Then and Now: Veteran Designer Byron Lars and Emerging Talent Fe Noel on the Pitfalls of ‘Pigeonholing’ Designers by Race

Last summer the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police resurfaced a racial justice movement that has been an undercurrent to U.S. culture since the Civil Rights era. Like many industries, fashion, too, was exposed, once again revealing its inequities — particularly as it pertained to Black creatives.

Since then, there’s been a flurry of funding commitments and diversity and inclusion officer appointments, a slew of initiatives aimed at righting the racial imbalance and, in some cases, greater visibility for people of color. What has also happened, however, is that Black designers are being grouped and highlighted by race, which, according to creatives, isn’t the path forward for true inclusion.

Byron Lars, veteran designer and Harlem Fashion Row’s 2015 designer of the year, is well aware of how an industry, where few gatekeepers are people of color, has found challenges is fusing his two identities together.

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A look from the spring 2021 debut “In Earnest,” the name and credo of the new Byron Lars collection. Courtesy

“I think people are just dying for something that is meaningful,” he said of his new line. Not stopping there, he has a second project of T-shirts using his archival sketches — yet another way to breathe new life into his work.

Speaking of the relationship between designer and customer, Lars said, “It can’t just be just transactional. It’s got to be more than that.”

Lars’ break out year was 1991 when WWD dubbed him “rookie of the year,” just after legendary Bloomingdales’ gatekeeper Kal Ruttenstein gave him his first window, declaring Lars’ pieces “the best thing I’ve seen in years.”

It was “a magical time, ” Lars bemused. He took on his first business partner Maryann Wheaton, who came with a serious fashion pedigree from stints with Patrick Kelly, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Lauren, which helped him take his brand to the next level.

The Harlem-based designer was also an early collaborator with Mattel. The toy giant reached out to Lars on what was intended to be a one-off Barbie — it ended up being 16 glamorous, high-fashion Black dolls, many treasured by collectors to this day. The experience, however, came with its own challenges.

“It wasn’t super fun at first because there were a lot of old guard people on the collection at Mattel, who had rigid ideas about who she was and what she could do,” he explained. He wanted his Black Barbie to have pants and kinky hair, the executives said “no.” Eventually, once sales proved positive and new executives came on, he was given more creative freedom.

Byron Lars debuts his designer-dressed African American Barbie at the Fashion Café in New York on April 29, 1997. Kyle Ericksen/WWD

“I know what it was about,” he said, “but I think then nobody was having these honest conversations about race relations. It’s something you did not talk about.”

Mingling at some rarefied society events, a rite of passage in the New York fashion ecosystem, sometimes gave Lars pause. “You start reading about all these grand society women and then…a lot of them are pushing past you at an event because they don’t know what you look like,“ he remembered. “And it’s just like, ‘Oh, you push past the Black guy.’ It wasn’t very gratifying.”

Since summer 2020, many fashion publications have rushed to produce content featuring Black creatives, trying to quickly right a ship to align with the cultural movement. Over the breadth of his career, Lars reported that other than Elle, he didn’t get a ton of support from the prestige fashion bibles. “But the retailer supported me and that’s the important thing,“ he said.

Model Roshumba Williams walks the runway in printed tunic and pants designed by Byron Lars for fall 1994. John Aquino/WWD

The designer was frank when processing last year’s racial justice events. “Although it’s pretty unfortunate such extreme tragedy was required this past summer to open eyes and minds to the reality of inequity in just about every facet of the American experience, the advances being made toward progress give me a cautious optimism about a future of inclusion,” he said.

Lars gives credit to Wheaton who passed on sage advice from Patrick Kelly, sharing with Lars a response that Kelly had given in an interview when asked what it was like being a Black designer in fashion.

“His paraphrased answer?” Lars quipped. “‘I couldn’t tell you, since I don’t know what it’s like being a white designer to compare the difference.’”

Continuing, he said, “With each three- to five-year period of the past 30 years that I’ve been doing this, the disparities between opportunities presented to Black designers as compared to their non-Black counterpart become evermore irrefutable.”

Independent emerging designer Fe Noel shared a similar sentiment.

“Although I’m quite aware of the disparaging and unequal treatment of Black designers,” she said, “the term ‘Black designers’ is starting to overshadow the work and what we offer.”

Noel is part of the next generation of creatives and also a Harlem Fashion Row alum, showing there in 2018.

“We are all individuals with signature stories and paths,” she explained. “I dream of an entity that focuses on the craft and foundations of building a fashion business.”

The young designer showed at New York Fashion Week last February but is sitting out this month’s American Collection Calendar, preferring to focus on the brand’s entry into the wholesale market for pre-fall 2021, as well as “continuing to grow our direct-to-consumer e-commerce model,” she said.

The wholesale model wasn’t always easy for the brand, and Noel said she consciously decided to use a made-to-order business model and employ her own in-house production team.

“This gave me a lot of control. It sets the stage to be authentic and that’s what our customers relate to,” she said, underscoring the centering on direct to consumer that many young brands use, as opposed to the traditional wholesale model.

Noel grew up in Brooklyn with her mother who worked for a manufacturing company and she credits her mother’s work as “a stepping stone to becoming an entrepreneur herself.” “She had a vision, and I had a front seat,” she said. “My brother and I watched her save and raise the capital to bring her idea to life. At that point I knew anything was possible.”

Fe Noel collections proudly embrace the designer’s Grenadian heritage, channeling a wanderlust using vibrant prints and shapes, and — like Lars — the pieces have been worn by Michelle Obama.

“That’s the beauty of this journey,” she said of her collections. “I get to teach people about other cultures they may not be familiar with.”

Veteran designer or younger independent brand, the path to success isn’t always clear for brands helmed by Black creatives, but both Lars and Noel have carved out clothing with a point of view that resonates with customers.

“Often we bootstrap out of necessity or maybe not being formally trained but aren’t able to meet the needs and demands of scaling,” Noel said. “We need more guidance in this area. So if we could remove the groupings and pigeonholing and get down to the fundamentals we’d eliminate the need to constantly categorize based on ethnicity or satisfying a quota and guide to the end goal, which is to run a successful business.”

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