To the untrained eye, it might seem like Black Canadian fashion designers didn’t exist until last month. Last month must be when they all materialized, because that’s when so many of them were curated into listicles and Instagram round-up posts that smacked of wonder and spritely discovery.
In fact, last month also happens to be when protests against anti-Black racism broke out across the world — protests that prompted so many people to Google “Black-owned businesses” to support that the search term reached an all-time high throughout the United States.
Finally, people are looking. And George Sully, the Toronto-based fashion entrepreneur and footwear designer, wants to ensure they find what’s been there all along.
This week, Sully launched a website for the Black Designers of Canada (BDoC) index: a comprehensive, interactive directory of Black designers that aims to correct the way they’ve been marginalized, overlooked and underexposed throughout Canadian fashion and design history.
It’s the first resource of its kind, and it includes not only fashion designers, but also accessory, graphic, interior, industrial, and furniture designers. “The point is to lessen the excuses that the industry often makes to justify excluding us,” Sully told HuffPost Canada, over a phone call. “When you’re looking at more than 130 of us on a webpage, it’s hard to say we don’t exist.”
Watch: Krys Lunardo and George Sully discuss Black Designers of Canada with ET Canada. Story continues below.
Sully has been working in the fashion industry for 15 years, and says racism has always been a systemic force he’s had to shadowbox. Securing bank loans, grants, and media attention is much tougher for Black designers, he says. (In fact, a recent report from the US Federal Reserve found that Black-owned firms are twice as likely to be rejected for bank loans — and COVID-19 might be exacerbating that situation.)
And the problem often turns out to be cyclical: buyers refuse to bring Black Canadian fashion designers into stores because they claim those designers aren’t popular enough; by further omitting them from shelves, these designers fail to generate the exposure that would make them popular enough to be brought into stores. Sully, himself, has fallen prey to these patterns. He’s struggled with fashion magazines refusing to cover his brands, and then blaming those omissions on his absence from mainstream press, as though that indicates a lack of public interest. He’s even had buyers procrastinate on pulling from his lines and then, at the end of the season, claim they’re “out of budget” and can’t make any purchases. The cycles never end.
“That’s all just a way for them to ignore us while maintaining plausible deniability,” Sully says. “We know how much Black people contribute to fashion and to culture. So where are the designers in the stores?”
Sully is the co-founder of the minimalist shoe brand Sully Wong. He’s also the co-founder of House of Hayla, which specializes in monochromatic heels made with vegan materials. He’s the founder of Shoenado, a private label design consultancy. He’s the designer behind the iconic Starfleet Boot you’d have seen if you watch CBS’s Star Trek Discovery.
And yet, for all his contributions to the industry, he says he’s rarely been archived, collected or written about. His story has not been told, and he hopes to end that pattern among other Black designers with this directory.
Sully’s story is not uncommon — and it certainly isn’t unique to Canada. The fashion industry has long allowed racism to run unchecked, in the castings of models, the appointments of fashion designers, and in brands like Gucci and Prada releasing bewilderingly racist products.
In fact, just last month, more than 250 Black fashion professionals signed a public letter addressed to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, accusing the organization of allowing “exploitative cultures of prejudice, tokenism and employment discrimination to thrive.”
“We will no longer be relegated to the backseat, or worse yet, completely sidelined altogether,” the letter read, “we have ceased waiting indefinitely for others to grant us equal access to opportunity, locked out of the very rooms within which we should lead the collaborative work of righting those wrongs we endure.”
When Sully announced his plans to develop the index early last month, and made a post about it on Instagram, submissions quickly began pouring in. A week after the callout went up, some 200 submissions had come through.
And though people were elated that somebody had finally taken on the project of collecting the designers, it was also a painful clarification how they’ve all been sidelined.
“Looking through all of those submissions felt so dark,” Sully says. “It was a reminder of how many times that crime of omission has been done. It was just like, another one ... another one ... another one …”
Sully hopes the BDoC directory will be used as an official resource for buyers, local boutiques, photographers, as well as the stylists who have the power to set trends in the glossy magazines they work with.
“For the first time, it seems like Canada is owning up to and acknowledging its racist history,” Sully says. “Hopefully, now we can start doing something about it.”