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Lisa Kalbasov

In the March 6th Changemaker Fashion Designers panel, presented by Fashion@Brown and moderated by sophomores Quinn Coleman and Madison McTaggart, panelists Tracy Reese, Fe Noel, and Stella Jean spoke to the importance of multiculturalism and sustainability in fashion design, the effect of the Black Lives Matter movement on the fashion industry, as well as their own experiences in pursuing fashion design.

Jean is an Italian designer who focuses on fashion as a tool for multiculturalism and cooperative international development through her project, Laboratorio delle Nazioni (Laboratory of Nations). She is also the founder of Black Lives Matter Italian Fashion, and works towards systemic change within fashion in Italy and around the world. Jean credited international artisans and creative women as her inspirations.

Noel, a designer from Brooklyn, New York, is the founder of clothing and lifestyle brand Fe Noel. Her work is influenced by her Caribbean heritage and family, and the ideals of using available resources and the natural world as a foundation for all aspects of life.

Reese, a Detroit-native, focuses her work on sustainability and body inclusivity, working to use fashion as a tool to “make people feel good about themselves,” she said. She is the founder of the several major labels, including sustainable label Hope for Flowers.

Reese emphasized the importance of pursuing sustainable fashion, particularly in the context of the pandemic, which has highlighted the detrimental effects of over-production and fast fashion. “Working within a smaller field of resources that I feel confident are causing as little harm as possible to the environment and all the people along the supply chain, it’s been a really interesting journey,” she said. She noted that sustainability is a process that requires constant work and flexibility.

For Noel, the urge to incorporate simplicity and using available resources in her fashion is influenced by her Carribean roots: “They mostly build a life from the resources that they have, the things that are made by Earth,” she says. In her designs, she seeks to highlight this mindset of being in touch with nature, as well as the juxtaposition of the consumerism of New York with the lifestyle of the Carribean.

Jean,is inspired by her Haitian roots, as well as the traditions and craftsmanship found in low-income countries. She views fashion “as a cultural activity,” as well as a way to change the narrative surrounding low-income countries. Her goal is  “through an exchange of skills, to strengthen the determination of the population of developing and low-income countries to keep their communities alive and their extraordinary tradition—mostly unknown—repositioning them on the map in a geographical, emotional, and economic level.” She also spoke to the idea of using fashion as a tool of multiculturalism and counter colonization in these countries.

Fashion can be a tool for change on a local as well as a global level, as Reese has demonstrated with her work to spread the benefits of creativity to her hometown youth. Hope for Flowers works to provide free arts education to both children and adults, encouraging them to explore their creative sides. Reese spoke to the devastating effect of the Detroit economic crisis on local public schools’ ability to provide arts education to their students: “That’s heart wrenching, that young people don’t have this outlet and can’t envision a more beautiful world,” Arts, she added, can also be a tool for community building and conversation.

The panelists also spoke to the extraordinary barriers they have had to wrestle with as Black women in a fashion industry largely built for white men. They have had to contend with people refusing to respect their skill as designers and with difficulties acquiring financial resources, as well as with the pressure to conform to industry standards. They also spoke, however, to the importance of refusing to conform to these pressures, and continue to overcome and persevere: “I’m still at the point where I’m still trying to…make sure I hold on to my unique voice, make sure I hold on to my unique story,” Noel said.

They also emphasized the power of the current historical moment and the Black Lives Matter movement to create change within the fashion industry. “I think that it’s very clear that we’re speaking about an incredible revolution, at least in fashion, that began last year, and I think we… all know that the type of discourse that is happening now would have been completely out of place and completely ignored not only five years ago, but even nine months ago. The truth is, it took an extreme amount of extremely painful human sacrifice to point out the elephant in the room,” Jean said. Jean also emphasized that the BLM Italia movement, which she leads, has faced an enormous amount of backlash from others within the fashion industry, including boycotts, blacklisting and intimidation. Despite this, she said, “I can proudly say that we never retreated.”

Noel also pointed to the importance of this historical moment, encouraging Black youth pursuing fashion design not to give up on their passions. “Go for it. You can absolutely make it,” she said. “We’re really going to see fashion experiencing a shift because of people like Stella and so many others that are advocating for people of color right now in the industry. Now is the time.”

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