July 29, 2010

Category: Real Talk

Essence Mag Hires A White Fashion Director


Last Wednesday morn lovely styleaholic Najwa tweeted: “Just heard some very disturbing news about Essence magazine.” I tweeted back: “Did they fold?” Never got a response because I forgot to type the friggin “@” symbol. Then on Sunday I saw this Facebook update by cultural critic & former Essence Fashion Editor Michaela angela Davis: “It is with a heavy heavy heart I have learned that Essence magazine…,” okay by now I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, Susan Taylor must have died.’ So with equal parts dread and anxiety I finished reading her status: “…has engaged a white fashion director.”

Whew, that’s it! I exhaled. I was relieved and honestly, initially, did not get what all the drama and pain was about. But as I read through some of the 50 or so comments that were posted almost immediately on Michaela’s page that day it became clear that many writers and supporters of Essence felt betrayed. Michaela continued in her post by stating: “If there were balance in the industry; if we didn’t have a history of being ignored and disrespected; if more mainstream fashion media included people of color before the ONE magazine dedicated to black women ‘diversified’, it would feel different.” There were many commenters though that disagreed, like the one who offered: “I’m surprised that everyone assumes this is terrible news simply because the new person is White. We know absolutely zero about them besides that.”

Personally speaking, Essence WAS definitely a place where I found nurturing and inspiration. My first job was at Essence and I was first published in Essence, but honestly I haven’t thought of Essence as being a Black creative sanctuary in at least 10 years. Honey had been that sanctuary and currently Arise and my own venture– theHotness.com are filling that void for me. When I look at Michaela or my homegrrrls Sharon, Karen and Joicelyn I see Black style, creativity and sass. I see imagination, edge and what I like to call a distinct “Black Aesthetic.” Sorry, I haven’t seen that in Essence in quite some time and as such it’s lost all relevance in my life.

Comrade and fellow journalist Esther commented on her FB page:

Essence. The magazine that was a visual & lyrical home for a global black female audience hires a white fashion director. It was the place me and so many other daughters of the diaspora gathered each month to (view) the images that spanned the spectrum and juiciness of brown gorgeousness.

Reading that I immediately realized that this love for Essence—this great outpouring of emotion– was mostly a nostalgic love. Like fawning over an old lover who been done us wrong gurl! I’ve read over two hundred comments on this topic and not one person has said they are currently in love with Essence and that as a Black woman or even as a Black writer they find it empowering in 2010. Their mandate is ‘a dedication to Black women” but seriously folk, when is the last time they really honored that? Was it when they put Reggie Bush on the cover to celebrate “Black Love” when he was dating Kim Kardashian who, by the way, is not Black? Or maybe it was when they had P. Diddy on the cover to celebrate fatherhood. This of course was right after the birth of his twin daughters to his baby mama Kim and when he was denying his alleged love-child by another woman (which of course he later admitted was his chick on the side & that she had in fact given birth to his daughter) while also in court with his first baby mama Misa arguing over a lack of child support. As a magazine for Black women this is who you choose to idolize as Black manhood? Or it has to be this month’s issue where they replace Janet Jackson’s beautifully cropped coif with the seemingly ubiquitous and boring yaki yaki weave? That’s gotta make us sisters with short do’s feel so good about ourselves and our self-image! The emphasis on Euro aesthetics and designers abound and has so for quite some time. I feel they abandoned a distinct Black creative and cultural style aesthetic for ad dollars. Green over black baby! Honestly, I am way more upset over Steve Harvey being a damn relationship consultant on their staff than this new hire! Now that pisses me off! It wasn’t until my homeslice Joan brought it home with her hardcore, grassroots, no-nonsense response that I fully grasped what could be major repercussions as a result of this Essence new hire. She commented:

I could care less how qualified this woman is. This is not about fashion, trends, (or) how Essence is doing as a magazine. It’s deeper than that. This is about my bottom line and my livelihood. When these same institutions start to employ hiring practices that allow black publishing professionals (like me) the same access to their publications, that’s when I can get all Kumbaya about Essence’s new fashion editor. Right now though all I’m seeing is yet another publication where a qualified black publishing professional is not going to be able to find work.

Even though I don’t wholly agree with the outcry, I do wholeheartedly understand. Seriously, I cringe at the thought of the new fashion director calling Armani or Diane Von Furstenberg or Tracy Reese or whomever they call nowadays to ask for something chic that represents the style of black women and knowing these designers and publicists will look across the table and see a pale face claiming to rep my style and culture. Awkward. Tragic. Disappointing, but certainly, at least from my point of view, not the least bit surprising or even earth shattering.

Click here for the official response from Angela Burt Murray– Essence Editor-in-Chief.

How do you feel about this new hire? Do you care? Do you still read Essence? Is this a “dark day” for Essence and Black media?

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8 Responses to “Essence Mag Hires A White Fashion DirectorComment RSS feed

  • Rebecca
    July 29th, 2010 6:58 pm

    I’m with you and Joan. And love Michaela.

  • sharon
    July 29th, 2010 8:23 pm

    It was a culturally insensitive move on their part given our history, given the reason that a magazine specifically for black women exists. But Joan hit it on the head about the economic and career ramifications.

  • Julia
    July 30th, 2010 9:43 am

    As Sharon says it was certainly culturally insensitive, and Joan’s take on it reflects my initial reaction.

    Carving out a career for yourself in magazine publishing is like a competitive sport, particularly at publications that feature fashion and beauty. The sad truth is that unlike our white counterparts who are able to advance in position and trapeze from one publication to another, when many of us leave Essence or other black pubs our options oftentimes are settling for positions at other magazines that we’re over-qualified (see pool of freelance fact checkers at several top pubs), uncertain freelance work, or we leave the industry altogether because we’re not being considered for jobs at general market magazines.

    Oh, and I’m totally with you on the Steve Harvey piece. He ain’t don’ none of us no favors (sucking my teeth at the thought).

  • Noelani
    July 30th, 2010 9:53 am

    I think you and everyone else pretty much said it all. Unfortunate but like you alluded to, Essence hasn’t been relevant in a while. I haven’t bought one since Michelle Obama was on the cover and I think that was two years ago.

  • Sweetilocks
    July 30th, 2010 1:31 pm

    I have been pretty mum on this issue because I can see all sides of the argument. I definitely understand where Joan and Michaela are coming from because Essence is (or was, however you look at it) something we could claim as our own. Historically, it uplifted black women like no other publication and competed with the likes of Vogue and Elle on the same level. The struggle for black female writers and editors to find reliable employment at major publications remains an uphill battle and the competition is just as steep. However, I’m less concerned about the race of the new fashion editor and more concerned about her vision and ability to identify with black female readers.

    On the other hand, as many have pointed out, identifying with black female readers is no longer a priority for Essence. Hence, Steve Harvey (Mr. I’ve-Been-Married-A-Million-Times-and-Still-Don’t-Know-Shit) is a relationship guru! Really?! I read Angela Burt-Murray’s response and found it interesting that she used the back-of-the-magazine articles to defend the quality of Essence. But none of those important issues are ever brought to the forefront, or cover of the magazine because, well frankly, Reggie Bush’s titties will sell more magazines. Regardless of whether he or Diddy adequately demonstrates Black love or not. It’s about gettin’ those greenbacks! And Essence has further made that clear by advertising clothes, shoes and accessories that Oprah can just throw in the bag, but some of us would have to go without eating for a month in order to buy. It kills me that we’ve become so capitalistic that we no longer consider the realities of our audience. So in that respect, and the burying of the real issues into the back pages, Essence saddens me and has become an afterthought, when it used to be a publication I subscribed to and pined to work for as a young journalist.

    Now, on the opposition to the backlash, I understand the purpose in Essence making such a move in staffing. Although I’m skeptical about whether we will ever truly exist in a post-racial society, how will we ever get there if our thinking is we won’t integrate until white people integrate first? I mean, where is the trend of progress to begin if not with us? Black folks have always been receptive of people of other cultures in backgrounds, so why should that change? Why should we perpetuate the same type of discrimination which has held us back for so long?

  • Tahana
    July 30th, 2010 6:56 pm

    Time, Inc owns Essence magazine so why are folks so surprised…its the BET business model!I think people no matter their color, race or creed should be judged by their work, not how they look, besides if we don’t want other folks in our business we should have some integrity & learn to hold on to our businesses and make them better until they are priceless not sell them to the first interested buyer and then complain about how they choose to run it. I think if people don’t like it then they shouldn’t buy it….and I agree with Hotness Essence’s editorial content of late has been targeted to a much different audience than subscribers and readers of yesteryear. It appears to be the same audience BET caters to! They both appear to have been sold and then ghettoized!

  • Justin
    August 2nd, 2010 1:10 pm

    Part of me *wants* to be all “post racial paradigm” and ish, but really?! I’m probably more concerned that–for whatever reason–an African-American candidate wasn’t the most qualified for the position. Thirty years ago I might have chalked it up to our culture’s “white is right” attitude, but today she might have just been the best person for the gig. Let her work speak for itself… otherwise the backlash would be crazy. They’d say brotha’s can’t teach Shakespeare, or Asians can’t drive NASCAR… heck a Mexican guy just made my spicy tuna roll! So maybe we *are* post racial, but if I end up with her in an elevator at Essence HQ and she clutches her purse… it’s on like Donkey Kong.

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