Does race still matter?

After talking to a new designer, I’m wondering if I need a reality check.

This designer -a 40 year old black professional woman with an advanced degree- is new with two collections under her belt. Like many designers today, it’s been hard to get off the ground. She’s wondering if it’s hurting sales that she used a black model for her clothes because a buyer said they weren’t interested in an urban streetwear line. I saw the line, it’s not urban. The styling is definitely architectural, similar to Junya Watnabe.

Without linking to her because I don’t want to put her on the spot, I would say her model is attractive and nicely proportioned. She doesn’t have any obvious tattoos or piercings (that is a turn off for a lot of people, sorry if that annoys you). She’s not a professional in that she’s skeletal but she is taller and thinner than the average woman with some upper arm definition. Isn’t that supposed to be in style now? Michelle Obama has some muscles. I don’t think this model looks “urban”, whatever that means.

I told this designer her problems were more likely related to a challenging economy and to not take the comments of one stray racist to heart. But now I’m wondering if I’m an idiot because I can’t believe that race could still matter to people in this day and age. It annoys me that someone could call this an urban line. I am well aware there is no parity of national origin in design or modeling but do people really care about the race of someone’s model to the extent they won’t buy?

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  1. Maura says:

    WOW!!! just came in on all this and I think it’s a wonderful read. I know about the song from Billie Holiday and also Souxie covered it in the eighties(which ripped my heart out). The inspiration for the song feels like a memory so old it belongs to someone else. Looking into it sounds good.

    When I saw “Strange Fruit Clothing” I just saw a name that a designer gave her line for her own reasons I did not assume the correlation. I remember wondering about trans sexual reference and then all I could see was the jacket…. I mean damn.. Its a nice jacket…

    After looking at all the pictures I could find, I came to this, “Well I suppose I’ll just have to see it in person when we finally make it through Philly” Because honestly .. I didn’t feel like I could really get the sense of it completely… I was squinting or turning the pictures… and I love looking at fashion shots. I’m a hairdresser/painter/metal smith who gets Barneys email just for her fix..(getting in PASSION is one of my secret dreams). I do have to say a name is a link or a key; a way to get people involved personally with an “artists story” having history or background..behind a name is a powerful thing…a thing of richness, and of individuality. We create from the middle of ourselves or from a place so far outside we reach for it on tip toe… the NAME is….

    Then of course I wondered about the RACE thing… Did you ever hear John Lennon’s song “Woman is the —— of the World” ( I don’t know how to …I grew up in a place where if you ain’t that color you don’t use that word). Anyway…I wondered if it was true; is it more of an issue being black and a woman? I’ve always felt it was naive and possibly slightly (head in the sand) blind to think otherwise; but I don’t know this from personal experience.

    I forgot to mention, Miracle has my vote on the best info…

  2. “typical.”

    What’s that supposed to mean?

    Look, some people take horror very seriously. No matter what you’re advocating, they are never going to support a brand that mines lynching or the holocaust or war for marketing imagery. They just aren’t, and it has nothing to do with being too ignorant to understand your intent. If you make the choice to go ahead, you are going to appeal to people who think like you and alienate people who don’t, and you’re likely to generate strong feelings both ways.

    Strong feelings are a good thing.

    And, I put it to you, if lynching arouses strong feelings of revulsion in people such that it creates an aversive to your brand (or to any store that carried it), this says something good about people. There’s an argument to be made for reclaiming your history, but there is also an argument to be made that there is nothing to reclaim here. Not everyone has embraced a postmodern education, and there’s no need to be rude to them about that.

    Ok, so *your* customers are postmodern. Fine. I’m cool with that. Really. I don’t really get postmodern myself, but I’m not your customer so it’s not a problem.

    But please show a little respect for people whose gut reaction is not cool the way you are cool. You have been generously given a great deal of thoughtful input from diverse sources. You may not use it all, some may be misguided or not what you were looking for. But please be respectful anyway.

  3. Wacky Hermit says:

    Ordinary consumer here, of what some people would term “white ethnic” and others “hispanic” depending on what contorted definition of “hispanic” gets used. My parents raised me to believe that all people are people and black people are just people who happen to have dark skin, just like some people happen to have blue eyes. And then I moved to Los Angeles and learned differently– from black people themselves. I was not to look them in the eye and greet them as I greet everyone else. I learned that real fast after being threatened for doing so.

    This is a difficult thing to say and I hope nobody will take it personally, but I find that many (and certainly nowhere near all) black people are so used to being treated as a separate class that when people try not to treat them as a separate class, they spurn the effort. I cannot think of any other race besides black where someone would even think a clothing line was marketed solely to that race. But this impression exists precisely BECAUSE there’s a movement to make things “just for” blacks– black TV shows with black stars, black music, black this and black that. I don’t fault the promoters of these things for seeing the world that way and I certainly would do nothing to stop them from marketing their products however they wish. But I think it’s important to realize that the longer this persists, the longer it will take to get to the post-racial world we all desire, where a designer who happens to be black can promote a line of clothing using a model who happens to be black and it will never occur to anybody that the clothes might be only for blacks.

    Kristin, keep up the good work; the fact that it didn’t at first occur to you that it might be perceived that you were marketing solely to blacks means that you are getting us closer to that world.

  4. Marlena,

    In my own case, I am not offended by “strangefruit” but I am offended by “Banana Republic.” Since I’m not a Banana Republic customer, it’s just not a problem for them so all is fine.

    There’s no giant committee that makes rules about what is “acceptable” or not. It’s just the marketplace. There are mothers who would never buy a product called “Poo Pockets” either, but it’s a successful diaper brand. It might be even *more* successful with a better name, but that decision is purely up to the owners. Not an “acceptablity committee.”

  5. marlena says:


    Acceptabilty Commitee? Really?

    Hopefully you don’t really believe that I am actually implying such a thing exists.

    It was food for thought not just for Caroll from Denver, but for all of us that may see one meaning so clearly and it strikes us right or wrong and then not realize how drawn we can be to other stereotypes, or how many blind decisions we make daily.

    It was not an attack or really even a call for a response. I guess I should not have used certain wording.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Among other things, Kristin wrote:

    It would be great if there was some sort of forum for all new designers (such as Lantz) to be so lucky to have their lines be critiqued and “scrutinized” in this fashion…And I can be brutal with the sophomores but it’s for their own good, no malice.

    As I’ve said previously, there is a forum such that you describe, it’s just not public. This context is no different than the reviews you conduct of your students which are not public either. Nor should they be; your reviews are done within the context of a self selecting community just like ours are. There is much more we have refrained from mentioning (your products and practices have not been discussed at all) but contributions hinge on the perception of how willing you are to accept criticism. You repeatedly say you welcome scrutiny but being unkind to Carol, Alison and Noora has had a chilling effect.

    It pains me to say such but it is not appropriate to post comments such that you have directed toward valued members of our community. There is a fine line between dissent and snark; I usually delete the rare personal attack (unless it’s directed at me) but realized those subscribed to this thread would have seen it anyway.

    Without descending into a discussion of the semantics of violence and art, as a commercial endeavor, I don’t believe this is art, censorship or art censorship. No producer is *entitled* to market share, so not buying your clothes is not censorship, it’s the reality of the marketplace. The crucial aspect of being in business is to learn your market well, really well, and market it successfully so you can be profitable. You have to decide whether your greater priority is to be profitable or to be an artist (albeit misunderstood and controversial). If it’s the latter, you’ve already succeeded. Miracle has suggested a middle ground that would serve you well in that capital is a coward, it flees from upheaval and controversy. [Colin Powell is credited with saying that but he must have read the same econ textbook I did 30 years ago.]

    Marlena: Re Banana Republic; *personally*, I have always been repulsed by this company for the reasons you mention. I’ve never bought anything from them because their name struck me as flippant and insulting toward the memory of victimized people. Is nothing sacred in the pursuit of profit? *I* believe it is poor taste to celebrate hegemony.

    Knowing Alison as I do, I sincerely doubt she meant it as you’ve interpreted it. Perhaps it’s best if everyone take a deep cleansing breath and step back.

  7. Vesta says:

    I just have to clarify that I would *never* have critiqued the name strangefruit if Kathleen hadn’t posed this question as if Kristin was mystified that her line would be perceived in racial terms. I don’t have too many politically correct leanings; in fact I can (and have; makes me a lousy activist, actually) become quickly agitated by too much correctness. It’s totally fine to make a statement in naming your line. Just don’t be surprised when/if people actually pick up on it and react in ways you don’t want or didn’t anticipate. Kristin is targeting people with enough disposable income to afford better clothing. The reality is that a lot of these people will have well-rounded educations and pick up on the reference. So their reactions will have to be dealt with, on their terms, not hers.

  8. I’m sorry Marlena, I’m having a cranky morning and expressed myself a little snarkily which was uncalled for.

    Yes, I know you know this entity doesn’t exist. That was my point.

    Your question (“why is “Banana Republic” acceptable?”) presupposed that we all know that “Banana Republic” is acceptable. I wanted to call that assumption into question, that’s all. Banana Republic exists and is successful, but that doesn’t mean the name is ok on any other grounds than effective marketing to its customer base.

    And apparently, it is acceptable *on these grounds.* It sells.

    If strangefruit sells, then it is clearly also acceptable on these grounds. There is no distinction to be made here between strangefruit or Banana Republic: they either work as brand names or they don’t.

    On other grounds – personal revulsion, social consciousness – either, neither or both names may be acceptable or not to individuals. But unless the question is defined precisely (‘Carol in Denver, I happen to know you personally so I know that you find the name “Banana Republic” completely acceptable on social grounds; why is your reaction to the name “strangefruit” so different?’) then you are implying the existence of an entity (the entire fashion-incubator community?) that has made the determination.

    But really, that’s just me being persnickety. You’re right, I shouldn’t have responded the way I did.

  9. marlena says:


    Thanks. I appreciate it.
    Have a nice day. To the whole community: Thanks for letting me chime in, although I am not a member.
    Have a good one.

  10. kristin says:

    Vesta you are absolutely correct.

    Also, I feel very fortunate to have been a part/subject of a discussion, as I have said over again. And I can’t thank you all enough for the input, advice, criticism, scrutiny and support. It’s just a necessary process for any designer, artist, entrepreneur (in any industry) needs to go through. Moreover, you can’t have a discussion about race without getting a little heated but frankly this was tame in comparison to other forums on race. (online and actual seminars)

    Allison and Noora I apologize if I came across as disrespectful to you. I was simply puzzled and uncomfortable by, what I perceived as, a “snarky”, hostile remark even after I explained the origins of the name. But as a result, it brought up a another valuable point, you (Noora and Kathleen) are not the only ones who may misinterpret the name which I have to take into account. Some may see it as controversial while others may see it as fashion forward, post-modern. etc. . .either way, it’s all good for me and maybe any other new designer who reads this article.

    And I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. . .

  11. Catherine McQ says:

    I was surprised that few people knew “Strange Fruit.” I did a Google search to see if the song had become so obscure that only people like me–in my late 50’s, living in a majority black county–would know about it. Judging from the Internet, it’s still widely known. (As an aside, I learned that the poet/songwriter was Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from the Bronx. He used the alias Lewis Allan–according to one site, to honor of the memory of his two stillborn children. Some of his songs were recorded by Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Meeropol is also known because he and his wife adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for espionage in the 1950’s.)

    There’s a “Strangefruit” site in the US trying to educate people about, and memorialize the victims of, lynching; a “StrangeFruit” jewelery maker on Etsy; a “Strangefruits” site in the Netherlands that celebrates imaginative web design; and a “Strange Fruit” troupe from Melbourne, Australia, that performs atop 4-meter flexible poles, based on the image of a field of wheat swaying in the breeze. Do a thorough search of any name you’re considering to see what it means in the US and elsewhere–and prepare to be surprised.

  12. Arnikka says:

    Using “Strange fruit” as a design name can be kind of like calling a clothing line “Anne’s Diary” or “Work Makes you Free”. It is a little in your face and thus has to be executed in a certain manner. Coupled with the font in blood red…eesh. I am a young African American woman and if I was a retail buyer, its the combination of the name with its connotations AND the look of the logo AND the overall look of the photos AND the ethnicity of the model but NOT JUST the ethnicity of the model that might make me hesitant in this present economy.

    It might work if the font were a decorative script in a nuetral tone thus appealing to a niche of women who prefer a unique brand–kind of the commes des garcons/Viktor & Rolf/Hussein Chalayan woman but younger (not sure of your price points). So keeping the name could work but the font and overall logo would need to be muted—the name already says so much. It doesn’t need to scream in terms of its type face and overall look as well–that can be a bit much.

    As it stands the look of your photos is very hard–that alone seems slightly dated in a 90s minimalist/industrial way (not to be rude). Forgetting the issues of race, I don’t know if that is desirable at this time in this present economy–remember that when that look was prevalent among indie designers, economically times were better. I feel that there should be a way to communicate the “voice’ of your line without resorting to cliches–artistic/urban therefore it has to be in a warehouse. Strategically its not good because the brown clothing is just lost in the darkness of the surroundings. I agree with another poster, a gray background does wonders for higher end clothing. If you notice Vogue uses that same simple gray background for many of its editorials. People want to feel good right now. In the final analysis, that’s what it all comes down to. You’re selling people a sense of well being. Even in high fashion. That means different things for different groups of people but none the less, that’s what you’re selling. If this were not true than we’d all be lining up at Walmart for everything.

  13. Anir says:

    quote/I cannot think of any other race besides black where someone would even think a clothing line was marketed solely to that race./end quote

    But people marketed stuff to race/ethnicity all the time–for some it’s just another demongraphic–special interest group–niche. Want a for instance? cowboy hats in NC, where I lived for a time. Almost no one wears cowboy hats except Latino men. Want another for instance? the aforementioned Banana Republic–I mean talk about colonial fantasies for the light skinned who have a European heritage–especially British. And wannabes.

  14. Kysha M says:

    Kristen: I feel your pain. And just to let you know, from my perspective (as someone very knowledgeable about our history), if I saw a clothing collection (or anything for that matter) named Strangefruit, I would immediately think it was Black-owned. I’d be very surprised if it weren’t. don’t know if thats useful…

    this is so interesting, never thought this would come up on FI. I’m African-American and of course, have struggled with this from the beginning. I have always wanted a mixture of races in my marketing but because of time/scheduling constraints, used only my own children in my first shoots. The funny thing is, I’ve gotten “urban/street” confusion from buyers but my end customer doesnt react this way. The majority of my customers (from retail events & online) are White/middle class women & men. They love the photos, style and the fabric.

    I’d just like to add some food for thought. I had a feeling the marketing (models) might turn off some folks until I had a chance to do a shoot the way I really envisioned it. What I didn’t foresee was that buyers would look at ME (as the owner) and stereotype the brand. duh. I’ve walked many trade shows and participated in a couple and I hardly ever see any Black sales reps and/or owners unless (unfortunately for me) it is a streetwear line.

    I have had a few different situations where buyers have said things that wouldn’t have made sense if I were White but I shelved it as me being a little paranoid.. maybe. Well I did a small tradeshow where I shared a showroom with an (awesome) White sales rep that was showing a pretty popular brand of children’s shoes. After 2 days she commented on some of the things that were said and noticed that when people thought SHE was repping my line the conversation was very different. Trying to make a long story short, its sad and… well it hurts to know that not only are my children as models a detriment, but I am selling my company short by representing my own line.

    disclaimer: I do not use this as a scapegoat. There are many things I could change and I am not an expert at selling (to the trade). I just thought I’d add to the thread by mentioning my experience.

    btw, its been awhile. I hope everyone is doing well!

  15. After reading all that discussion about the brand name a very tiny bell at the very back of my head did… well not really chime, but make a extremely soft noise… yes, I think I have heard about the poem and the context somewhere. Still it does not really mean anything to me and if the brand would be marketed in Germany I don’t think that anyone would spontaneously come up with this association.

    Even though lot of brands here haven English names most consumers are not even able to make correct translation of the words. Not to talk about any context. I think here people would probably think about a sexual context and a lingerie line. But most would just take it as one of those brand names that have no meaning.

    (Btw a successful German music band is named after a crash at flight show with many deaths. Sometimes strange things work.)

  16. Katherine says:

    I have a designer friend who is Algerian. She lives and works in LA. She entered her clothes in a fashion show that was a charity event for Africa (the continent). She was slated to go first down the runway as her clothes were the best to open the show with. Right before the show, she got bumped by the racist director for she was “not black enough to represent Africa”. My friend told this racist director that she was BORN IN AFRICA and you cannot get more African than that. Mind you, these racists are black Americans who are not African at all, in any way.

    She got placed somewhere in the middle of the runway show and she got photographs of the (black) models walking the runway in her clothes. She included many of those pictures in her portfolio. She was frustrated in that those pictures depicted her line as an “urban” line for they were being worn by black models. Mind you, my designer friend has skin that glistens like caramel. She has friends like us who are white, brown and black. We all love her sexy clothes.

    Apparently, race does matter to racists. All the color blind folks could give a damn.

  17. Kysha M says:

    Katherine: How in the world are Black Americans “not African at all, in any way”?? That is the same thinking that spurs people to feel someone “isn’t Black enough”. After an Asian person has been in this country for 5 generations are they suddenly not Asian?

    “Color Blindness” is not a good thing btw. Being blind to someone’s race, nationality, ancestors, or color of skin just prevents you from celebrating & appreciating the differences that we all have to offer. There should be nothing to fear about being different from one another. I don’t want to live in a world where people are blind to who I am, thats just boring… like 31 flavors of the same ice cream.

  18. Kathleen says:

    I don’t want commentary to veer too far off course but I’ve been uncomfortable with some stereotyping I’ve been reading.

    Yes, stereotyping as a functional human artifact is both good and bad. Someone mentioned the human brain is incapable of having to make repeated decisions so stereotyping is a cognitive shortcut hardwired to enhance survival of the species. However, it is untrue that someone incapable of stereotyping is not functional and can’t live independently. This in itself is a stereotype. That it is bad to be colorblind is a value judgment and such, also a stereotype.

    As a matter of biology, I am relatively incapable of stereotyping. I do not read social nuances well because most are not logical or rational (garbage in, garbage out). The fact that I posted this entry should illustrate this point very clearly. The only social factors that register are those that are in your face, I only saw the obvious. This effects my entire social panorama. I cannot read emotion on people’s faces unless it is overt. You don’t ever want to watch a movie with me; it involves non-stop conversation about what is going on and what did so and so mean when they said that. I cannot recognize people’s faces. When actors change their clothes for another scene, I wonder who this new character is and why they’re kissing that guy I do recognize because he hasn’t changed his clothes and was involved with somebody else, is he having an affair? I totally miss the point. Perhaps this is why I prefer action films. Chick flicks make me weep in frustration. Heavily reliant on facial expression, they are so subtle that music is the only thing that cues me to a pivotal moment. We always run subtitles, I can literally read more of the intent.

    Being blind to social nuances gets me into a lot of trouble. Being colorblind does not mean I am a bad person because I cannot stereotype or that I do not appreciate the diversity of peoples anymore than not being able to recognize someone’s face means I’m someone who does not care about people. This also does not mean I do not notice details, far from it. It is indisputable that people like me notice far more detail than “normal” people do. This is why social environments are extremely challenging, we cannot filter out “useless” or extraneous information that is immaterial to the situation. Perhaps it is for precisely this reason, the abundance of external stimulation that cannot logically be categorized, that we discard so much of it without judgment. Do you harbor ill will against a piece of trash you throw away? No, you don’t care. The very idea that people discriminate on the basis of national origin or even religion strikes me as beyond absurd. So likewise, it is inaccurate and perhaps unfair that people like me are deemed defective because we do not have the cognitive ability to harbor prejudices (good or bad) or notice differences (beautiful or ugly). It pains me to my core for someone to judge me on the basis of my skin color or even whether I am ugly or beautiful or the way I dress so why would I do this to another -assuming I even noticed it in the first place and my Spock-like brain considered it to be valid criteria? My cognitive wiring is not a choice. I was born this way. I am blind because I cannot see, I do not choose to be blind and cannot fear that which I do not see.

    Perhaps those of us who cannot stereotype compensate for our faults by being able to make decisions much faster and more rationally than “normal” people.

  19. Noora says:

    It will take me a while to write this down. So I’m copy/pasting it.
    First, this was the most beautiful thing I’ve read in some time, Kathleen. I’m not at all surprised, however, because it was this same attention to logic that drew me to your site (and kept me around, albeit invisible most of the time -I use rss to keep up.)
    And here goes my next opinion: I’ve come to the conclusion in my not-too-long life that people pretty much are all the same…
    When you scratch away all the outer things, few people are really ‘unique,’ no matter the great personality or even accomplishments. By outer things I mean: skin color, hair, clothing, attitude, religion, and even behavior. After all that is done, you find basically the same person as the next guy or gal: the same basic wants, needs, desires, loves, emotions, and also what a person picks up on about another person that cannot be put into words. This is so much so to me, that everyone I meet or get to know seems like another person I met before, or a blend of two or even three (whether of the same skin color or not).
    The outer things, to me, can be dispensable factors. It just doesn’t seem real in the sense of what primarily defines a person. I mean the kind of ‘real’ a person experiences when they are by themselves with no outside influences and no expectations from others. Just them. At that point, people become similar, but not the same. We all revert to being basic human beings.
    Individuality and personality make life so much fun, but to me (!) it is just superficial -although not in a bad way, its just how we are as human beings; its fun and entertaining, but can also be dark and cruel depending on the person, right? Yes, like a movie. It’s entertaining to self and to others and it sells. Which is why I suppose it is such a huge part of marketing.
    *Disclaimer! -Hey, this is just how I see it. To speak to some of what I’ve read above, almost every people of all races and backgrounds have experienced prejudicial behavior from another group. It is sad. Being too far caught up in our own individualisms and comfort zones is not always a such a great thing.
    ps- And I thought I was hiding over here, now I see my website was public all this time. That’s hilarious. What I get for being timid. lol
    Ciao for now…

  20. @ Kathleen: Like most human abilities the ability of stereotyping is not a “on” – “off” thing, it comes on a continuum, some have more, others less. So a relative incapability of stereotyping is something that probably makes life harder in some situations (you gave a very lively description) but seems to have benefits also like a better eye for detail or more ability for logic reasoning.

    The case that this ability lacks completely is of course a rare one (those people wouldn’t be able to take part in an study like the one you linked to), the example was meant to be more clear by choosing the extreme. Evidently I didn’t succeed in making this point, so I’m sorry.

    (Btw. I do not have extraordinary problems reading other persons feelings, but still I never understood why the colour of the skin or hair or whatever has a meaning to some people. I can explain it with my knowledge as a psychologist, but this is nothing that just seems natural or logic to me personally.)

    @Kysha M: To me “African” would mean someone who either lives in Africa or was at least born there. So it never occured to me to think of my neighbour as “african” as he was born in the US and lives in Germany now. And I would not consider his kids as “african” neither as “american” as they were born in Germany, have lived there all their lifes, speak german fluently,… so for me they are German. Even though their skin is darker than mine. So what?

  21. Kysha M says:

    yeah…ok. luckily I’ve been on this site for a few years and am quite familiar with Kathleen’s way of taking things personal.

    Kathleen, my comment refers to Colorblindness as it pertains to race (sometimes called race-blind). I used it within the context of this post, commenting on Katherine’s comment. It speaks to people who CHOOSE to say they are colorblind, meaning they don’t take into account the race/culture of another person. What I said has nothing to do with any physical or psychological inability to decipher actual colors or social nuances. No offense intended.

    ok, this was nice.. I guess. back to work for me. I hope everyone has a great weekend!

  22. Sonia Levesque says:

    This was a “heavy” yet enlightening read. Thank you Kathleen, again, for asking us a good question.

    My answer is yes, race still matter. I have nothing new to add… so much has been said. lol
    But I must confess that the comments on psychology (type casting in marketing – my studied field in University), staged photo shoots versus plain background, and general passionate views on the subjects of appearance and race characterization made me think/ponder/assess my own truths in a refreshing way.

    I’ve always thought opinions and point of views were the spice of life. What a spicy dish we’ve got here!

  23. Polaire says:

    A line called “strangefruit” evokes Billie Holliday and that famous anti-lynching protest song.

    Race still matters, as sad as that is. But it works both ways. If I see ads from a retailer showing several models and there are no black models (African-American or African-Other Origin) or they aren’t prominently represented, in other words, are a token minority I seriously consider whether I want to buy from them.

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