Young writer TJ Sawyerr presents his new interview series, exclusively on CULTED.
I’m TJ Sawyerr, an 18 year-old, London-based model, director and writer. As a culture journalist working within the fashion industry, I have always been concerned with providing a social context to contemporary trends. Today, we are seeing, more than ever, Black creatives coming to dominate the industry as we know it. Whether that is Black-owned brands such as Corteiz near-monopolising the London Streetwear market, models like Ottawa Kwami and Malick Bodian becoming the international faces of the modelling industry or designers such as Telfar creating an entirely new stigma surrounding namesake labels, the prominence of Black art has never been more pronounced than today. As much as I’d love to sit back and appreciate this Black success, I have an overwhelming desire to know more.
In this series, I’ll be sitting down with some of the industry’s brightest sparks, who represent the culture with their practice and whose work contributes greatly towards altering the stigma surrounding young Black artists, to discuss their unique stories, as well as how their racial identity has fuelled and effected their success within the industry and beyond.
There has, quite simply, never been a more exciting time to be a young and innovative Person of Colour. With the interconnected nature of today’s industry, thanks to the growth of social media, and the gradual abandonment of previous racial and age stereotypes within the working world, raw and youthful Black talent have become increasingly recognised and encouraged, not only in fashion, but in broader creative circles. I, myself, have been a first hand witness of this transition, first embarking upon the industry as a keen, fresh-faced 14 year old, and, since, being able to make my mark and establish myself as a recognised talent before even entering adulthood. I have been lucky enough to be a part of a generation of change, with an increasingly large group of Black creatives making an impact on the industry internationally, in a multi-faceted way that has never been seen before.
Historically, while it is undeniable that a large number of contemporary and historical fashion trends are derived from Black culture, it is well documented that, for hundreds of years, Black folks have not had the commercial opportunity to reap reward from such trends, that they, themselves formulated. Early 20th century designer Ann Lowe is a perfect example of this, as, amongst other impressive exploits, she was responsible for designing one of the most famous wedding dresses in history, that worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. Despite her efforts and the incredible intricacy and still within her design, she was overlooked and uncredited for the dress by both the media and the First Lady herself, and as a result, to this day, she is not recognised with the plaudits that she deserves.
Similarly, Donyale Luna ought to be known as the pioneer for Black models, having been the first Woman of Colour to feature on the cover of Vogue in March 1966. However, as much as Luna’s tremendous feat was a major step forward at face value, the branding of the Detroit native as a ‘Negro’ by the New York Times and ‘a really extraordinary species’ by fellow model Bethann Hardison, was indicative, retrospectively, of the industry’s view of this Black woman as far more of a one-of-a-kind token than a member of the team.
Today, many people will not know the names Ann Lowe and Donyale Luna because they did not and do not receive the media coverage that they deserve as the strong women who set the framework for us to follow.
It was only this side of the new millennium that widespread Black involvement in fashion gradually became more accepted and major labels and industry figures, willingly or forcibly, sacrificed their prejudices. It wasn’t until 47 years after Luna’s cover that Prada hired their first Black model in 2013, and a further 5 years before Alton Mason became the first Black male to walk for Chanel in 2018, so the infiltration of Black talent into the industry has really only picked up momentum over the past 10 years. Not only is that indicative of the disadvantage that has existed and remains for Black creatives but it also means, more importantly, that we, as the flourishing Black creatives of today, are doing things that nobody who looks like us has ever done before.
We are a generation of firsts, built by people with ambition who are unapologetic about who they are: Edward Enninful, first Black editor of British Vogue, Jourdan Dunn, first Black British model on the Forbes List, Virgil Abloh, the first African-American director of Louis Vuitton, just to name a few.
On a personal level, as a Black man, attempting to leave my own legacy in this game, it is super exciting to see so many people like me now beginning to spread their wings in what has always been a white-dominated industry. Growing up, such company did not exist for us. We, as young kids, didn’t have these examples or role models or success stories to look upon, to tell us that we, as Black artists, could make it in this industry. Each and every one of us had to take a risk, we had to take a chance on ourselves against the odds, that we could one day become that success story that we never heard.
I know, from personal experience that it takes a special sort of passion and drive to brave the stereotypes and the scrutiny. Just as my story is unique, I know that every one of my contemporaries, doing amazing things, have similarly fascinating anecdotes that everybody needs to hear. Having the opportunity to sit down and break things down with such talented, like-minded people, is a true blessing for me, and I can only hope that it makes for good reading and can provide that little bit of inspiration that may urge one of you to do something great!