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Fashion needs more powerful black voices — so Ethan Miller created a new way to help

Ethan Miller, a manager at the agency IMG, created a networking platform called the Fabric to help black fashion professionals find community. (Elias Williams/for The Washington Post)

Ethan Miller’s fashion story began when he was one of seven children in a working-class family in a predominantly white town in rural Idaho, not far from where members of the Aryan Nations were known to squat. Miller had no fashion industry mentors, no inside track, no nothing.

Yet through tenacity, skill and a bit of luck, he became a talent manager at IMG, one of the most influential creative management agencies in the fashion industry — one that represents well-known models Karlie Kloss and Joan Smalls and also owns NYFW: The Shows, which will host more than 50 presentations and talks as part of the broader New York Fashion Week this month.

Most notably, however, Miller is the founder of the Fabric, which is his way of paying his professional good fortune forward. The Fabric is an initiative born out of frustration with an industry that can be daunting to enter, confusing to navigate and existentially overwhelming for people of color. All too often, black people are the first this, the only that, the rare whatever. They are there; but their presence is diffuse. Miller’s project helps to create a sense of community — and he hopes that will help avert the offensive cultural blunders that have stained the industry.

As Miller’s professional life blossomed, he would often walk into a large meeting and see only one other person of color in the room. He’d nod or make eye contact. He wanted to acknowledge a certain solidarity but not fall into the cliche of groupthink; he wanted to connect but not self-segregate. Ultimately, he wanted to know who else was working in the industry who looked like him but that he couldn’t see. And he wanted to do it in a way that felt easy and informal.

“It’s not a new conversation about how homogenous fashion is. I’d thought about it a long time. I thought, ‘I’d like to do something. Something,’ ” says Miller, 30.

Miller launched the Fabric, with the financial support of IMG, a little more than a year ago with a handful of mixers in New York and London. Guests — photographers, makeup artists, stylists, designers, lighting technicians, all the folks who keep the fashion industry spinning — were invited by word of mouth, social media and direct invitations.

“The vibe was very casual, which was perfect,” recalls photographer Justin French. “It forced people to socialize rather than start networking.”

The Fabric connects black photographers with black lighting directors. It introduces black stylists to black makeup artists. It collaborated with Harlem’s Fashion Row, which supports designers of color, in toasting Oscar-
winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter. All those voices have the potential to be a sounding board for a fashion industry that’s in constant damage control over cultural missteps.

Recent flash fires have been sparked by Gucci’s “black face” balaclava sweater, Prada’s
Golliwog-like charm and Burberry’s hoodie with a noose-like drawstring. Outrage echoed across China in response to a Dolce & Gabbana marketing video riddled with insulting stereotypes. And most recently, Dior was criticized for using Native American imagery to market a fragrance called Sauvage. The advertising campaign starred a sun-baked and brooding Johnny Depp playing guitar and Canku One Star, a graceful Sioux dancer, leaping and spinning against a fiery landscape.

The Paris-based company collaborated with Americans for Indian Opportunity, which describes itself as a 50-year-old nonprofit that “advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples.” “We are proud to have successfully achieved our goals of education and inclusion for this project with Parfums Christian Dior,” wrote AIO Executive Director Laura Harris in an email.

Critics found the campaign offensive, in no small measure because the name of the fragrance, which translates as “wild,” calls to mind an abiding racist characterization of Native Americans.

The Dior incident underscores this obvious but often disregarded fact: No one voice can speak for the multitudes. Everything is made, if not plainer, then at least more thoughtful when a variety of voices are amplified.

‘I was the person who made the mistake’: How Gucci is trying to recover from its blackface sweater controversy

Fashion is “dictating what popular culture thinks about itself with the images we put out. It’s not just who’s in front of the cameras [that’s important] but also who’s behind it,” Miller says. “The Fabric lets these brands know there are a plethora of [black] creatives to tap into and help avoid these problems.”

Miller isn’t so much focused on diversity as he is on inclusiveness — which is more about being heard rather than simply being present. Fashion is not yet at a place where diverse voices have proportionate clout and impact, where they are shaping brand identities and dictating who will appear in a magazine.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America, along with PVH Corp., recently sponsored an analysis of diversity in the industry and the findings zeroed in on the insidiousness of an insider-outsider dynamic: “Insiders possess more systemic power but they have less awareness of the dynamic and their impact as insiders. Outsiders have more awareness of the dynamic but can find it challenging to assert influence and create change.”

In an industry full of independent contractors, Miller wants to highlight their collective power and educate them on their worth — in dollars and cents.

“No matter what I do, I run it by [Ethan]. Sometimes I don’t know the protocol. There’s been times when I was supposed to have been paid for something and I had no clue,” says French, the photographer. “I’m not comfortable asking for something. Sometimes, I’m not even sure what to ask for.”

The 31-year-old Chicago native has been photographing professionally for three years. Before that, he worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in data analysis. He booked his first big job, shooting John David Washington for Vogue, thanks to his presence on Instagram and in a Brooklyn art gallery group show. French was suddenly in the fashion world, but without a road map.

Other industry veterans have tried to offer guidance. The CFDA has mentored students and young designers. Noire Management was created to represent social media influencers of color. Panels, talks and conferences focused on designers or models abound. The Fabric stands out for the breadth of creative talent it’s bringing into conversations, along with its resources.

“It’s really good to see someone with a significant position in IMG who was very hungry to help by any means necessary,” French says.

Miller recalls how dogged he had to be to find his footing in fashion. He also knows that not everyone has the luxury to be so single-minded.

As a freshman at Seattle Pacific University, Miller thought he’d eventually go to medical school but quickly realized he wanted to pursue a more creative path. Skipping classes one day — as one does when in the throes of a career crisis — he was watching “The Rachel Zoe Project,” a now defunct reality show about a stylist, her assistants and their celebrity clients. “I watched [stylist] Brad Goresky and thought, ‘I could do that.’ ”

A lot of people might have those thoughts about fashion, but Miller followed through. He didn’t pursue styling because there wasn’t much opportunity for that in Seattle. Instead, he turned up at a local model agency and announced that he would work as an unpaid gopher.

The company said thank you, but no. So did the next agency. The third time, he got a yes, and with that, he had stepped across the threshold and into an industry that often seems like it’s bricked up tight.

He eventually moved to New York, the center of the industry he loved. And once again, he began knocking on doors offering to work for next to nothing.

“I was not one of those kids who had the [family] infrastructure to subsidize a life in New York,” he says. He worked multiple jobs; he got by. “People should be paid,” he says now. “And paid fairly.”

Miller is engaged in an elaborate form of truth-telling about the fashion industry, whether it’s encouraging a photographer to ask for an itemized budget for a shoot or helping a young designer learn the financial risks of selling wares to a retailer on consignment.

Jewelry designer Jameel Mohammed, 24, has been energized by the validation that comes with IMG recognition — even though he is quick to acknowledge that such validation really shouldn’t be necessary at all.

But Mohammed, who studied political science at the University of Pennsylvania, also understands how fashion is a “war of images,” and that’s a fight more easily tackled from the inside.

He is grateful that Miller is propping open the door.

“You’re not going to see someone like Ethan splashed around New York Fashion Week recaps,” Mohammed says. “I love folks who are focused on ‘How can I make an impact?’ and not just ‘How can I make a splash?’ ”

Correction: This story originally stated that Miller grew up in a black family. He was adopted by white parents and had black siblings.