This past February, Anok Yai became only the second Black model ever to open the Prada fashion show, following in the footsteps of Naomi Campbell, who accomplished the feat 20 years earlier. While it’s no secret that the fashion industry caters to a young, thin, and overwhelmingly white audience, there has been a necessary shift in the past few years as people push for greater representation of marginalized groups both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
Kim Jenkins, Fashion Studies ’13, a part-time faculty member in Parsons’ School of Fashion and School of Art and Design History and Theory, is one of those advocating for proper representation and more opportunities for people of color in fashion. She recently curated Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, an exhibition that featured work by Parsons School of Design students and alumni exploring race and identity in fashion. She has also taught Fashion and Race at The New School since 2016.
“The exhibit is an outgrowth of my course of the same title. I felt that there was a dearth of teaching resources and an underexamined discourse in fashion studies when it comes to how ‘race’ has influenced fashion aesthetics, retail, and image making,” says Jenkins. “Aside from trying to advance the discourse and provide resources, it’s time to acknowledge the fact that we have an incredibly diverse student population that deserves a platform to showcase the critical work they’re doing and to feel safe and supported doing it.”
Since Jenkins introduced her course, new classes have been added to the curriculum that explore race, aesthetics, and visuality. The New School has also developed initiatives that address race, such as 400 Years of Inequality, which challenged professors and students to explore how race relates to various topics in their studies.
“I wanted to introduce work that showed how students are applying concepts and research after taking those courses,” says Jenkins.
The Fashion and Race exhibition featured work by students including Kyemah McEntyre, Fashion Design ’19, whose dashiki-inspired prom dress went viral in 2015, and Avery Youngblood, AAS Graphic Design ’18, a Beyoncé Formation Scholar, who created How to Be Black, a how-to guide that showcases the everyday life of a young, multidimensional Black woman. Myles Loftin, Photography ’20, contributed the photographic series Hooded, which highlights the precariousness of being Black and joyful in spite of the police violence targeting Black men, and Colored (whose title riffs off the pejorative term formerly used to refer to Black people), which celebrates the agency that comes from dyeing one’s hair.
“I watched people stop in awe at the display window as I encouraged them to walk inside, which was a true moment of validation for myself and, I’m sure, for the other artists who contributed to the space,” says McEntyre. “This moment in space granted Black identity a highly regarded position in reality. Black identity isn’t this one fixed thing; it’s quite expansive and forever evolving. I think the exhibition proved this through the diverse approaches to the deconstruction of it. The duration of the exhibition was absolutely magical and certainly a key moment in my college career. I am so grateful to say that I was a part of such a revolutionary exhibition.”
Jenkins hopes that after seeing the exhibition, viewers who enjoy or benefit from their privilege have a better understanding of the systemic oppression that ultimately affects everyone.
“I think that the show impacted viewers on various levels, and I was astounded by how diverse and supportive the viewership was!” she says. “What I know for sure is that many people (particularly the artists featured) felt seen, and they appreciated being amongst the next generation of designers and artists unified to address a social and cultural political concern.”
As for Jenkins, her time studying and teaching at Parsons continues to influence her career and the work she is passionate about pursuing. She is in the midst of developing a course focused on fashion and justice and will be lecturing about fashion and race across the country throughout next year. She is also seeking contributors to her Fashion and Race Database Project, which is helping to expand the narrative of the fashion industry while challenging damaging misrepresentations.
“I’ve always felt supported and encouraged with my work — Parsons has been a second home for me, and I want my students to feel the comfort and encouragement that I experienced,” she says. “I’m not sure if any other school would have entrusted me with as many opportunities to explore my work and research interests as The New School has.”