Feb 25, 2020

Black Women Want To Design A Better Backstage

The runway is basked in a soft glow as celebrities and guests take their seats among the uniform rows of chairs. A soft, steady beat pulsates over the speakers as the crowd eagerly anticipates the first look. But behind the thick black curtains, a much different Fashion Week story unfolds. Makeup artists, hairstylists, and manicurists — all dressed in black and wielding lipstick and brushes — frantically run from model to model as a cloud of hairspray fills the room.

In the center of the chaos is a young Black assistant, who is braiding and blow-drying a model’s hair as quickly as her nimble hands can muster. A handful of Black models crowd around her, waiting their turns to be seen by the one hairstylist in the room they can trust not to yank, burn, or chemically damage their strands.

As hairstylist Lacy Redway — who got her start as an assistant backstage 10 years ago — recounts this memory, she tells me that she was often one of the few hairstylists on the team trained in styling Black hair and therefore personally requested by up-and-coming models. “They would tell me horror stories about getting their hair flat-ironed wet,” Redway tells me.  “Because of this, I was able to build trust with a lot of models backstage.” It’s where Redway formed relationships with Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls, who are now two of her celebrity clients.

These stories aren’t unusual for Black models, many of whom are still leaving the hair-and-makeup chair unhappy and uncomfortable all these years later. “There have been many times where I’d have to touch up my hair and makeup backstage,” model Lameka Fox, who walked in Brandon Maxwell, LaQuan Smith, and Christopher John Rogers this past season, tells me. “I’ve had hair and makeup artists get upset with me when that happens, but how can I feel good if I don’t look good? I have a job to do.”

Fox’s sentiments reflect a larger backstage issue that stems from a lack of education, representation, resources, and opportunities for Black women from the top down. “Knowledge and improvements shouldn’t start and end backstage,” says Fox. “It starts with the people in the room making decisions.”

The glaring lack of inclusion backstage affects all parties involved, from the models to the people hired to execute their looks. According to The Fashion Spot’s annual Runway Diversity Report, the Spring 2020 season was the most racially diverse on record, with 41.5% non-white models, which is a 19.7% increase from when the publication began tracking diversity on the runway in 2015.

But while there might be improvements in the diversity of models (and actors in Hollywood), the teams backstage have seen slower progress. “I found myself many times being the only Black stylist in the room,” Jachelle Whiting, a professional hairstylist, says of her 12-year career backstage. “But it doesn’t discourage me. Instead, it pushes me to work hard and emphasize why we should have more representation backstage.”

In a fashion industry that has long been dominated by white men, the backstage experience continues to fail Black women. So what would it look like if they were in charge? “If it were up to us, we would 100% see more diversity in every facet of the runway experience,” Redway says. From sweeping top-level changes and improvements in education to addressing practical (and seemingly obvious) product and personal needs on the ground floor, this is what backstage at Fashion Week would look like if it were designed by Black women.

Prioritizing Education

Casting Black women to walk the runway is only half the battle. Before models make it on stage, it’s important that the people preparing them can cater to their hair and skin tones. “So many mistakes happen in the hair-and-makeup chair, and it’s evident that a lot of hairstylists aren’t exercising their craft and learning new techniques,” says Redway. It’s why education is a crucial part of evolving in the beauty space. “Backstage shouldn’t be where the learning starts,” Redway says. “Fashion Week is like the playoffs — you can’t get there without practicing, and you shouldn’t be there without practice first.”

It’s why hairstylists like Redway and Whiting pride themselves on having a versatile skill set and consider it mandatory for others to learn the same. “Yes, I am a Black artist, but I am not limited to Black hair,” Whiting says. “I can work with all hair types, and I have many colleagues who can also. No one should sit in your chair at a show and feel excluded, so the entire team must be well-versed and on the same page.” It’s also why they encourage artists of all backgrounds and experiences to keep learning. “It can’t hurt you to ask a friend, or assist someone, or take a class to learn something new,” says Redway. “It only makes us better.”

Redefining Diversity

Most of the Black models and artists backstage would tell you that, left to Black woman, the definition of diversity at Fashion Week would be drastically different — and sending one model with natural hair down the runway isn’t it. “Someone just decided that if we have one or two models in cornrows then that counts as representation, but that shouldn’t be considered the gold standard,” Redway says. “Our hair comes in different shapes and sizes and can do so many cool things. We shouldn’t limit that.”

Redway imagines a backstage where creativity is consistently challenged. “I would like to see different hairstyles on Black models,” she says. “The looks should still feel cohesive, but it would be nice to show the versatility of texture.” Redway also recommends preparing and testing hairstyles on models with various hair types before the show. “There are hair and makeup tests before any runway show, and it’s usually overseen by the designer and any creatives responsible for coming up with the look,” she explains. The issue with that, however, is that sometimes, the model chosen for the test isn’t reflective of all the women walking in a show. “Typically, from my experiences, the models in tests aren’t usually representative of all the models in the lineup,” says Redway. “How can you test a style on one model, but expect everyone to fit the same mold?”

Backstage shouldn’t be where the learning starts. Fashion Week is like the playoffs — you can’t get there without practicing, and you shouldn’t be there without practice first.”

Lacy Redway

If more creatives were trained in styling Black hair, they’d spend less time trying to master the basics and more time pushing the envelope with inventive styling. “It all boils down to education,” Redway says.

Ultimately, Fox says that creating a welcoming environment for everyone backstage, but particularly for Black models, is about promoting diversity beyond the runway. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Hey, I have one Black model on stage, I’m diverse,’ but it’s another thing to truly diversify your team in all areas from hair, makeup, lighting, casting directors, and so on,” she says. “You’re still sweeping true diversity under the rug if the people who are bringing the production to life are all the same.”

Re-evaluating Resources

Education isn’t the only category that poses an issue for Black women backstage. Products and sponsors can also create a gray area between the business of Fashion Week and who it serves. “Fashion Week is a business, at the end of the day,” Redway says. “So we’re seeing brands who have enough money to sponsor the shows, but not enough range in their collections to cater to the people in the shows.”

In turn, models might be styled with products that don’t actually work with their skin tones or hair types. “I’ve seen and experienced both ends of the spectrum where my hair is straight, and a stylist puts a water-based product on it, then it’s curly again,” Fox says. “I’ve also lost a lot of hair since I started modeling due to aggressive heat styling.” Whiting says that being able to analyze Black hair and having the right tools to work with it makes a difference in the model experience overall. “You have to assess what the hair needs are before creating the look,” she says. “I’ve witnessed people skipping this step or glossing over product needs, and it plays a huge role in the result.”

It’s why Trenna Seney, a NYC-based licensed manicurist, says that the products available backstage should go beyond the newest launch being showcased from a sponsor. “It takes a village backstage, and we should have a village of products — new and familiar — to cater to everyone,” she says. “It’s why it’s exciting to see brands like Fenty sponsor shows because there’s something for everyone, including Black women.” 

Fostering A Better Environment

When I spoke to models backstage, they all described the atmosphere as “stressful,” “hectic,” and a “constant hustle” — which they’d like to see changed in the future. “Backstage can be scary, especially if you’re just starting,” Redway says. “The fashion crowd can still be very pompous, so it’s tricky to navigate if you feel like you don’t belong.” 

Seney says that while professionalism is a priority backstage, creating a comfortable workspace for artists and talent will ultimately make the experience more inviting. “If Black women designed Fashion Week, the environment would probably be less intense and more collaborative,” she says. “It would be great to get to a place where models, makeup artists, and nail artists can feel like they can click and be creative together, versus being very strict and siloed.”

Gina Edwards, celebrity nail artist and lead manicurist for Kiss nails, echoes the lack of comfort backstage. “There’s a feeling of togetherness that we don’t see in fashion,” she says. “Energizing your team with music and ambiance that speaks to them and their culture would help bridge that.” Ursula Stephen, who created the sleek buns at Serena by Serena Williams this season, adds that beauty and fashion should ultimately be collaborative. “We should all be able to be creative and passionate,” she says. “Our jobs are supposed to be fun.” 

While Fashion Week and its exclusive nature has long fostered a spirit of competition, Edwards says that supporting each other can shift the experience for everyone. “I feel a sisterhood backstage with some Black women,” Edwards says. “In my early days starting, I would see Black models sitting around waiting to be placed in hair and makeup, and I would go manicure them and make sure they were okay and happy. That makes a huge difference.” Whiting also says that being team-oriented is vital. “Teamwork is essential for any successful show,” she says. “If I see a Black model or artist on my team uncomfortable or in need of help, I try to try to assist kindly. We’re all here for a single purpose.”

You’re still sweeping true diversity under the rug if the people who are bringing the production to life are all the same.

Lameka Fox

A Seat At The Table For Black Women

Here’s the bottom line: Fostering a more diverse environment backstage starts with creating more opportunities for Black talent. “I would love to see more Black women being key artists for these shows,” says Redway, referring to the stylist in charge of creating the beauty look at a given show. “There are so many amazing women with amazing visions. Why can’t they lead the creative for a runway beauty look?”

This past season in New York, a handful of Black women did oversee the hair-and-makeup direction backstage at shows — and the results were stunning. In addition to Stephen’s work at Serena by Serena Williams, Pat McGrath crafted avant-garde makeup looks for Coach, Anna Sui, Victoria Beckham, and more; Naeemah LaFond ushered in spiked braids for Monse and sculpted ‘fros for Christopher John Rogers; Sheika Daley, makeup artist to Kelly Rowland and Zendaya, painted on glossy plum lips at LaQuan Smith; MAC Senior Artist Fatima Thomas made “sneaker liner” a thing at Chromat.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 09: Hair expert Ursula Stephen prepares a model backstage for TRESemme at Maki Oh during NYFW on September 09, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for TRESemme)

But with a roster of more than 50 shows in New York alone, there’s still room for many more Black women to have a seat at the table. According to a 2019 report by Business of Fashion, only 34% of designers presenting at New York Fashion Week were non-white. And while the number of Black designers in the mix isn’t outlined in the study, it does put into perspective a clear disproportion between white designers and their non-white peers.

“This is beyond just the surface,” says Fox. “Where are the Black casting directors? Black photographers? Black production managers? We need to pay attention to who’s working with these designers and who’s in the room when decisions are being made, because progress will never happen if it only applies to one category.”

While there is definitely still room for growth, Whiting says she’s witnessed promising change in her decade working backstage — and remains hopeful for a more inclusive future. “I am proud to see more Black artists entering the industry with more opportunities to showcase their creativity,” she says. Now, Redway says, it’s about hiring them — rather than just looking to them for inspiration. “There are so many Black girls coming up doing dope stuff, and we should go give them a chance,” Redway says. “Instead of using our photos on your mood board, let us be the ones doing the work.”

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