Hello there 🙂
Today the influence of streetwear culture is inevitable. As a witness to the evolving topography of the fashion industry, it's hard to deny the shift in preference to designers who can sell $ 500 logo t-shirts as well as an immaculately tailored suit. A few years ago, the idea of a self-taught designer with little to no training running a famous fashion house sounded almost implausible, but as the recent episodes of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton and Matthew Williams at Givenchy show, streetwear is king.
The hypebeast culture did a lot to significantly accelerate its popularity. Last year, Supreme was valued at $ 1 billion, making it the first streetwear brand to do so. This shows the world that streetwear is a real force to be reckoned with, but the faces depicted wearing those four-digit tracksuits and exclusive sneaker drops don't reflect the history of the culture I grew up with.
It's easy to delve into the allure of high-priced bomber jackets and designer bucket hats, but streetwear at its origins was a style of clothing born out of the necessity and defiance of generations in the black and brown communities. When I look at the mass of visual campaigns from streetwear-related publications and brands, I come across the same trump card as the commercially viable female sneakerhead: often racially ambiguous, with loose curls and the appropriate model physique. It's rare to see a portrayal of the black women I knew who were the first to buy the newest pair of Nikes. You'd almost forget that black women like Mary J Blige, Misa Hylton, and SWV were some of the pioneers in the culture that made wearing oversized fits and chunky gold jewelry cool. In all honesty, there wouldn't be streetwear as we know it today without the trendsetting influence of these women and others who like it.
More and more, as I move through the industry, the connection between its origins and today's marketed appeal seems to be slowly fading. The ubiquitous presence of black founding mothers doesn't feel as celebrated or recognized as their male counterparts. Part of the process of highlighting the contributions of black women to this narrative involves an honest discussion of what streetwear is today and where it is going. To recognize the black women and bring them back into the streetwear narrative, I wanted to speak to some of the taste makers who are working to change the industry from the ground up. In front of you, you'll hear from three black women about the state of streetwear, their fashion icons, and what they are doing to postpone the conversation.
What are your earliest memories of streetwear?
My first introduction was in the late 90's / early 2000's when I snuck out to see BET. Knowing how I grew up as a first generation Caribbean American, I wasn't even allowed to watch BET or MTV, so all I learned about streetwear wasn't necessarily from all of the iconic stylists from the past, but from watching Rap music videos. I noticed all the brands like the FUBUs and the Baby Phats in the world and said, "Okay, I have to wear this. I have to buy this." My school was very preppy in the suburbs so it was different at that time to incorporate these types of styles.
You have worked closely with many streetwear brands in the PR industry. How did that change your style?
After coming to college in New York, my style evolved through my experience at various PR agencies and internships. I've also been influenced by women like Misa Hylton, who is now an advisor to the Black in Fashion Council and just someone I really look up to and admire, and Vashtie, who I've seen a lot at SoHo since living in Tribeca for the time . Essentially, my evolution towards streetwear was firsthand because I didn't have the luxury of being exposed to that culture growing up.
Black women are involved in setting so many fashion trends. Did you see that this type of representation works in PR?
When I worked at PR agencies, I definitely was the Black girl or the black person. When I came to a particular agency later in my career, I was fortunate to have a diverse team and the brands they gave me were the agency's so-called "streetwear" brands. From then on, when I started owning different clients like working with Ronnie to open up Kith and start Kith Treats, people got to know me. But in retrospect, we may not have been given enough opportunities to be divorced from streetwear in that way. However, I have now noticed an increased presence of black publicists in the field. Years ago I was always in LA and New York working on all these big collaborations that exposed me to so many different people from other parts of the fashion industry like Bephie from Union I looked up to and so many more people you would don't necessarily know until you become familiar with the industry. After seeing that, I say, "Okay, there's another me here" or "There's another me here".
When we talk about women like Kimora Lee Simmons with Baby Phat and Angela and Vanessa Simmons with Pastry, why do you think we don't see such huge brand engagement from black women in streetwear?
That's a great question, and I really don't know. I don't think that before recent events, people invested in black women or black people in general. So when we ask questions like, "Where have the investors been? Where should these people start a new brand?" I think a lot of these people were just trying to stay afloat or work in companies that they knew could do better in the industry by working for a certain name. That was really all that was called "possible" at the time. I'm not saying people couldn't go out alone, but if you watch the development of previous urban wear or streetwear brands you may be a little more hesitant. There are so many great people who have worked for the FUBUs, Karl Kanis and the Baby Phats of the World who are in different areas of the fashion industry today and still have a wealth of knowledge or ideas to start their own brand . And maybe they are, or maybe they don't agree with it. Starting a brand is expensive at some level, and at that point it was different. I mean, now we have so many black-owned brands – even over the course of a decade – turning pieces and collections every season, but was that possible 15, 20 years ago? Not really. I'm not sure of the specifics like the cost of the goods, where they sourced their materials, how much it cost to be supported, or if they had two jobs to get there, or if it was a silent one Investor etc. However, we know those who grew up in the area who influenced and inspired many of the non-black owned streetwear brands today.
What changes in the industry do you think are necessary to change this?
I think it just has to be a conscious choice. You must want to help black women. They also want to raise them in rooms where their talents and resources are recognized and used. And not just because we are in a time when people feel they have to. It's so easy now to find new talent. I've met so many black women who have worked behind the scenes in this industry that I wouldn't have known otherwise. Last year I had a call to a very famous streetwear brand and was so shocked to know that the girl I spoke to on the other side of the phone who was their publicist was a black woman. I said to her: "You are black? Oh my god!" It was nice to see. So it's very interesting that we keep growing. People get these positions and their stand in different rooms.
Are there black women in streetwear that you are looking up to right now or women-owned brands that you have your eye on right now?
Well, Beth Gibbs or Bephie who owns Bephies Beauty Supply and Estelle Babenzien who is part owner of Noah. Then you have so many new designers coming through the council that I get to know them like Sade, who founded EDAS. I also like Glazed NYC too. I think there are so many veterans and newcomers out there that we will see one hundred percent more growth. When I retire, I just hope I can pass the baton on to black girls who either work for me or some of my mentees, or just other black women in general. I hope that as an industry, we will continue to advocate black women in various areas of fashion. And for me, whether streetwear or upscale streetwear or shoes, in my opinion there are more rooms and chances that we should definitely continue to work in this wheelhouse in which we are not competing with one another. There doesn't have to be one at the table.
What are your earliest memories of streetwear?
I've always been a solid streetwear / sneaker baby because my name is Jourdon. My mom had me when she was in her twenties, so I was always Jourdan in Jordans, and that's what it looked like. My mother was also my style icon. She played the tomboy and laid back baggy '90s style very well, so even pieces she had in her twenties are pieces that are mine now. When I got older I was a Karmaloop girl. I also liked Rocawear and Baby Phat, but when I bought my own stuff it was Karmaloop for me. There's a shop in SoHo called Michael K, and I've been there every week.
It's really weird because I interned for every streetwear brand or shop that I fell in love with. Married to the mob was one of my favorites as a teenager, and I interned for her right out of college. On the other hand, I wore Stüssy all through high school, but I didn't really get to Supreme until college. It was about finding out what I liked and knowing how to make it my own because I went to a high school where we had to wear a uniform almost every day. The only time we had to brag was our dressing days, and when those days came I made sure I wore my fresh Married to the Mob with a pair of H&M jeans and dunks with the lace-up headband.
What was the moment that led to the creation of True to Us?
A friend who works in journalism sent me a DM about a publication doing another podcast of the same show he already has and only features men. At that moment, it was like one of those moments when I realized that I could be the change I wanted to see or that I could complain about it. There are many times that it is said, "Me am This is the change I want to see and I am a little tired. "But it's also like this:" What is stopping me? “In journalism, they teach you that you have to put your name on a publication to be successful. But as the pandemic showed us, that's not true. So many people I know used their voices during the pandemic. Inspired by that, I did what I did best: I started my community All my people together because these were conversations I had already had separately with my homegirls on Twitter or in small Nike meetings. I just brought them all in one place with True to Us.
What were some of these conversations?
I think it's more that the story that is being told, or at least marketed, in the streetwear and sneaker space is that black women are looking in a certain direction. That's the biggest thing I hear over and over again. I can ask the same question to different black women, and they'll always say the same thing, "There's always that one girl with big curly hair who you're not sure if she's black. As if she could be black, but there is is ambiguous.It feels like a sign. She doesn't represent me and what I look like or what my neighbor looks like. "The problem is that she doesn't represent most of the black women. It's like we're in this area of marketing where brands think they can have a black girl in their ads and that's totally cool. That's not enough. It is the same rhetoric for everything – it's not enough that just one store made an exclusive women's drop for the recently released silver Jordan 1s. It's like women have to struggle all the time to be seen and that's why in streetwear and sneaker industry. And that's why True to Us highlights different black content creators in these areas. We speak to different black women in different areas of these industries.
You have been able to work at some very popular streetwear companies. Have you seen a lot of black women in these rooms?
I actually didn't see that at all. I have been the only black woman in most of the places I have interned. I was one of two black women at Married to the Mob, and I remember working there on my days off from my full-time job fresh from college. I interned for Vashtie and Married to the Mob at the same time, and neither of them paid me. At first it was like, "Okay, cool, I don't mind not getting paid if I can learn from it." And so I remember like sitting at Married to the Mob waiting for something, and that was when the company was in its prime. But I didn't learn anything. And then I just realized that I spend my days off here to learn about streetwear, to learn about being a boss, and I don't really do anything. So i left
After that, I started practicing for Vashtie and working for her on my lunch breaks. It was the same, however. I've just been waiting for that moment when it's like we have this heart to heart and you tell me what it's like to be a black woman in streetwear, to be one of the first black women to have her own Jordan Has. I was just waiting. I have often waited for those moments when I try to give people through True to Us now.
What did you learn from this experience?
I feel like I've wasted a lot of time. I went the journalism route into streetwear because no one ever told me how to get into this business. Nobody ever came to our high school during job fairs and said, "Hey, this is how you get into the industry. Even if you don't want to design your own things, that's how you do it. Even if you want to work on the marketing end, do it that way." You it "and no one was ever there to tell us. So for me I looked complexI looked The fader and I say, "Okay, this is my end." I did an internship with my streetwear idol and I loved growing up with cool brands, but I didn't learn anything. So I stepped back from it.
How do you see the industry now?
I haven't really seen too many black women, although right now I think I'm seeing a lot of us. Some of these women come to me and I still feel like a little kid interned. I am still learning and recording so much. I just wish I had this six or seven years ago because I think I would have had a different path, or I would have gotten on this trip sooner.
In your opinion, what changes need to be made in order for the streetwear and sneaker industry to increase diversity?
I need everyone to get all the goals and deeds that you put into practice in June right. When there was this social billing and everyone was looking for ways to support the Black Community, right now during Black History Month, I need to see these receipts. That is, you actually do the work. That means that not only do you choose a Melody Ehsani to work with, but you dig deep into the girl who was always like Melody and does her own iterations of sweatpants or sketch sneakers on the train – she guesses that girl and that talent . Can we still have an Aleali Mai sneaker? Absolutely. But can we get a sneaker from the girl who looks up to Aleali Mai, who isn't going to be designing exactly the same sneaker as her? Absolutely; There is room for both. It's all about brands actually doing the job. That said, you know we don't just select models who are your friends, we dig deep and don't just pick the same five girls to appear in campaigns or events. Because you know that after a while, it's like looking at marketing and realizing that it's the exact same girl. Or it's the same girl but with a different name.
What can streetwear brands learn from True to Us?
I don't think these big brands talk to people. You're not talking to the consumer. They don't talk to the girl who switches from her Hush Puppies to her Nike on the way to school because she has to fly in her uniform. You don't talk to these people who have the stories. I learned so much just by talking to people and sharing.
What made you go into fashion and create Mama Banna?
I first started taking sewing lessons and then the idea gradually grew. It was basically because I was a lover of fashion. I've always felt that fashion was a way for me to express my beliefs and cultural heritage and when I looked at other brands out there I just felt that my Eritrean background was particularly absent from my fashion choices. I really had nowhere to go to reflect that part of myself. At the same time, I noticed a lot of Eritrean and Ethiopian artists and creatives popping up, and I felt that there was probably a need for this type of fashion brand outside of me, for the wider community.
Was streetwear present in your Eritrean upbringing or in the Eritrean community?
At home, whenever we are asked to wear a cultural dress, it is always for weddings or formal events, and we wear dresses. This is really the only way to express or re-train culture through fashion. Streetwear wasn't a thing at all. So yes, that's part of it. The whole idea behind Mama Banna was that I wanted to wear things that reflected my cultural heritage, and not just during weddings.
I noticed that you included Brooklyn, Amara, and LA on your Instagram bio. Do you spend time in all of these places?
I purposely included all three cities – Asmara, Brooklyn, and LA – in the brand's Instagram bio. I've noticed a lot of blacks have traveled to the continent lately, and I would really love it if we had a three-coast lifestyle where we have another – or multiple coasts – that we consider important creative Centers in Africa. I think this will be the future, the wave of more people returning to the continent will be so much stronger.
Obviously so many more people are moving home with the pandemic and as these people integrate, like when they have more and more of their lives out there, I think there will be more reasons to visit. That was also part of the idea with Mama Banna. I come from LA and Eritrea is on the east coast of Africa right on the Red Sea, so I see many parallels between the coastal cultures. I didn't get the feeling that African culture was really tied to a coastal culture that often exists, even though there is this whole continent with multiple coasts. I hope this will help fill that void. I don't understand why that can't be part of the lifestyle too.
Do you inspire other streetwear brands?
I'm really inspired by Stüssy. I love how they held onto what they knew best and everything they do is just beautiful. There's also this pride in just wearing a simple shirt that has Stüssy on it, unlike I think it's wearing a Supreme shirt. You know, when someone wears a Stussy shirt, it really feels like they represent a certain belief system or certain values - like there is something with integrity behind them. And I look forward to it and to your ability to keep it up for so many years. I hope that someday, or even today, when someone wears Mama Banna or just mentions Mama Banna, people would remember the values that go with it. Aside from aesthetics, I would consider this aspect to be very important to my brand.
Everything from Mama Bana is financed from its own resources and everything that is made is reinvested in the business. Everything that is sustainable or lasts a long time, I believe, is built stone by stone, person by person. Even if I only get one new job or ten new jobs from people I've never met who really resonate with the brand, it really feels like I'm building it right. The community's reaction was also very nice. I keep getting messages like "Carry on," "Thank you for doing this for us," and "I've never seen anything like this before." I just think it's a powerful thing to bring your attention back to your culture because all of our things are cool. It just takes someone to really dig and present it in a certain way.
What changes would you like to see in the streetwear industry?
Especially in streetwear, especially in the hype-beast culture, territory is part of it, but with this fast-fashion approach to streetwear, many pieces feel kind of empty. It just feels like any aesthetic and not what streetwear was originally supposed to do to reflect a culture or group of people and be something everyone believes in. I would love to see people not into that kind of emptiness some of them shop for the drops that I see and I hope to get more of the brands instead of just buying a t-shirt because it's really cool and that was & # 39; s. I want you to tell me a story or use the clothes subversively to express something. Everyone wants to make a statement with what they're wearing and use this property to really tell a story or project their own personal beliefs. And I just want more from brands.
Luxury fashion with streetwear is also new territory, because for me streetwear is something that is accessible to people. It seems a bit contradicting to ask for $ 1000 for a t-shirt that would likely cost $ 5 to make. I understand the concept of supply and demand, but I'm not exactly sure how that will affect the industry.
One of the things that strikes me a lot is that I don't see many black women at the helm of big streetwear labels who get the same recognition as a Supreme. Is this how you feel in business?
It feels like this is happening a lot. It's like when blacks do it, it's called "urban", but when whites do it, it's called "streetwear". Or like Justin Bieber it was called "pop music" but when a black artist does it it is called "R&B". It's unfortunate that I don't really see many black women in streetwear, even though they were born to black women.