By Paul Holston,
Three young designers who want to send messages of black empowerment, entrepreneurship and success.
In 1989, Spike Lee’s movie Do The Right Thing sparked a national conversation about black pride and prejudice. The movie helped spawn trends in hip-hop music, the development of television shows featuring all-black casts, an uptick in attendance at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and fashion apparel featuring black and Afrocentric themes.
In the early 1990s, the rising popularity of television shows such as Martin and A Different World mirrored the life of black professionals and students wearing clothes such as dashikis, headscarves and T-shirts with messages like “It’s A Black Thing. You Wouldn’t Understand.”
These shows were more than just black entertainment. They gave insight on everyday highs and lows of family, friends, couples and college students during the decade and since. Viewers got more than the message — they saw black empowerment.
As a result, students on HBCU campuses started to pick up on this fashion trend, and some enterprising entrepreneurs launched their businesses to capture a portion of the African-American retail market and a slice of the $100 billion U.S. retail e-commerce pie.
In today’s urban apparel market, entrepreneurs continue to produce clothing and messaging through fashion, trying to inspire black youth and promote a positive movement through their clothing.
Here are three examples of the many startups from HBCU alumni apparel brands explaining why they created their brands and what impact they want to have as black entrepreneurs:
HGC APPAREL (HAUTE GREEK COUTURE APPAREL)
“All We Ever Did Was Be Black.” “Black By Popular Demand.” “Respect, Protect, Love The Black Woman.”
Actress Zendaya rocked “Respect, Protect and love The Black Woman” on a crewneck during the #WomensMarch in January. The nostalgic feel of the ’90s, black pride and consciousness are all woven into the designs created by Howard University alumna Marcia Smith. She founded her e-commerce clothing company, HGC [Haute Greek Couture] Apparel, in 2008.
Smith, a native of Washington, D.C., said she was inspired by her experiences at Howard to create the company in her senior year. HGC Apparel has since grown to depict images beyond Greek life at Howard. Her current focus is to simply exude unapologetic blackness in an affordable fashion, as her apparel’s price range is between $30 and $50.
“I was always in the vintage thrift stores heavy growing up,” said Smith. “Whenever I saw old ’70s and ’80s photographs of black people and what they wore, I was like, ‘Where is this shirt at?’ I did my research and wanted to revive that culture, bring that nostalgic feeling and bridge that gap.”
Smith’s first design debuted at a Howard step show in 2009. “EDUCATED NEGRO” stood boldly across her shirt.
“Using the word ‘Negro,’ people didn’t like it. … I was met with a little adversity,” said Smith. “It was pretty ironic because at Howard, you have educators on campus call you Negro to your face.”
Her second design, “BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND,” was met with instant success. Since then, her company has expanded in output and outreach, with her target audience being from high school to graduate school students. Windbreakers, swimsuits, sweatsuits, jackets, backpacks, hats and more are now staples in her apparel line, which now serves an international customer base.