really even a call for a response. I guess I should not have used certain wording.

Kathleen
June 23rd, 2009
8:02 AM

Among other things, Kristin wrote:

It would be great if there was some sort of forum for all new designers (such as Lantz) to be so lucky to have their lines be critiqued and “scrutinized” in this fashion…And I can be brutal with the sophomores but it’s for their own good, no malice.

As I’ve said previously, there is a forum such that you describe, it’s just not public. This context is no different than the reviews you conduct of your students which are not public either. Nor should they be; your reviews are done within the context of a self selecting community just like ours are. There is much more we have refrained from mentioning (your products and practices have not been discussed at all) but contributions hinge on the perception of how willing you are to accept criticism. You repeatedly say you welcome scrutiny but being unkind to Carol, Alison and Noora has had a chilling effect.

It pains me to say such but it is not appropriate to post comments such that you have directed toward valued members of our community. There is a fine line between dissent and snark; I usually delete the rare personal attack (unless it’s directed at me) but realized those subscribed to this thread would have seen it anyway.

Without descending into a discussion of the semantics of violence and art, as a commercial endeavor, I don’t believe this is art, censorship or art censorship. No producer is *entitled* to market share, so not buying your clothes is not censorship, it’s the reality of the marketplace. The crucial aspect of being in business is to learn your market well, really well, and market it successfully so you can be profitable. You have to decide whether your greater priority is to be profitable or to be an artist (albeit misunderstood and controversial). If it’s the latter, you’ve already succeeded. Miracle has suggested a middle ground that would serve you well in that capital is a coward, it flees from upheaval and controversy. [Colin Powell is credited with saying that but he must have read the same econ textbook I did 30 years ago.]

———-
Marlena: Re Banana Republic; *personally*, I have always been repulsed by this company for the reasons you mention. I’ve never bought anything from them because their name struck me as flippant and insulting toward the memory of victimized people. Is nothing sacred in the pursuit of profit? *I* believe it is poor taste to celebrate hegemony.

Knowing Alison as I do, I sincerely doubt she meant it as you’ve interpreted it. Perhaps it’s best if everyone take a deep cleansing breath and step back.

Vesta
June 23rd, 2009
8:22 AM

I just have to clarify that I would *never* have critiqued the name strangefruit if Kathleen hadn’t posed this question as if Kristin was mystified that her line would be perceived in racial terms. I don’t have too many politically correct leanings; in fact I can (and have; makes me a lousy activist, actually) become quickly agitated by too much correctness. It’s totally fine to make a statement in naming your line. Just don’t be surprised when/if people actually pick up on it and react in ways you don’t want or didn’t anticipate. Kristin is targeting people with enough disposable income to afford better clothing. The reality is that a lot of these people will have well-rounded educations and pick up on the reference. So their reactions will have to be dealt with, on their terms, not hers.

Alison Cummins
June 23rd, 2009
8:50 AM

I’m sorry Marlena, I’m having a cranky morning and expressed myself a little snarkily which was uncalled for.

Yes, I know you know this entity doesn’t exist. That was my point.

Your question (“why is “Banana Republic” acceptable?”) presupposed that we all know that “Banana Republic” is acceptable. I wanted to call that assumption into question, that’s all. Banana Republic exists and is successful, but that doesn’t mean the name is ok on any other grounds than effective marketing to its customer base.

And apparently, it is acceptable *on these grounds.* It sells.

If strangefruit sells, then it is clearly also acceptable on these grounds. There is no distinction to be made here between strangefruit or Banana Republic: they either work as brand names or they don’t.

On other grounds – personal revulsion, social consciousness – either, neither or both names may be acceptable or not to individuals. But unless the question is defined precisely (‘Carol in Denver, I happen to know you personally so I know that you find the name “Banana Republic” completely acceptable on social grounds; why is your reaction to the name “strangefruit” so different?’) then you are implying the existence of an entity (the entire fashion-incubator community?) that has made the determination.

But really, that’s just me being persnickety. You’re right, I shouldn’t have responded the way I did.

marlena
June 23rd, 2009
9:07 AM

Alison,

Thanks. I appreciate it.
Have a nice day. To the whole community: Thanks for letting me chime in, although I am not a member.
Have a good one.

kristin
June 23rd, 2009
9:40 AM

Vesta you are absolutely correct.

Also, I feel very fortunate to have been a part/subject of a discussion, as I have said over again. And I can’t thank you all enough for the input, advice, criticism, scrutiny and support. It’s just a necessary process for any designer, artist, entrepreneur (in any industry) needs to go through. Moreover, you can’t have a discussion about race without getting a little heated but frankly this was tame in comparison to other forums on race. (online and actual seminars)

Allison and Noora I apologize if I came across as disrespectful to you. I was simply puzzled and uncomfortable by, what I perceived as, a “snarky”, hostile remark even after I explained the origins of the name. But as a result, it brought up a another valuable point, you (Noora and Kathleen) are not the only ones who may misinterpret the name which I have to take into account. Some may see it as controversial while others may see it as fashion forward, post-modern. etc. . .either way, it’s all good for me and maybe any other new designer who reads this article.

And I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. . .

Catherine McQ
June 23rd, 2009
2:11 PM

I was surprised that few people knew “Strange Fruit.” I did a Google search to see if the song had become so obscure that only people like me–in my late 50′s, living in a majority black county–would know about it. Judging from the Internet, it’s still widely known. (As an aside, I learned that the poet/songwriter was Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from the Bronx. He used the alias Lewis Allan–according to one site, to honor of the memory of his two stillborn children. Some of his songs were recorded by Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Meeropol is also known because he and his wife adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for espionage in the 1950′s.)

There’s a “Strangefruit” site in the US trying to educate people about, and memorialize the victims of, lynching; a “StrangeFruit” jewelery maker on Etsy; a “Strangefruits” site in the Netherlands that celebrates imaginative web design; and a “Strange Fruit” troupe from Melbourne, Australia, that performs atop 4-meter flexible poles, based on the image of a field of wheat swaying in the breeze. Do a thorough search of any name you’re considering to see what it means in the US and elsewhere–and prepare to be surprised.

Arnikka
June 23rd, 2009
3:02 PM

Using “Strange fruit” as a design name can be kind of like calling a clothing line “Anne’s Diary” or “Work Makes you Free”. It is a little in your face and thus has to be executed in a certain manner. Coupled with the font in blood red…eesh. I am a young African American woman and if I was a retail buyer, its the combination of the name with its connotations AND the look of the logo AND the overall look of the photos AND the ethnicity of the model but NOT JUST the ethnicity of the model that might make me hesitant in this present economy.

It might work if the font were a decorative script in a nuetral tone thus appealing to a niche of women who prefer a unique brand–kind of the commes des garcons/Viktor & Rolf/Hussein Chalayan woman but younger (not sure of your price points). So keeping the name could work but the font and overall logo would need to be muted—the name already says so much. It doesn’t need to scream in terms of its type face and overall look as well–that can be a bit much.

As it stands the look of your photos is very hard–that alone seems slightly dated in a 90s minimalist/industrial way (not to be rude). Forgetting the issues of race, I don’t know if that is desirable at this time in this present economy–remember that when that look was prevalent among indie designers, economically times were better. I feel that there should be a way to communicate the “voice’ of your line without resorting to cliches–artistic/urban therefore it has to be in a warehouse. Strategically its not good because the brown clothing is just lost in the darkness of the surroundings. I agree with another poster, a gray background does wonders for higher end clothing. If you notice Vogue uses that same simple gray background for many of its editorials. People want to feel good right now. In the final analysis, that’s what it all comes down to. You’re selling people a sense of well being. Even in high fashion. That means different things for different groups of people but none the less, that’s what you’re selling. If this were not true than we’d all be lining up at Walmart for everything.

Anir
June 23rd, 2009
4:22 PM

quote/I cannot think of any other race besides black where someone would even think a clothing line was marketed solely to that race./end quote

But people marketed stuff to race/ethnicity all the time–for some it’s just another demongraphic–special interest group–niche. Want a for instance? cowboy hats in NC, where I lived for a time. Almost no one wears cowboy hats except Latino men. Want another for instance? the aforementioned Banana Republic–I mean talk about colonial fantasies for the light skinned who have a European heritage–especially British. And wannabes.

Kysha M
June 24th, 2009
1:25 AM

Kristen: I feel your pain. And just to let you know, from my perspective (as someone very knowledgeable about our history), if I saw a clothing collection (or anything for that matter) named Strangefruit, I would immediately think it was Black-owned. I’d be very surprised if it weren’t. don’t know if thats useful…

this is so interesting, never thought this would come up on FI. I’m African-American and of course, have struggled with this from the beginning. I have always wanted a mixture of races in my marketing but because of time/scheduling constraints, used only my own children in my first shoots. The funny thing is, I’ve gotten “urban/street” confusion from buyers but my end customer doesnt react this way. The majority of my customers (from retail events & online) are White/middle class women & men. They love the photos, style and the fabric.

I’d just like to add some food for thought. I had a feeling the marketing (models) might turn off some folks until I had a chance to do a shoot the way I really envisioned it. What I didn’t foresee was that buyers would look at ME (as the owner) and stereotype the brand. duh. I’ve walked many trade shows and participated in a couple and I hardly ever see any Black sales reps and/or owners unless (unfortunately for me) it is a streetwear line.

I have had a few different situations where buyers have said things that wouldn’t have made sense if I were White but I shelved it as me being a little paranoid.. maybe. Well I did a small tradeshow where I shared a showroom with an (awesome) White sales rep that was showing a pretty popular brand of children’s shoes. After 2 days she commented on some of the things that were said and noticed that when people thought SHE was repping my line the conversation was very different. Trying to make a long story short, its sad and… well it hurts to know that not only are my children as models a detriment, but I am selling my company short by representing my own line.

disclaimer: I do not use this as a scapegoat. There are many things I could change and I am not an expert at selling (to the trade). I just thought I’d add to the thread by mentioning my experience.

btw, its been awhile. I hope everyone is doing well!

nowaks nähkästchen
June 24th, 2009
11:30 AM

After reading all that discussion about the brand name a very tiny bell at the very back of my head did… well not really chime, but make a extremely soft noise… yes, I think I have heard about the poem and the context somewhere. Still it does not really mean anything to me and if the brand would be marketed in Germany I don’t think that anyone would spontaneously come up with this association.

Even though lot of brands here haven English names most consumers are not even able to make correct translation of the words. Not to talk about any context. I think here people would probably think about a sexual context and a lingerie line. But most would just take it as one of those brand names that have no meaning.

(Btw a successful German music band is named after a crash at flight show with many deaths. Sometimes strange things work.)

Katherine
June 24th, 2009
11:59 AM

I have a designer friend who is Algerian. She lives and works in LA. She entered her clothes in a fashion show that was a charity event for Africa (the continent). She was slated to go first down the runway as her clothes were the best to open the show with. Right before the show, she got bumped by the racist director for she was “not black enough to represent Africa”. My friend told this racist director that she was BORN IN AFRICA and you cannot get more African than that. Mind you, these racists are black Americans who are not African at all, in any way.

She got placed somewhere in the middle of the runway show and she got photographs of the (black) models walking the runway in her clothes. She included many of those pictures in her portfolio. She was frustrated in that those pictures depicted her line as an “urban” line for they were being worn by black models. Mind you, my designer friend has skin that glistens like caramel. She has friends like us who are white, brown and black. We all love her sexy clothes.

Apparently, race does matter to racists. All the color blind folks could give a damn.

Kysha M
June 24th, 2009
9:50 PM

Katherine: How in the world are Black Americans “not African at all, in any way”?? That is the same thinking that spurs people to feel someone “isn’t Black enough”. After an Asian person has been in this country for 5 generations are they suddenly not Asian?

“Color Blindness” is not a good thing btw. Being blind to someone’s race, nationality, ancestors, or color of skin just prevents you from celebrating & appreciating the differences that we all have to offer. There should be nothing to fear about being different from one another. I don’t want to live in a world where people are blind to who I am, thats just boring… like 31 flavors of the same ice cream.

Kathleen
June 25th, 2009
10:00 AM

I don’t want commentary to veer too far off course but I’ve been uncomfortable with some stereotyping I’ve been reading.

Yes, stereotyping as a functional human artifact is both good and bad. Someone mentioned the human brain is incapable of having to make repeated decisions so stereotyping is a cognitive shortcut hardwired to enhance survival of the species. However, it is untrue that someone incapable of stereotyping is not functional and can’t live independently. This in itself is a stereotype. That it is bad to be colorblind is a value judgment and such, also a stereotype.

As a matter of biology, I am relatively incapable of stereotyping. I do not read social nuances well because most are not logical or rational (garbage in, garbage out). The fact that I posted this entry should illustrate this point very clearly. The only social factors that register are those that are in your face, I only saw the obvious. This effects my entire social panorama. I cannot read emotion on people’s faces unless it is overt. You don’t ever want to watch a movie with me; it involves non-stop conversation about what is going on and what did so and so mean when they said that. I cannot recognize people’s faces. When actors change their clothes for another scene, I wonder who this new character is and why they’re kissing that guy I do recognize because he hasn’t changed his clothes and was involved with somebody else, is he having an affair? I totally miss the point. Perhaps this is why I prefer action films. Chick flicks make me weep in frustration. Heavily reliant on facial expression, they are so subtle that music is the only thing that cues me to a pivotal moment. We always run subtitles, I can literally read more of the intent.

Being blind to social nuances gets me into a lot of trouble. Being colorblind does not mean I am a bad person because I cannot stereotype or that I do not appreciate the diversity of peoples anymore than not being able to recognize someone’s face means I’m someone who does not care about people. This also does not mean I do not notice details, far from it. It is indisputable that people like me notice far more detail than “normal” people do. This is why social environments are extremely challenging, we cannot filter out “useless” or extraneous information that is immaterial to the situation. Perhaps it is for precisely this reason, the abundance of external stimulation that cannot logically be categorized, that we discard so much of it without judgment. Do you harbor ill will against a piece of trash you throw away? No, you don’t care. The very idea that people discriminate on the basis of national origin or even religion strikes me as beyond absurd. So likewise, it is inaccurate and perhaps unfair that people like me are deemed defective because we do not have the cognitive ability to harbor prejudices (good or bad) or notice differences (beautiful or ugly). It pains me to my core for someone to judge me on the basis of my skin color or even whether I am ugly or beautiful or the way I dress so why would I do this to another -assuming I even noticed it in the first place and my Spock-like brain considered it to be valid criteria? My cognitive wiring is not a choice. I was born this way. I am blind because I cannot see, I do not choose to be blind and cannot fear that which I do not see.

Perhaps those of us who cannot stereotype compensate for our faults by being able to make decisions much faster and more rationally than “normal” people.

Noora
June 25th, 2009
12:31 PM

It will take me a while to write this down. So I’m copy/pasting it.
First, this was the most beautiful thing I’ve read in some time, Kathleen. I’m not at all surprised, however, because it was this same attention to logic that drew me to your site (and kept me around, albeit invisible most of the time -I use rss to keep up.)
And here goes my next opinion: I’ve come to the conclusion in my not-too-long life that people pretty much are all the same…
When you scratch away all the outer things, few people are really ‘unique,’ no matter the great personality or even accomplishments. By outer things I mean: skin color, hair, clothing, attitude, religion, and even behavior. After all that is done, you find basically the same person as the next guy or gal: the same basic wants, needs, desires, loves, emotions, and also what a person picks up on about another person that cannot be put into words. This is so much so to me, that everyone I meet or get to know seems like another person I met before, or a blend of two or even three (whether of the same skin color or not).
The outer things, to me, can be dispensable factors. It just doesn’t seem real in the sense of what primarily defines a person. I mean the kind of ‘real’ a person experiences when they are by themselves with no outside influences and no expectations from others. Just them. At that point, people become similar, but not the same. We all revert to being basic human beings.
Individuality and personality make life so much fun, but to me (!) it is just superficial -although not in a bad way, its just how we are as human beings; its fun and entertaining, but can also be dark and cruel depending on the person, right? Yes, like a movie. It’s entertaining to self and to others and it sells. Which is why I suppose it is such a huge part of marketing.
*Disclaimer! -Hey, this is just how I see it. To speak to some of what I’ve read above, almost every people of all races and backgrounds have experienced prejudicial behavior from another group. It is sad. Being too far caught up in our own individualisms and comfort zones is not always a such a great thing.
ps- And I thought I was hiding over here, now I see my website was public all this time. That’s hilarious. What I get for being timid. lol
Ciao for now…

nowaks nähkästchen
June 25th, 2009
1:16 PM

@ Kathleen: Like most human abilities the ability of stereotyping is not a “on” – “off” thing, it comes on a continuum, some have more, others less. So a relative incapability of stereotyping is something that probably makes life harder in some situations (you gave a very lively description) but seems to have benefits also like a better eye for detail or more ability for logic reasoning.

The case that this ability lacks completely is of course a rare one (those people wouldn’t be able to take part in an study like the one you linked to), the example was meant to be more clear by choosing the extreme. Evidently I didn’t succeed in making this point, so I’m sorry.

(Btw. I do not have extraordinary problems reading other persons feelings, but still I never understood why the colour of the skin or hair or whatever has a meaning to some people. I can explain it with my knowledge as a psychologist, but this is nothing that just seems natural or logic to me personally.)

@Kysha M: To me “African” would mean someone who either lives in Africa or was at least born there. So it never occured to me to think of my neighbour as “african” as he was born in the US and lives in Germany now. And I would not consider his kids as “african” neither as “american” as they were born in Germany, have lived there all their lifes, speak german fluently,… so for me they are German. Even though their skin is darker than mine. So what?

Kysha M
June 26th, 2009
1:15 AM

yeah…ok. luckily I’ve been on this site for a few years and am quite familiar with Kathleen’s way of taking things personal.

Kathleen, my comment refers to Colorblindness as it pertains to race (sometimes called race-blind). I used it within the context of this post, commenting on Katherine’s comment. It speaks to people who CHOOSE to say they are colorblind, meaning they don’t take into account the race/culture of another person. What I said has nothing to do with any physical or psychological inability to decipher actual colors or social nuances. No offense intended.

ok, this was nice.. I guess. back to work for me. I hope everyone has a great weekend!

Sonia Levesque
June 29th, 2009
3:14 PM

This was a “heavy” yet enlightening read. Thank you Kathleen, again, for asking us a good question.

My answer is yes, race still matter. I have nothing new to add… so much has been said. lol
But I must confess that the comments on psychology (type casting in marketing – my studied field in University), staged photo shoots versus plain background, and general passionate views on the subjects of appearance and race characterization made me think/ponder/assess my own truths in a refreshing way.

I’ve always thought opinions and point of views were the spice of life. What a spicy dish we’ve got here!

Polaire
December 9th, 2009
8:23 PM

A line called “strangefruit” evokes Billie Holliday and that famous anti-lynching protest song.

Race still matters, as sad as that is. But it works both ways. If I see ads from a retailer showing several models and there are no black models (African-American or African-Other Origin) or they aren’t prominently represented, in other words, are a token minority I seriously consider whether I want to buy from them.

Valerie Mayen on Project Runway!
July 14th, 2010
10:05 AM

[...] this season! Another frequent contributor to our site is Kristin Haskins Simms (most notably in this thread). The last PR contestant has participated on Fashion-Incubator regularly but used a pseudonym. As [...]

Alison Cummins
July 14th, 2010
7:30 PM

Rereading the thread on recovering a horrifying past, I thought of this beautiful video I saw the other day. Happy dancing in Auschwitz and Terezinstadt and Lodz, by a survivor and his grandchildren. http://bit.ly/cN8cYc

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