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|I'm not sure how Constance C.R. White found the time to write Style Noir with her day job as Style Reporter at The New York Times but I'm glad she did. The first third of the book is an historical overview of how African-American style has influenced Western fashion, from the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s to the flamboyance of the '70s to hip-hop culture today. The rest of Style Noir is filled with head-to-toe fashion wisdom, ever so wittily presented: "Prints in swimsuits should be small," says White. "Big suit, big flowers, big woman: I don't think so."
It took a couple of months to snag an interview. Just as we were about to meet, off she went on a whirlwind book tour. Next came the grueling collection-go-round of London, Milan, Paris and New York. Finally, a cranky lower back forced White to log some bed rest at home, where I caught up with her over the phone.
Our conversation was not unlike others I've had about the sorry state of the intersection of fashion and the media. But it was only later that I realized for the first time that we'll probably have an African-American president before we have an African-American editor-in-chief at Vogue. Still, Constance started out as a trainee at Women's Wear Daily, where she worked her way up over five years, went on to become the Executive Fashion Editor at Elle, and now seems happily ensconced at The Times.
MARY: Did you always want to be in the fabulous fashion world? Because fashion can be such a hard field to get into.
CONSTANCE: It is. I was very fortunate. It's difficult to break in. I always tell people you have to be prepared to work for free to break in or for very little money.
MARY: How did the idea of the book come up?
CONSTANCE: Well, the publisher approached me and said, "We want to do a how-to style book for black women." I thought, "Wow, that's a nice idea." But I said, "I'd rather do a history book" because I've always wanted to do a history of African-American style. They said, "No, we're not interested in that." Then I went back to them and said, "What if we do a book that incorporates both?" So they said, "Great, yes" and that's Style Noir.
MARY: So how long did it take to write? You have a full-time job at The Times.
CONSTANCE: Yes, I do. Silly me. I think all told it took about eight months. But don't forget that it's my business, so in terms of the research and just conjuring up what to write, a lot of that was either at my fingertips or somewhere in the back of my head. There was a lot of fresh research, but some of it was just confirming what I already knew.
MARY: I particularly love the history chapter. Do you think you'll go back and write a longer version of it?
CONSTANCE: I don't know. But I definitely think there are at least three more books to be done. Because even the models' story by itself is rich and intriguing and could make a whole book. The story of hip-hop by itself is rich and intriguing.
MARY: I was so surprised to learn that Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress had been designed by a black woman. That was so cool to know. And it was great just to read all these familiar names, like Stephen Burrows and people who have been so important. Who would you say are some of the most important black designers today?
CONSTANCE: Importance in fashion comes in two ways from a designer. One, they're huge commercially, or two, they're directional they give inspiration or they start trends. Bearing that in mind, Karl Kani is one of the most important designers. He's a hip-hop designer, and he's both big commercially and he sets fashion trends. Maurice Malone, who has a much smaller business at the moment, is gaining in importance. There's Patrick Robinson, who was with Anne Klein for a year and was with Giorgio Armani for about six years. Byron Lars and Tracy Reese are also very important. And Alvin Bell, who illustrated my book. He has a collection he's doing exclusively for Sears, even though he started his career in the high-end market, and it's doing extraordinarily well.
What's interesting as we say this is that none of these people, except for Karl, are really huge businesses or household names, in the way that, say, Willi Smith was, Stephen Burrows was, Patrick Kelly was.
MARY: Somewhere in the book Stephen Burrows says that twenty years ago you could start a business on fifty grand, whereas now you need $5 million.
CONSTANCE: He's so right. You hear that story every day, be the designer black or white. But of course, it disproportionately affects the black designers. There are quite a few budding black designers right now, quite a lot actually, but no one has risen to that level or even close to that level, except for Karl Kani.
MARY: Was it hard to do your historical research?
CONSTANCE: There is not a lot of stuff out there. So in doing the research, you can't go to one place. There's no primary source. I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Library Research Center for Black Culture, and I visited the Met often. Those were primary sources. Even if I didn't have the information, which in a lot of cases I did not, I at least knew what I was looking for and where it might be.
MARY: If someone said to me, "Why don't you do a style book?" I would be so worried it would be out of style by the time it came out. Did that cross your mind ever?
CONSTANCE: It did. But my philosophy of style is that there are certain basic rules that are timeless, and they apply to everyone, and they can be utilized by everyone. And right now there is such a building of trend and interest in African-American style. It's an area that is so untouched by Western fashion that I felt anything I put out would still be fresh three, four, five years from now. Because we just haven't explored it that much.
MARY: In writing about black style, one thing you said is that at its core is a love of display. I know that's one sentence that sums up some of your feelings, but maybe you could talk about that a little bit more.
CONSTANCE: I asked myself the question: "What is black style? Is there such a thing?" Of course, my answer was yes. So what is it? How is it defined? Then I thought about all different kinds of black styles and what they have in common. Of course, black style doesn't mean that every black person wears it. And it doesn't mean that it's limited to black people. What it all has in common is a flamboyance, a creative expression. That's all emotional, but even statistically it's been shown that black women proportionally are a lot more interested in fashion than other groups.
MARY: And in beauty as well. I've always heard that a lot more money is spent by blacks on beauty products, particularly hair.
CONSTANCE: Yes, you put both together. When I say "fashion," I'm talking about beauty and clothes.
CONSTANCE: That's very true. So it's really this attention to clothing. We use it in a very creative way, and therefore it becomes quite flamboyant. Blacks tend to like a head-to-toe look. You go to any gathering, whether it's young kids hanging out waiting to get into the movies, or the women going to church on a Sunday, and it's very matchy-matchy, pulled together, and full of adornment.
MARY: And the grunge look and the heroin chic look ...
CONSTANCE: Never ...
MARY: ... really took off.
CONSTANCE: Not in the black community. Not at all.
MARY: You talk about the modeling industry in Style Noir, so let's segue to magazines. There are a lot of problems there. Forgetting about all the celebrities that everyone uses, it's just really hard to get a black cover now.
CONSTANCE: But it's funny you say that, because even with the celebrities ... there was Halle Berry on the cover of Jane.
MARY: Which was such a gorgeous cover.
CONSTANCE: Right. But how many of these celebrities have been black? I think she's probably the first one. I haven't seen a lot. Vogue hasn't ...
MARY: Brandy has been on 17 and YM ...
CONSTANCE: Maybe the younger magazines. But you can get Vogue, Bazaar, W and so on none of them use black celebrities. And when I saw the Jane cover, I saw it on the newsstand. I didn't pick it up because I knew I'd get it at my office. So I saw it about two or three more times before I got my copy, and I never knew it was Halle Berry. I thought it was a Latina or just a dark-skinned white woman. So I am suspicious that maybe they were trying to make her look a little more Caucasian.
MARY: I don't know. Who knows?
CONSTANCE: That's the big mystery question. And someone told me that Page Six said Naomi Campbell's in another flap about her cover, this time with Harper's Bazaar.
MARY: Harper's Bazaar made Naomi Campbell's eyes blue on a cover a few years ago! Do you remember that one?
CONSTANCE: But I don't know if it was them or her. Because she's been wearing colored contacts for a while. My issue with the magazines is that the magazines keep coming back and saying "OK, Black models don't sell." As I say in the book: You know what? There are white models who don't sell, too. But no one says white models don't sell. If you're going to put a black model on your cover once every fifteen covers, that's really not giving it a good enough run to say they don't sell. I understand they're businesses, but magazines are also cultural organs of our society, and at some point they have to lead. If you're truly an editorial package, then as such you should not only reflect society, but you should also ...
MARY: ... take a stand.
CONSTANCE: Yes, and break new ground in society occasionally. That's what's missing.
MARY: I saw one of those fashion TV shows where a very prominent editor of a glossy magazine said, "Well, there aren't enough black models. There just aren't any! " which is ridiculous.
CONSTANCE: Yeah. Beyond. Terrible.
MARY: What magazines would be good for, say, a young African-American teenage girl to look at?
CONSTANCE: I don't think teenage girls should look at fashion magazines. I think the way that fashion magazines have to present themselves and do present themselves is just too debilitating to girls who are just forming their self-image. If it were up to me, they wouldn't look at any fashion magazines! When they're a bit older, and they've formed their sense of self and sense of self-worth. But to be fed this diet of "How is your pimple doing?" or "Are your nails green this month, blue next month?" or "Are you fat enough, curvaceous enough, thin enough?" "Ten ways to make him love you" ... I just think they're really debilitative. I am actually answering in my head for all girls, but in fact I double everything I said for African-American girls. There was a magazine for young African-American girls ...
CONSTANCE: That was fabulous. Can you believe that, that it doesn't exist? That was such an excellent magazine. It was published by B.E.T., and I don't know why they couldn't make it work financially. Because it was so good. It was really positive, really challenging.
MARY: One thing I realized, in getting ready for this interview is that I've only worked with one black fashion photographer ever.
CONSTANCE: Well, you've only worked with one because there aren't a lot of them out there who have been able to break in. There isn't work for them. Fashion is driven by emotion and instinct. It becomes very subjective. Therefore, if there are any prejudices, it's difficult to work against them. You can't just waltz in and say, "Look, I've shot twenty pictures, they're great," in the way you can go to Wall Street and say, "Look, I've brought $10 million of business into this brokerage, now hire me." There's so much of an "Oh, well, they just don't get it." It's all about Who Gets It and Who Doesn't Get It. So if there's any prejudice lurking there at all, that's how it's expressed: "No, it's not a color issue; they just don't get it." And indeed, the person might sincerely be thinking it's not a color issue. But there is just too much of a pattern not to realize that somewhere there, there is a color issue. Why aren't there any black editors? Why aren't there any black photographers? Or just one.
MARY: Besides the obvious difference in deadlines, how does working at The Times differ from working at a monthly magazine?
CONSTANCE: Well, the biggest difference for me is at The Times I have a lot more power to get things done, as opposed to getting something done by committee and meetings. At The Times, my job is to assess the market, decide what's important, discuss it with my editor, and print it.
MARY: And it seems you can be a little more critical at The Times. You can write about a show and give it a "bad" review. Which must be great.
CONSTANCE: Well, it is. Not that I'm wallowing in it like a pig and saying, "Isn't this wonderful? I can trash this designer's collection." It's just an integrity that you are able to bring to bear.
MARY: There was something in W, one of those Louise Esterhazy columns, where they were clearly mocking an Amy Spindler review in The Times. But I don't see why fashion shows shouldn't be reviewed the same way as theater, especially a show. It's a show, and half the clothes may not even be produced, so why not just review it?
CONSTANCE: Designers now have a lot of options to promote themselves through TV, through The New York Times, through Women's Wear, through W, fashion shows on TV, celebrities wearing your clothes. There are just so many more areas.
MARY: And if you get a negative review here or there, it's not going to do too much in the grand scheme of things.
CONSTANCE: When my colleague Jennifer Steinhauer and I did this front-page series about how big the problems really were in the fashion industry, half of the industry gave us big kisses, the other half wanted to kill me. But what I said to them was, "You know what? You should be glad." I said, "You can remain a sort of pathetic, provincial little industry, cry and suck your thumb when something happens, or you can move into a respected area." For bad or good, to put the fashion industry on the front page of The New York Times and twice is really something. I mean, just ask Bill Gates. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
MARY: How do you feel about the state of African-Americans in fashion, or the fashion world?
CONSTANCE: How do I feel about it? I'm not happy. More than one of the designers I talked to said, "You know what? There was a time ..." They said there was a point at which black designers were hot, were sought after. Well, that alone sort of underpins what I'm saying. They shouldn't be "hot" because they're black. Because if you're hot, it stands to reason that you're going to be cold eventually. That said, I think there is a lot more that we in the fashion industry can do to encourage African-Americans to go into the field and establish fulfilling careers. I mean, I've had one ... I have one.
MARY: There's something very tough about the business. It's almost like, do you really want to encourage people to go into this?
CONSTANCE: I love it, but you have to understand what it is. One of the things I'm involved with is a group called Fashion Outreach. We go and talk to young people in high school and college, about what we've done, how we broke in. So even though they haven't seen pictures of us out there, at least they know there are black people in the fashion industry who have had fulfilling careers.
MARY: But it's also so competitive.
CONSTANCE: It's very political and competitive. I was reading this book called The Fashion Conspiracy by Nicholas Coleridge. One of the things he points out is that there's no other industry where you have to renew yourself twice a year. There are collections twice a year and you have to show your product at the very same time as your competitors. Think about it: a singer, the record business you produce when you're ready. Is this singer ready? You bring your record out when it's ready. Computers, the same thing.
MARY: But in fashion you have to be first ...
MARY: ... and you have to get credit for it.
CONSTANCE: Exactly. In fashion it's like, "On your mark, get set, now all of you show your collections." So you're on this whole merry-go-round. It really affects the way the whole industry functions. Not just the designers, but the writers, the editors ...
MARY: And there are so many characters and divas and crazy people in the business. Haven't you had experiences that have made you think, "Why am I doing this?"
CONSTANCE: I probably have, but I wouldn't talk about them now. I might talk about them when I'm sixty.