NYC’s insiders on the past, present and future of Black women in fashion

Telsha Anderson, Shelby Ivey Christie and Channing Hargrove come from three different corners of New York’s fashion scene. Together, they explore building communities online, what representation truly looks like, and what Telfar Clemens and his team get right.

It’s a particularly exhilarating yet frustrating experience to be a Black woman who is actively carving out a place in New York’s fashion industry. It is to be both simultaneously ignored and copied. Your tone is policed but your colloquialisms are added to website copy to make it ‘voice-y’. And I would know. I’ve spent the bulk of my writing career centring Black women and our narratives in my stories, long before it was a trend to do so, or an editorial box to check off. Notably, I spent three years in the United States writing for popular women’s media company, Refinery29, as fashion news editor where I made it a goal from the very beginning to tell stories like the very one you’re reading. I experienced tons of pushback from upper management as a result, despite being one of the founding members of Unbothered, R29’s fastest-growing sub-brand for millennial Black women, by Black women. I left the company in January 2020.

Then, in March 2020, New York began to quarantine in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, levelling the playing field. People were forced to innovate. And as the country shut down, Black Lives Matter protests erupted globally, after a Minnesota police officer killed a Black man, George Floyd‚ pressing his knee into his neck for over nine minutes (43 seconds longer than the previously reported 8:46). With this racial reckoning as a backdrop, but also amid a flurry of racist incidents in the industry, the fashion world vowed it would change. And while that remains to be seen, the two Black women I spoke to over Zoom from our respective hometowns are a tiny piece of that shift. I did my part, too. When the little black squares started popping up on Instagram, I called out Refinery with both current and former colleagues in a series of social media posts and subsequent interviews with publications, resulting in the editor-in-chief, the global president and the chief content officer leaving the company. Over and over, we’ve heard that if you just get out of Black women’s way and let them do the work they want to do, everyone benefits. I want to introduce you to two such women.

Telsha Anderson and Shelby Ivey Christie met five years ago when they each worked at magazines in downtown Manhattan. Anderson was a social media coordinator for Food & Wine, while Christie worked as a digital marketing and sales planner for Vogue. Since then, Anderson has opened t.a., her independently-owned boutique in the Meatpacking district. The 27-year-old says it was by the grace of God she was able to open in the midst of a pandemic, when other, more established businesses were shutting down left, right, and centre. I suspect it has more to do with her tenacity.

Christie, whom I often reached out to while I was at Refinery29 for quotes to add historical context to my pieces—so my white colleagues were not able to discredit the points I was making—is back in school working on her MA in Costume Studies at New York University. She’s created quite a name for herself, sharing accessible Black fashion history with her social media followers, and reworking the narrative of fashion through the lens of race, class, and culture, earning a spot on Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 list.

CHANNING HARGROVE: Social media is such an important part of the communities each of you have built. Was it always like this?

SHELBY IVIE CHRISTIE: When I first started making content, Blackness in fashion, lack of diversity, and inclusion were taboo subjects. Publishers and brands were not trying to cover these topics, so social media was really the only outlet where I could talk about it. Now, there are other ways for me to talk about that information—whether it’s partnering with brands, going on TV, or holding internal workshops. The subject matter can live in other formats now. I don’t have to be as involved with social media, but it’s not a chore for me. I love it and enjoy it.

TELSHA ANDERSON: I never really wanted my face on my Instagram, I just wanted to show stuf I liked. But when I opened the t.a. store and the pandemic hit, there was no opportunity for me to be there and show what I had been working on, so I started putting myself in the clothes and it kind-of just took off from there. I started taking the tips I used to give to people when I was consulting—I would just go back to review my notes and literally swap out their name for my name. I’m very grateful to have had that experience. And then for t.a., I have a wonderful girl called Maura, a student at the New School. She reached out and said she loved what I was doing. She was one of the first people to ever reach out, it was like a blessing from above. And she now does our social and our graphics, and she kills it.

Photograph Christopher Tomás Smith, courtesy Telsha Anderson

CH: Telsha, you called Maura a blessing. How does your faith and spirituality play out in maintaining your life in New York City?

TA: I’m looking forward to talking about it more because, you know, I’m a believer. I was really leaning on my faith to guide me through the process of opening the store and praying for wisdom, discernment, and what to do, because some of the best stores that I loved and grew up with in the city were closing. I believe that God brought me my fiancé. I have faith in the store and in just allowing Him to do what He does in all areas of my life.

SIC: I’m with Telsha on that. If it weren’t for God protecting me and getting me into spaces I never thought I would be in… I’m very open about that. I am able to do my part, but really, He does most of the work. Throughout the pandemic, it’s just been good to be able to slow down, be away from New York, to really self-reflect, and to spend time in God’s presence. I think being in New York and always going through the motions, you never really have time to stop and ask yourself questions like, ‘is this really what I want to do? Why do I want to do this? Is it because this is an industry expectation, or is it something I want?’

CH: Shelby, why was it important for you to go back to school?

SIC: When I first went back, I was focused on my mission to preserve Black fashion history, which at the time was not done widely. I think—not in a self-centred way—that my impact has echoed out into the industry. Now there’s way more conversation about the historical impact that Blackness has had on fashion because of the work I’ve done to amplify it. But before that work started three years ago, it wasn’t something we saw in the greater fashion conversation. And it’s still absent from a lot of the academic and art world conversations. Like, at the 2019 Met Gala, camp was missing a lot of Blackness in it. It raised that awareness, I think, to the general public, like, okay, the art world and the academic world are starkly white and come from a very white Western perspective.

CH: I love that when you’re sharing information online, you use memes and GIFs. It makes the conversation relatable to people who enjoy fashion, but not from an academic point-of-view.

SIC: It was a goal of mine to make the language accessible because that’s a form of systemic racism—when the language is not colloquial. It presents a barrier to a lot of different people. I also make a conscious choice to speak in my regular voice, so you’re going to hear my ‘y’all’.

Photography Breonna T. Collier, courtesy Shelby Ivey Christie

CH: How are each of you building personal archives? What does that look like?

SIC: A lot of my archive is historical documentation. One of my first archive purchases was a catalogue from the National Association of Fashion & Accessories Designers, a Black organisation founded back in the 1930s with the help of Mary McLeod Bethune, and it was like a Black Council of American Fashion Designers. I felt like it was really important to preserve that and find something that original, you know, which I can have and keep and see. I have a lot of magazines and catalogues from the 1920s and 1930s. I like to get fashion pieces I love that I may not wear every day, but I think will be important later down the line—a lot of Black designers. I keep packaging. I keep all of my tags, particularly for Black purchases. So like, Antoine Gregory launched his Black Fashion Fair and when he ships his orders, they come in a beautifully—packaged box. He has all the branding—the tissue, paper cards, pins—and I keep all that stuff. You know, we go to museums, and we don’t always see the branding, we see the clothes.

TA: My archiving is a lot of imagery. I search the web: Tumblr, Pinterest, Google pages, you know, people’s personal pages, just for images. Then I group them by what I deem them to be: colours, Black artists, furniture, etc. I archive them that way. I also collect a lot of magazines, like, it’s actually ridiculous. Recently, I bought three of the Andy Warhol Interview magazines. I have the ones with Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin in the store. I might have to take them out of the store. Everyone keeps offering to buy them. Someone literally tried to take one with them as if it was a souvenir. I’m like, wait.

CH: You opened the store, Telsha, and then New York shut down because of COVID-19. But then when George Floyd was killed, there was an uptick in support for Black businesses. How did that feel as a very new brand?

TA: It was like a double-edged sword. We were set to open our brick-and-mortar store in March and we couldn’t because of COVID, so we opened our e-commerce before I opened fully in July. But the press run, as some people like to call it—which is hilarious—started around George Floyd’s passing. So the support came rolling in, and of course it was nice. On top of the passing of George Floyd, retail and fashion was going through what it was going through, you know. Certain people were speaking out on their experiences with certain brands, certain people are speaking out on the lack of Black and brown creatives that are put at the forefront. It was great, but it’s also like, you know, I would have given all that back for his life.

CH: How did each of you feel seeing the black squares on Instagram go up over the summer, and then the subsequent conversation that came from it, where it’s like, ‘how dare you post this square? And there’s no one who looks like me in your office?’

SIC: It was frustrating as someone who works on the corporate side of luxury and fashion. I understood it was the optics of diversity and inclusion, but not the institutionalising and implementation of diversity and inclusion. A lot of it is brands wanting to come to Black creators or people of colour and ask them, ‘okay, what should we be doing?’ It’s like, that’s not our labour to undo. It’s not an issue we created. We’ve been screaming and yelling about this for years, decades now. You know, absorb it and figure it out. Personally, I really want to see a change in fashion around white nepotism. That’s something which didn’t really come up in conversations. It’s a whole other side of diversity and inclusion that gets left out of the greater conversation. We can’t change the diversity and hire Black people and people merit to be there, the way they treat work is going to be different.

TA: When I saw those black squares on Instagram, I had to distance myself from how angry they were making me. Similar to what Shelby was saying, I was the only Black person in the room—and still am, in a lot of rooms. It was unfortunate to see some of those same people I was in those same rooms with performing. You want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but you also want them to know how they treated you and how wrong it was. It was a lot of emotions for me at the time. I’m grateful to have had certain people just reach out to me personally because they knew what I’ve been through in my past roles which is also, to some extent, performative. I think the best we could do is continue to have the necessary and uncomfortable conversations.

Photography Taylor Baldwin, courtesy Channing Hargrove

CH: I think we all touched on this briefly, but I want to talk about how diversity is starting to feel like tokenism. It’s like, ‘okay, we’ll throw the Black model in the ad so they’ll be quiet and we won’t be called out on social media. We’ll just do the bare minimum.’ What is it going to take to get past that?

TA: I’ve gotten a lot of questions from different interviews where people say, ‘hey, do you feel like there’s been a change?’ And it’s like, it’s only been eight months. It’s going to take a long time to see the change we want, not because we’re not speaking out, and not because we’re not doing our part, but because of how broken this system is. You can’t just take eight months, put a couple of photographers out there, and a couple models out there, and think that’s it.

SIC: I empathise with my creators, because I’m a dual citizen, right? I’m in business, I work in marketing in my nine-to-five, full-time in fashion, but I’m a creative in the history side of my career. So I have one foot in both worlds. But on the corporate side, I don’t see as much conversation about the pay gap, or even the nuances of the buying process. Do Black designers get the same penalty fee as white designers when they’re a few days late on delivering their wholesale orders? It’s those kinds of things I want to hear. When Margiela misses a few days on a wholesale order, is it the same as if a Black designer is delayed because we know Black designers don’t have the same access to demand planning and manufacturing infrastructure?

I want to know who’s on the board, who’s on the marketing teams. I’ve been in too many rooms where there’s no diversity on the business side, and at the corporate functions, and on up to the executive suite. And that trickles down. I know on the beauty side back in June, there was a call for brands to release their executive suite’s diversity breakout and I don’t recall any of them being over 10%, or I think even 7% or 8% Black executive leadership. And that worries me, because we know that issues for people of colour are not the same as the issues for Black people, right? The Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial happened on the watch of a Southeast Asian. There are nuances. Yes, there might be people of colour in that room, but they have different kinds of cultural concerns and agendas.

CH: Let’s talk about someone who had a really good 2020: Telfar Clemens. I’m curious to know each of your thoughts, from a historical context of Black ownership. Shelby and Telsha, from a retail point-of-view, and his sales model—what do you each think?

TA: It’s the strategy for me, right? It’s funny you asked that because I was just looking at my Telfar bag, like, I can’t wait to wear it. But I think their strategic model is incredible. They took it upon themselves to create a bag that’s not only a quality price point, but a reasonably good quality bag in quality colours, for all different types of people. The amount of girls coming into our store with that bag on…

I love what they do on social. I think one of the quickest ways to grow your brand is to show love to the customers buying it. And I think they did so in an incredible way that’s still organic to them. You know, from a retailer perspective, it’s also great when something sells out, and people know it and they’re talking about it. They want it and then it’s gone. Then it comes back and you’re like, now I need it. I remember there was a girl shopping at my store, she was talking to me and stopped mid-conversation to buy the bag. And I was cracking up. I’m like, I get it.


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SIC: I agree. As a marketer, I love Telfar’s social. I love that they leverage user-generated content—not enough brands do that or know how to do it right. And they do it right. It showcases his customers, showing them love, but also allows us to see the bag in its organic, liveable state, not in like, a super editorial, artificial environment. I love that we get to see the bag out in people’s lives.

From a historical perspective, I think it’s groundbreaking because it’s brought us a kind of myth busting. The idea of it reframing what exclusivity and luxury means. Because, you know, it’s not exclusive. The price is one of the most accessible in the bag’s category. In my marketing and historian hats, I’ve been fighting to prove why Black consumers are very valuable. And I think this bag is a great kind of gut punch to the industry—to say like, ‘hey, Black consumers are viable.’ They’re luxury, aspirational, they can buy luxury. You know, this is something they have an appetite for, and will support very well if you speak to them, if you’re communicating and connecting with them in an organic way.

I love the inclusivity. I love the way he has addressed gender or lack thereof, right? Like, I see men carry these bags, I see women carry these bags, I see people who are non-binary carry these bags, and no one—at least no one I’ve seen—is like, why does this person have that bag? It’s understood. It’s a universal bag, and we’re all gonna carry it. So I love that too because traditionally, in the Black community, we don’t see it. You know, when Lil Uzi Vert or Young Thug were wearing their bags five or six years ago, the homophobia jumped out. Yeah, shout out to our LGBTQ+ fam for really starting this decades ago. They’ve been wearing the bags, and you know, blurring the lines between gender.

I think he’s really pioneered that, and I love to see that because, you know, those are very sensitive hot button topics: masculinity and its definition in the Black community. And adjacent to a lot of artists in hip-hop, we know how toxic that side of masculinity can be sometimes. So I love to see its fluidity. Everyone loves it.

CH: Last question. What are you excited for?

SIC: I think I’m excited about the innovation in the industry. Working at luxury institutions and legacy institutions, they hold on to their heritage so tightly sometimes that it’s hard to push innovation in those spaces. But with COVID, there’s been so much immediate change. I can’t wait to see how the industry meets this new world once we’re back outside and how, you know, it kind of changes. That keeps me excited.

Black creatives are feeling empowered and there’s a community that wants to meet and really amplify them. I love to see newness, and I think there was an attitude before that when you were Black, your ready-to-wear category was straight to urban or streetwear. Now I think, you know, there’s more room and fluidity for Black designers to exist outside of that. Kind of like how artists had to be hip-hop only, and had to—really still are—fighting to move out of that genre. I see it kind of happening with Black designers. And that excites me too.

TA: I’m excited and looking forward to more discovery. Not only people discovering t.a. and discovering who I am and what I’m about, but my discovering them. I think now’s the time to do that. And when we’re out of what we’re in, I think it’ll continue.


*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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