15 Black Visionaries Who Are Changing the Luxury Space Right Now

Dian S. Hicks

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There’s hardly an industry that hasn’t benefitted from the contributions of black people—and that extends to luxury.  From visionary designers who shape the clothes we wear and the spaces we inhabit, to the culinarians and winemakers who craft some of our most memorable moments, the luxury world would wouldn’t be the same without their achievements. And because the things these creators make and do matter—and deserve recognition far beyond Black History Month—we’re highlighting a small group of black visionaries who are changing the luxury industry every single day.

Aurora James

Aurora James in the front rowDior show, Front Row, Fall Winter 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France - 25 Feb 2020
Aurora James in the front rowDior show, Front Row, Fall Winter 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France – 25 Feb 2020

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Even before she came up with the idea for the 15 Percent Pledge, Aurora James had already established herself as one of the most thoughtful designers of her generation with her accessories line, Brother Vellies. James’s offering of shoes, handbags and small leather goods has grown from a self-funded stall at an East Village flea market to an award-winning business with devotees all over the world. Her appreciation for and use of traditional African footwear styles and craftsmanship helped a new audience discover them at a time when the luxury world was still ceaselessly allegiant to France and Italy.

The concept for her pledge came amid the protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other black people at the hands of police officers. With people searching for ways to help the black community in a real and lasting way, James offered the idea that retailers devote 15 percent of their shelf space to black-owned businesses because black people make up 15 percent of the population.

Thus far, a handful of retailers have signed on, including beauty behemoth Sephora and the menswear e-tailer No Man Walks Alone. In an Instagram post, James called the pledge the start of a new beginning for black businesses of all stripes. “I will get texts that this is crazy. I will get phone calls that this is too direct, too big of an ask, too this, too that,” she wrote. “But I don’t think it’s too anything, in fact I think it’s just a start. You want to be an ally? This is what I’m asking for.”

Chris Gibbs

Chris GibbsNordstrom x Union & Company Block Party, New York, USA - 10 Jul 2019
Chris GibbsNordstrom x Union & Company Block Party, New York, USA – 10 Jul 2019

At a certain point in relatively recent menswear history, the once-firm lines between tailoring, sportswear and streetwear began to get very, very blurry. And while no single designer, stylist or celebrity deserves all the credit for this development, one of its most important proponents is, inarguably, Chris Gibbs, who owns and runs the influential retailer Union Los Angeles. The store’s genius is that it pays the same respect to established brands like Thom Brown and Comme des Garcons that it does to younger outfits like A Cold Wall, Bode and Botter. The mix is inspired by real-life guys who love good clothes and mix them up in ways you might not see on a runway. That sense of freedom and fun is what has endeared so many to the store, and to Gibbs’s unique point of view, over the years.

Dapper Dan, Designer 

Daniel Day—the Harlem-based designer known as Dapper Danwas a household name long before Instagram and street style dominated the fashion industry. His commitment to his even more famous neighborhood sits at the root of the singularly luxurious streetwear he’s known for. “The first time I got some money, I bought me a brownstone in Harlem,” he said at a recent Macy’s event hosted by the organization Harlem’s Fashion Row. “I’ve been in Harlem all my life, and I’m not going nowhere.”

In his long career, the 74-year-old designer has created original clothing for everyone from Mike Tyson to LL Cool J. And since 2018, he’s been at the helm of a bespoke atelier run in partnership with Gucci (a partnership born out of back-and-forth copycatting between the designer and the Italian luxury house); it’s the first store any luxury brand has opened in Harlem.

That put him in the unique position of counseling the brand’s president and CEO Marco Bizzarri recently, when Gucci sparked controversy with a balaclava sweater that no shortage of observers decried as blackface in knitwear. “There cannot be inclusivity without accountability,” he said in a statement. “I will hold everyone accountable.” The results have been positive and meaningful. Bizzarri has committed to implementing a four-part initiative to promote diversity and inclusion at Gucci that will create opportunities for a new generation of black designers. And that may be the most important legacy Dapper Dan leaves behind.

Kerby Jean-Raymond

Kerby Jean-RaymondWWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit: Movers and Makers, New York, USA - 29 Oct 2019
Kerby Jean-RaymondWWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit: Movers and Makers, New York, USA – 29 Oct 2019

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has consistently used the platform of his clothing brand, Pyer Moss, to have a conversation about race. His runway work blends a modernist’s point of view with a historian’s eye for detail: one memorable collection explored the untold story of black cowboys in the American West; another was a musical love letter to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the undersung godmother of rock ‘n roll.

His clear and vocal stance on racial injustice and police brutality is another central element of his work. In 2015, the designer and his label went viral with a t-shirt proclaiming “They Have Names” along with a list of black men who died at the hands of the police. (He later created a version with the names of black women who met the same untimely and unjust fate.) As his work has become more experimental, film has become an increasingly important part of his storytelling technique—one short shared before a show caused such a strong reaction that it nearly cost him his business and earned him death threats. None of that has stopped him from achieving great things since: an ongoing collaboration with Reebok led to the company naming him the artistic director of Reebok Studies__ just last year, and he won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2018.

Theaster Gates Jr., Artist and New Prada Diversity and Inclusion Co-Director 

After a recent blackface scandal of its own in which the company was called out for its blackface window figurines, Prada asked the artist Theaster Gates Jr. to lead a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council alongside director Ava DuVernay. The group’s long-term goals include hiring more diverse young employees and interns and offering scholarships and training, just to name a few. Gates has worked with the brand in various capacities (mostly on past exhibitions at the Fondazione Prada), and as the founder and executive director of Chicago’s Rebuild Foundation, Gates is used to working on creative projects that create a measurable and direct impact on overlooked groups. From supporting artists and the local workforce via Dorchester Industries to helping the Second City’s affordable housing efforts, Gates’ collaborative projects have enriched the black community in lasting ways.

Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh on the catwalk Louis Vuitton show, Runway, Spring Summer 2020, Paris Fashion Week Men's, France - 20 Jun 2019
Virgil Abloh on the catwalk Louis Vuitton show, Runway, Spring Summer 2020, Paris Fashion Week Men’s, France – 20 Jun 2019

As an indicator of a lack of representation, much has been made of the fact that you can count the number of black Fortune 500 CEOs on one hand. When it comes to black leaders of French luxury houses, that figure gets even smaller. In his position as the men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton, Abloh—who also leads his own influential brand, Off-White—breathes air as rare as his own abilities. The formally trained architect has been on a meteoric rise to the top of the fashion industry since he started collaborating with Kanye West in 2009. What guides him there is a forthrightly bold fusion of tailoring and streetwear, and a deep and abiding respect for the power of current and historical pop culture. On Instagram, Abloh recently pointed to his frequent allusions to The Wiz, which serves not only as a throwback to an unforgettable black cultural achievement but also an introduction to a group of people who may have never seen it. His ability to bridge those divides—and make doing so look effortless—is a part of what makes him such a singular talent.

Davidson Petit-Frère, Designer

Earlier this month, WWD reported that Musika Frère, the bespoke suiting brand that counted everyone from Jay-Z to to Diddy to Nick Jonas as clients, would shutter. But in its place, its co-founder Davidson Petit-Frère has already established a new ready-to-wear brand, simply called Frère. “With Frère, we’re expanding into ready-to-wear and accessories with worldwide expansion as a goal,” Frère told Robb Report. The 29-year-old designer has the talent and chops to take the brand around the world—last year, Forbes named him to its annual 30 Under 30 list—but it doesn’t hurt that he counts some of the biggest names in entertainment as fans. “The support of black designers will only inspire the next generation to continue the legacy we are all working on building today,” he added.

 

Rujeko Hockley, Curator

As a co-organizer of The Whitney Biennial, which will run from May 17 to Sept. 22, 2019, Rujeko Hockley will be tasked with unpacking the American experience within contemporary art—a role she’s been training for. She’s been an assistant curator at The Whitney since 2017, where she’s staged conversation-starting exhibits that explore protest and identity. Before she joined The Whitney, Hockley was with The Brooklyn Museum, where she co-curated an exhibit of art made by black women entitled “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85.” “We wanted to show that black women are not outsiders to the art world or to the feminist movement—we are right in the middle of it, being hosts and not guests,” she said in an interview with the clothing brand MM.LaFleur. A native of Zimbabwe, Hockley’s uniquely global perspective on the black experience was shaped by living in Barbados, Somalia, and the United States.

Kimberly Drew, Former Social Media Manager at The Met and New Fashion Week Model

If you don’t follow the Instagram account @museummammy, you should change that. With nearly a quarter million followers on that platform and a Tumblr chronicling black contemporary artists that has its own loyal fanbase, curator Kimberly Drew’s online presence and influence beyond the digital space cannot be ignored. As the former social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Drew helped shaped the esteemed institution’s digital presence. Although she’s focusing more on writing these days, Drew is still involved and visible in the creative space. She was recently profiled in The New York Times, and even modeled in Chromat’s New York Fashion Week show earlier this month.

 

Sir David Adjaye, Architect 

Sir David Adjaye’s visionary work had already had a massive impact before he was named as the architect for the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The $540 million building has been visited by thousands since opening in 2016, and it can’t have hurt Queen Elizabeth II’s decision to knight him in 2017.

Childhood travels with his diplomat father to Egypt, Mali, and Japan have served as inspirations for many of his projects. His recent luxury residential project in NYC’s Financial District at 130 William Street unites the old with the new through the textured exterior and warm charm and is crowned by a 7,000 square-foot penthouse. As a global creative, Adjaye’s reach is far, whether it be a skyscraper or a museum peeking through the clouds.

 

Ron Woodson, Designer

Ron Woodson’s interior design aesthetic centers around the carefree eclecticism of living in California. His work with partner Jamie Rummerfield at Woodson & Rummerfield’s House of Design includes everything from animal-hide upholstery to an epic crystal chandelier hanging in the center of a sumptuous bathroom. This fearless approach to design has not gone unrecognized, with The Hollywood Reporter including their firm on its list of Hollywood’s Top 20 Interior Designers in 2015. His clients have included Christina Aguilera, John Travolta, and Courtney Love. Beyond interior design, Woodson and Rummerfield aim to salvage noteworthy architecture through their non-profit, Save Iconic Architecture.

 

Erwin T. Raphael, General Manager of Genesis

After over 25 years in the automotive industry, Erwin T. Raphael—the chief operating officer and vice president of the young car company Genesis—knows what people are looking for in a luxury car. In the past three years, Raphael has helped Hyundai’s young marque grow by leaps and bounds, from a virtual unknown to winning MotorTrend‘s Car of the Year (with the G70), along with multiple awards for safety, design, and value. 

Although he’s witnessed the automotive industry become more inclusive, he believes that progress still needs to be made within leadership roles. “However, there are certainly still opportunities to further improve, particularly with respect to women and visible multi-cultural personnel in positions of leadership,” Raphael told Robb Report. So whether it’s inclusive Genesis advertising or encouraging more representation within leadership, Raphael is ready for Genesis to encourage the race toward progress.  

Marcus Samuelsson, Chef and Restauranteur

Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurants and properties reach from Stockholm to Harlem. His culinary empire mirrors both his success and his upbringing. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson fuses a variety of influences into his menus, demonstrating how adaptable and popular African cuisine can be across the globe.

At the Red Rooster in Harlem, he’s starting a new Dinner Series on February 27 that’s named for Fanny, one of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chefs, and master distiller Nathan “Nearest” Green. The aim? To celebrate the unsung diversity that has existed for centuries in the culinary world.

“It’s taken a long time, but it’s changing for the better and I think really the African American experience has been the core driver of that,” Samuelsson said of this growing recognition. “It goes back to the civil rights movement, especially in hospitality because so much of the African American craft was in that space.  Fanny [and] Edith and Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green are great examples of that.”

 

Krista Scruggs, Natural Winemaker

“No fining, filtering, additives, or funny business in the winery,” the Zafa Wines website openly states. The brainchild of Krista Scruggs, a queer woman of color, Zafa specializes in a natural, no-nonsense, old-world approach to winemaking. She even stomps the grapes with her feet to ensure the right flavor. And serving wine made with traditional methods to a new generation is definitely working: Scruggs was named to Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 Tastemaker list in 2018.

Scruggs has been honing her craft for years, and has risen from working as a shipping coordinator for Constellation Brands to being a vigneronne and winemaker in Vermont. Zafa Wines may be in its infancy, but its buzz is so vibrant that serving a bottle or three at your next dinner party is a clear signal to your oenophile friends that you’re way ahead of the curve.

 

Ghetto Gastro, Chef Collective

Though the founders of Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro have an impressive Rolodex of clients (Virgil Abloh, Rick Owens, Instagram, and Nike just to name a few), they’re prioritizing their local community with a new headquarters, Labyrinth 1.1, according to a Wall Street Journal profile. The group, which consists of three chefs (Malcolm Livingston II, Pierre Serrao, and Lester Walker) and a CEO (Jon Gray) are mostly Bronx-natives, which helps bring an authenticity to their approach when connecting with the community.

Branching outside of food, Ghetto Gastro is also delving into merch for Black History Month, featuring a collaboration with streetwear brand Awake NY, in which a portion of the proceeds will benefit South Bronx charities.

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