Maison Black is an entrepreneur’s attention-grabbing dream of celebrating Black designers. It’s also a reminder that race is both everything … and nothing at all.
The idea was seeded about five years ago when founder Tori Nichel Gibbs was preparing for an event and realized that she no longer fit into the options that were already in her closet. She wanted to wear the work of a Black designer but realized there wasn’t an easy way to shop their collections if you didn’t already know precisely who they were. And if it was that time-consuming for someone like her, someone who’d worked in fashion for years at brands like Kenneth Cole and Tibi, how challenging must it be for the average consumer who wanted to back up their activism with their purchasing power?
Maison Black finally launched last week with collections from a half-dozen men and women, each of them with substantial experience on Seventh Avenue. Before the site went live, those designers presented a small sampling of their aesthetic in a runway show in Detroit. It was a homecoming for them, as well as for Gibbs, who grew up just outside the city in West Bloomfield. And despite having built a fashion career in New York — under the name Tori Nichel — she retains an affection for Detroit, its manufacturing roots and its renewed possibilities since emerging from bankruptcy in 2014.
The event attracted no small amount of attention within the fashion world, so much so that Gibbs, who is Black, still sounded overwhelmed several days later. “I know I’m working with phenomenal designers, but for someone who’s been behind the scenes for two decades … it’s amazing,” she says. The spotlight was particularly bright, in part, because the Italian fashion company Bottega Veneta had also parachuted into the predominantly Black city for its own show. The brand’s creative director, Daniel Lee, was drawn to Detroit by his love of techno music and cars. Bottega Veneta’s substantial footprint in the industry attracted a large contingent of editors, who were intrigued both by Detroit’s history and the way in which the city is being touted as an artistic cauldron.
Timing is everything, and Maison Black’s is impeccable even if it’s somewhat accidental.
In the arc between concept and execution, the culture had shifted. Inclusivity was front of mind. Networking initiatives were born, scholarships for aspiring designers had been set up, job banks were in the offing, mass retailers were promising to stock more Black-owned brands, and the industry as a whole was promising to do better.
“Everybody was saying they were going to do things for the Black or BIPOC community,” Gibbs says, referring to efforts to also tackle inequality among those who identify as Indigenous or as a person of color. But she thought: “We deserve to have something more.”
The variety of sensibilities on the runway — vividly patterned silks, brightly tailored suiting, indigo sportswear, unisex ready-to-wear, glittering jumpsuits — was a reminder that the only thing ostensibly linking these designers, aside from having at some point called Detroit home, was race. That was central to the event. Yet its very centrality was proof of how little it ultimately mattered.
Here were these creative souls drawn together because so many Black designers have for so long gone unknown, underappreciated or underestimated. These were not recent design school graduates lacking in real-world experience. In all likelihood, the average person has worn clothes that their discerning eyes have realized. In the rush to open the doors of opportunity to newcomers, there are veterans who deserve a bit of sunlight. Shawna McGee has designed for Donna Karan, Anne Klein and Ralph Lauren. Aaron Potts has had a hand in collections at Victoria’s Secret and Ellen Tracy. Nicole King worked for the Gap. Sharryl Cross worked for J. Crew and Juicy Couture. Isaiah Hemmingway’s expertise is evident at Tory Burch.
And while the average person may not have worn one of Kevan Hall’s extravagant gowns, they have surely admired them when they’ve floated down the red carpet. Perhaps you’ve heard his name when Debra Messing or Sandra Oh or Felicity Huffman answered the question: Who are you wearing?
It can be a complicated thing to ask someone to delineate their work by linking themselves to a particular community. What does it mean to declare oneself a Black designer when there are a thousand other adjectives that better describe one’s work? It can feel forced or constraining. All the designers featured on the website are Black, but that has nothing to do with their clothes. That distinction is a simple one, but it’s also been a concept that has historically been challenging for the fashion industry to grasp. Too often, Blackness is incorrectly treated as aesthetic destiny.
The fashion business likes to lump Black designers together or simply dismiss them. But in Detroit, in front of an audience gathered inside a historic auto factory that has been transformed into a museum, Black designers defined themselves. They leaned into race on their own terms. And on a night when they chose to shine as one, their individuality was blinding.