Attendees peeled off parkas to reveal the work of Black designers as they entered the New York Public Library’s main branch on Saturday night. They had come out in frigid temperatures in New York City to attend the second annual gala held by the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which has gotten retailers including Nordstrom and Sephora to agree to commit 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned brands.
The evening was a celebration, a call to action and a nightlong fashion show inspired by a four-word dress code: black-tie, Black designer. Aurora James, the designer who started the pledge in 2020, glided down the red carpet in an iridescent floral gown by Christopher John Rogers. Lori Harvey mingled during cocktail hour in the slinky black cutout dress that Julia Fox wore to open LaQuan Smith’s runway show last year. And Karlie Kloss settled in for dinner in a kiwi green suit by Sergio Hudson, who was honored in a ceremony that also recognized the model and activist Bethann Hardison.
“We intentionally make the challenge black-tie, Black designer, because it’s not easy,” said LaToya Williams-Belfort, the pledge’s executive director. “We want folks to come and do that work and understand the living, breathing opportunity, even in this celebratory moment.”
During her speech Ms. James told the room: “You are exactly where you need to be to impact change.” And on and offstage, attendees discussed changes that would move the fashion industry forward. Several shared the work of Black designers that excited them and the transformations they hoped to see take place in the industry.
Interviews have been edited.
Designer, Brother Vellies, and Fifteen Percent Pledge founder
How did you arrive at this look? I’ve known Christopher John Rogers for a long time, and he’s such an incredible visionary. Every time I put on a dress of his I feel really supported.
What’s something you’re especially proud of that the pledge has accomplished? Putting 600 Black-owned brands on the shelves of our pledge-takers.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? More investment opportunities for young designers. And more of the larger, more established designers thinking about how to create support structures.
Who designed this look? I’m wearing Maximilian Davis for Ferragamo.
What drew you to his work? He has a certain eye for the way he dresses women. When I walked in his first show with Ferragamo, I just felt at my best. He strives to make women feel their best.
Designer, Brandon Blackwood
How was it getting here in the cold? I wore my biggest, ugliest jacket. I was like, I want the full look. I have to toss this when I get in.
What’s it like to see so many people wearing your bags in one place? Because we’re in the studio all the time making the stuff, I don’t really get to go out and see them every day. Seeing so many in one spot is really cool.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? I think we need a bigger focus on the youth. Youth culture is really driving fashion — Gen Z has fashion in a tizzy. I kind of love it, because that means there’s going to be change and there’s going to be growth.
What brought you out in the cold tonight? I’m responsible for what’s on everyone’s plate! It’s a menu that really represents my experience as a Black person.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? I want there to be so many Black designers that I can’t even count them.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? There’s just not enough visibility. There aren’t enough people getting the recognition that they need, especially Black designers. And I want to see more designers dress curvy sizes.
Tell me about your makeup look. I wanted to feel mysterious. So I went for something “Dune” or “Blade Runner”-themed, given that I’m wearing a scarf and durag vibe and a long white dress. I just thought that it could add an element of, like, Who is she?
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? More open opportunities for Black models and Black people in general. There’s certain things — like Black casting directors — that aren’t happening yet.
Model, agent and activist
Tell me about what you’re wearing on this very cold night. I have on Heattech, I have on a silk long john top, I have a little camisole underneath, and gloves. I’m not taking nothing off. On top of that, I’m wearing a Duro Olowu dress.
What drew you to his work? Because I had to wear a Black designer! Straight up. I don’t care about fashion like the other kids do. I have too much in my closet and I’m beginning to feel very guilty about a lot of stuff that I have. So I just try to keep on repeating things and not feel insecure. Because I have style, I just don’t really want to keep up with the fashion of it all.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? I’d like to see the designers learn the business of it. And I’d love to be able to see designers of color, even white, I don’t care what they are, learn how important it is to go slow and be patient.
What’s one thing you have seen change? The amount of craft. This is a small island, our little village. And there are so many skillful people who really have something to offer.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? Where do I begin? I’ve been in the fashion industry for 15 years, and I have to say I’ve seen a lot of positive change, but we have a long way to go. There’s so much more to do in terms of all aspects of representation. You started to see more representation on runways and on magazine covers, but it’s also about people in leadership positions within companies. That’s somewhere I think we have a lot of room for improvement.
Chief executive officer, Good American, founding partner of Skims
Where did you find those earrings? My earring actually broke before I came out, and I had a bunch of backup options. So I was like, That’s the one! They’re by this young designer, L’Enchanteur.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? I’d like to shift the power balance into the hands of people who get less access.
What has the response to the “White Lotus” Skims campaign been like? I don’t think there’s a day gone past since we launched them that somebody hasn’t mentioned it to me. So I’d say pretty good.
Actress and filmmaker
How did this look come together? Charles Harbison made me this really special gown. I’m a little curvier than I used to be, so there’s always adjustments in the process. What maybe looked good on me two years ago, two more years into the transition doesn’t exactly fit the same.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? Celebrating more Black designers, and also more size inclusion in luxury fashion. Especially when it comes to footwear, since I wear a size 43 or 44, my options are very limited. I hope that as the world becomes more gender-creative and accepting, size inclusion is incorporated into all levels.
Devin B. Johnson
How did you choose your suit? This is a blazer and suit made by Connor McKnight, a Brooklyn-based designer. I like the way that it’s bridging classic silhouettes, but coming from someone young. I want to be aligned with people like that.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? More sustainability.
D.J. and entrepreneur
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? Accountability. These corporations have an obligation to do better. And with this pledge in place, they have a real system they can follow to make a difference in this ridiculously large gap in equity.
Designer, Danzy Design Studio
How was it getting here in the cold? I’m from L.A. and my body was not prepared.
What’s one change you want to see in the fashion industry? There’s so many people who hide who their manufacturers are, or where they’re getting this or that thing done. I think there’s enough room for everyone to be successful. You don’t just buy, like, one style of shoe or one style of dress or one style of T-shirt. Open up the floodgates. Let us all in.