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Byron Lars on Fashion and Why Black Designers Need More Respect

In our ongoing celebration of Fashion Month, we are revisiting this March 2019 article featuring design veteran Lars,who was named Women’s Wear Daily’s 1991 Rookie of the Year.

L to R: Adrienne Jones, Byron Lars (Photo Courtesy of Pratt Institute)

Prominent Black designer Byron Lars had an intimate conversation about his foray into fashion and the lack of diversity in the industry with Pratt Fashion professor Adrienne Jones during the school’s second Black Dress: Salon on Feb. 15.

The Black Dress concept was developed and curated by Jones in 2014, the same year in which Lars became the recipient of the Pratt Fashion Visionary Award. She intended to create a resource that would present the underrated influence that Black culture has on the fashion world as a whole.

The festive evening highlighted the contributions made by Lars in celebration of Black History Month and New York Fashion Week, with models wearing Byron Lars Beauty Mark, which he launched in 2001, a jazz music performance by Clarissa Sinceno and Aah Fro Blue and a video by artist Carrie Mae Weems.

During the onset of the discussion, Jones asked the Oakland, California-born designer what it means to be a Black designer. He told a small anecdote that ended with his friend saying, “I don’t know what it means to be a Black designer because I’ve never been a White designer.”

Photo courtesy of the Pratt Institute

The room filled with laughter as Lars explained, “There are certain struggles and inequities by virtue of the fact that there are just so few of us at the forefront of things. The law of averages would dictate that there would be more of [us]… but you can’t focus on those obstacles every day because it will just make you tired.”

He began his own label in 1991, and only after his second season in business he won the coveted Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) Rookie of the Year Award. The success was almost instantaneous with prestigious retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, selling his clothes.

Lars has seen a lot happen within fashion through the decades. When discussing the current climate of fashion, including much of the racial insensitivity at the hands of houses such as Prada and Gucci, the 59-year-old said the tides are changing because of public outcry. “Cosmetically, I feel that it’s changed because there’s been this acceptance of this reality that if you exclude us that we stop shopping with you.”

Throughout the course of his career, Lars’ designs have been worn by celebrities including Angela Bassett and former first lady Michelle Obama. He has partnered with Mattel to design limited-edition Barbie dolls.

He discussed the intricacies of pieces, which “include all the stuff to hold you together, ladies,” according to Jones. Lars asserted that he wants everyone to wear his garments because each person brings something different to a piece and that is what continues to drive him.

The conversation concluded with a slight jab at President Donald Trump’s divisive plans to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico and how that correlates to non-inclusive views in fashion.

“My daddy always used to say that, ‘When you build a wall you lock out a whole lot more than you close in.’ That’s 100 percent,” Lars said. “We all lose when that happens. It’s not just Black people. It’s White people and Asian people, because we all have something to contribute to this that’s bigger than fashion.”

Check out what the designer had to say to EBONY after the event about his career, the blackface controversy and what keeps him motivated after more than 30 years.

Early in your career, you were well received by prominent publications including The New York Times and WWD. As a Black designer, do you think that validated your talent among your White peers?

It goes without saying that support from two publications as influential as both WWD and The New York Times were in fashion at that time was validating to all my peers, regardless of their color.  To be honest, I had been in business for such a short time that it’s safe to say that before those first stories broke, no one, Black or White, had ever heard of me.  In fact, I’m pretty sure most people assumed that I was White, gauging the looks of surprise on their faces when I entered any room on official business … before pictures of me were ever published.

Did you have any trials and tribulation at first designing for Barbie?   

As excited as I was when I was first invited to design for Barbie, the excitement quickly morphed into frustration because of all the limitations that were initially put on me and ironically the icon herself, who can literally do anything she wants.  And that just wasn’t right.                                

After customer response to the first doll exceeded expectation, however, management loosened the reigns so that I and the incredible Mattel creative team could go on to take.  I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world!

With more Black designers rising to the forefront, such as LaQuan Smith, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Telfar Clemens, do you feel as if Black artists are finally getting what is due to them?

Evidence of my fellow Black designers having gotten their due will be in the form of commensurate coverage across all fashion publication platforms, as well as availability at retail alongside the products of their White counterpart.  Since neither of these has happened on a significant-enough scale thus far, I’d say we still have a ways to go yet

Do you find the current climate and events such as the Trump administration, Prada, Gucci, and Moncler’s culture insensitivity a call to action for Black artists to create for the time?

As disappointing as these recent affronts have been, the only effectual response is for Black people to STOP BUYING brands with credos which are not in alignment with their values.  That’s a responsibility of artists and non-artists alike.

What keeps you inspired?

My customer, who I refer to as “My Girl,” inspires me more and more.  The challenge of trying to create clothes that make her feel beautiful and that also comply to the demands of her ever increasingly busy life is a powder keg of inspiration!

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