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Embracing ‘Black is Beautiful’

Embracing ‘Black is Beautiful’

A frican Americans have long had a seriously vexed relationship with the very notion of beauty.”We were stripped of everything — all our tools, our rituals, our practices from the moment of our arrival on this continent,” says Mikki Taylor, beauty director and cover editor of Essence magazine. “We were brought to a world that despised us as well as lusted after us and taught that we were naked.”
And while some would argue that those conditions have not changed significantly, that African Americans are still despised yet lusted after —  and that the dynamic is particularly evident in media depictions of African American characters and culture — others would say that a new day has definitely dawned.
The parameters of what’s considered beautiful have expanded exponentially in a very short period of time.
“When we look at Jennifer Lopez, who has a large Hispanic behind, and that’s considered sexy, that’s a very far cry from where we were 20 years ago,” says Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the menswear department at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
Blackman adds, “It’s a wonderful time for African Americans in the fashion and beauty industries — the best time certainly in contemporary American history.”
After years in which there was a “profound stigma” associated with the very idea of having African Americans involved with the design process, “the market has undergone so many profound changes in the last 20 years that Black people have been able to position themselves to take advantage of many of the fruits of this industry,” Blackman explains.
For the young folks, there’s the undeniable influence of hip-hop, notes Robin Givhan, a former associate editor of Vogue magazine and current fashion editor of The Washington Post.
“That’s something that arose from minority communities and that we feel a real sense of ownership in. Blacks have complete ownership of these labels — or if not complete ownership, then at least creative control to the degree that they are reaping the financial benefits,” she says.
And while the outlook is not as bright in the high-fashion world of the ateliers, change is evident there, too. Long-familiar labels like Willi Smith, for example, are now as accessible as the nearest T.J. Maxx store. Black designers — such as Lawrence Steele of Milan and B. Michael of New York — may be less familiar to shoppers living outside the fashion centers of this continent and Europe, but they are still forces to be reckoned with in the industry.
And there are many more men and women “doing incredibly wonderful work who don’t have their own lines,” Blackman adds. The head designers for cutting-edge labels such as Armani Exchange and Lafayette 148, for example, are Black. And the number of African Americans who are unsung but working diligently behind the scenes continues to rise.
“These are the kinds of things that aren’t always publicized,” Blackman says. “And yet this is where our strength historically has always been. Very few of us have the opportunity to get financial backing to the level that’s necessary to launch major lines. But that doesn’t mean that when the line gets launched, we’re not in there pitching design ideas along with everyone else.”

A Period of Celebration?
Taylor considers this a period of celebration.
“This freedom that we have won today has been hard won. I absolutely think people are embracing the notion of ‘Black is beautiful’— and I think we’re better able to embrace it today than at any other time in this country. The ’60s started the notion, but today I think we are truly living it.”
Indeed, the rising tide of the booming economy has lifted everyone’s boat. And with unemployment among African Americans hitting record lows, some of the extra cash — indeed, some might cavil at the amounts — has been going where it’s traditionally gone: on adornment.
According to figures compiled by the Essence market research team, African Americans spend 25 percent more of their disposable income on personal care products than the general population. The percentages are small — 1.5 percent for African Americans versus 1.2 percent for the general population — but the
dollar figures are more than just pocket change.
For example, retail sales of ethnic cosmetics — including foundation, powder, blusher, concealer, lip coloring, eye makeup and nail care — reached $291 million in 1999, a 22 percent increase over 1995’s $238 million. By 2004, the figure is projected to balloon another 28 percent to $372 million.
Just as interesting — or troubling — is that women of color spend three times more on hair maintenance products than average. African Americans account for 30 percent of total hair product sales, a figure that translates into $1.6 billion in ethnic hair care sales annually.
According to Black Issues research, Blacks account for roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population and 14.5 percent of apparel spending. Meanwhile, they earn the lowest median income when compared to other racial groups — $27,910 per household in 1999, compared to Whites at $44,366.
Taylor scoffs at the notion that the disproportionate consumption levels are a reason for
concern. “We have the most fragile hair on earth. Given the wide range of (hair) textures and the product needs, that figure falls right in line,” she says. Besides, she adds, “We have always been a people of style, a people of adornment.”
Others are not so sure.
“Certainly (the spending and consumption level) is disproportional. Clearly it’s disproportional,” says Blackman. In many ways, he argues, the issue has its roots in the traditions of the Black church, where “women and families, regardless of means — and let’s face it, none of us came from major means back in the day — had to have something new and cute every Sunday. From the hats to the shoes to the bags to the new outfits, it was just ingrained. But we as a people were denied so much that all we often had power over was what we put in our mouths or what we put on our backs.”
Givhan agrees. “A lot of it is historical,” she says.
But the pressures of working to succeed in a society that by turns has been suspicious of and hostile to Black achievement cannot be ignored.
“We all know that appearances matter a great deal, and we also know that people of color tend to be judged even more harshly,” Givhan says. “When we still have executive vice presidents being mistaken for the janitor because of the color of their skin, it’s not hard to see why someone might move from deciding to buy a good suit to deciding to buy an Armani suit. There’s a sense that we need to take special care to make sure that we’re regarded as professional and in charge and capable and in a very material way.”
In short, Givhan adds, “Old money has nothing to prove. Old money can afford to wear the fraying tweed jackets. New money, though, new money’s still got to send up the smoke signals.”
And Blackman says he believes that is a positive development.
“There has always been a very successful Black upper middle class, but they’ve never been visible. And I think from a survival point of view they’ve purposely not been visible,” he says. “But I think with the new Black investment bankers and leaders in the sciences and in computers and in medicine and law and the whole bit, the tide is beginning to change. There’s less of the old ‘I’ve-gotta-keep-this-hidden’ attitude among the young people. And I’m hopeful that, as we go forward, this will be our next frontier: people achieving and becoming much more visible and becoming much more comfortable with being visible.” 
—  By Kendra Hamilton

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