Local stylist, businesses discuss cultural appropriation, diversity in fashion industry

Local News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Amid recent Black Lives Matter protests, shoppers are looking at their favorite stores and brands to see how they are responding to the movement. 

WSAV.com NOW spoke with a local style expert and business owners about cultural appropriation and steps Savannahians can take to be more inclusive. 

Charisse Bruin does it all. 

Owner and creative director behind the lifestyle and fashion brand Charisse Styles, she’s earned the title of “style expert.” Bruin is a content creator, stylist, model, image consultant, fashion columnist and more. 

After graduating college and working in the logistics and transportation industry, Bruin switched gears and began working with Savannah businesses and clients in all things style. She says fashion and media are her passions, but she found the industries to be seriously lacking diversity. 

“When I started Charisse Styles, I started it because I was not seeing enough black and brown faces on digital and print media,” Bruin said. “I know some really talented black and brown individuals that were not getting jobs.”

Bruin says many models, makeup artists, and stylists were moving to larger cities, where they could better find work. She says she decided to stay in Savannah, her hometown, and make a change. 

As she started her new career, Bruin says she struggled. She would go shop to shop, borrowing clothing for photoshoots, and trying to create relationships with local business owners. 

Bruin, a black woman, says she experienced racism along the way, whether it be blatant or undercurrent.

“I have always dealt with the subtle microaggressions,” Bruin said. “The people that are in power don’t look like us — the people that own these publications and news channels.”

Bruin says that many brands and businesses with subtle racism weaved into their foundation are actually making money off of trends that originated from black culture. 

In 2018, author Constance C.R. White published the book “How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style.” It dives into years of fashion trends that the black community paved the way for.

Digital publication Heartbroken Zine also recently compiled a list of 2020 trends that originated from the black community, including fashion sneakers, high-end streetwear, bucket hats and more. 

There have been plenty of studies done on the nameplate necklace, which originated in black and Hispanic communities in the 1970s and drew from graffiti and hip hop culture. It was made mainstream years later when “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw wore a gold one of her own throughout the iconic series. 

In one episode, Bradshaw threw up when she saw her gold engagement ring, calling her gold jewelry, like the gold nameplate necklace, her “ghetto gold” that she “wears for fun.”

For decades, mainstream trends have been inspired by black culture, which is often given little or zero recognition and even sometimes presented in a negative light. 

The term “ghetto” has been used before to describe other, now-popular trends that originated in black and brown communities.

Shanay Frazier is the owner of Custom Claws Co. and has been a nail technician for two years. Much of her work is bold nail art featuring everything from rhinestones and butterflies to ombre and marble designs.

Frazier says that she has never personally faced racism, but says she hates that long or bright nails are sometimes seen as something only for black women. Frazier says she is an artist and doesn’t want her work, or herself, to be put in a box.

“The first thing people say is that ‘they’re ghetto’,” Frazier said. “A white girl can want this. It isn’t something that’s just for black people.”

Bright, long nails have become more popular and more accepted in the workplace in recent years. This year, nail art seems to be having a moment, partially thanks to the red carpet at the 2020 Grammy Awards. 

Stars including Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Rosalia, and more, all wore over-the-top manicures. These looks caught the attention of major fashion publications such as Allure, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Marie Claire

“I think the trend is for people of means, of celebrity status, they have black and brown friends, and they see what they have been doing,” Bruin said, “they attach themselves to it, and then they make it popular.”

Frazier says this can be frustrating, as she’s been wearing nail art for years. 

“It kind of sucks that it takes for someone of a different color to make these trends popular when this is something that has always been around,” Frazier said. 

 Despite it being a little frustrating, Frazier says overall, she is more than happy to see women of all colors and backgrounds wearing nail art. 

“I love to see women of other races wearing long nails, or with bright [nails],” Frazier said. 

Bruin says that she agrees that at the end of the day, trends that originated in minority communities becoming mainstream isn’t a bad thing. She hopes that people will take the time to appreciate the people who created these styles.

“I don’t care if someone that doesn’t look like me has braids,” Bruin said. “Understand why you wear braids. Like, just understand where that trend came from or what locs may mean to someone.”

In addition to recognizing where trends originated, Bruin says there are many simple steps consumers and business owners can take to be inclusive and work to end covert racism in the fashion industry. 

For consumers, Bruin says, it is something as easy as visiting a new facialist or a new nail salon owned by a person of color. 

“I think that people can go out and be intentional and actually mean it in wanting to involve certain groups.” Bruin said. “If I can do it, so can you. If I can go into places to where I’m uncomfortable and I’m the only person that looks like me in the room, then absolutely you should be able to step out of your comfort zone, like ‘hey, I’m an ally, I want to do better.’”

Bruin says locally, social media and image selection play a huge role in creating a diverse, welcoming atmosphere at a business. 

Meredith Barfield is the owner of contemporary women’s boutique The Edition Shop in downtown Savannah. She says being in the fashion industry, she posts a lot of images to the store’s social media and website

Showing a diverse variety of women in her clothes is a way that she can ensure the entire community feels represented at her store, Barfield says.

“We have used black models in the past, and we’re going to continue to do that and be even more aware and just try to be inclusive with everybody,” Barfield said.

Barfield says that she uses a lot of stock photos sent directly from brands she sells in her store. 

“What I’ve noticed recently is a lot of the pictures that I pull are white models,” Barfield said. “And so, I need to either bring that up with our reps and say, ‘hey, why aren’t these brands using a more diverse range of models?’ and if they’re not going to, then that is going to be an issue, and we will just have to do more of our own photoshoots here.”

Another local business with the same idea is Ivory and Beau, a bridal store owned by Nicole Mason. She says some designers aren’t doing a great job of representing all brides.

“I think a lot of bridal designers, when you look at their Instagrams, you’re only seeing skinny, white girls, and that is not the average woman,” Mason said.

Mason took matters into her own hands and recently booked Charisse Styles for a photo shoot that more accurately reflects brides in Savannah. 

“These dresses are for every type of woman there is,” Mason said. “I wanted to be able to show brides of all colors and sizes that they can feel beautiful in their wedding dress.”

The shoot featured models with all different skin colors, hair colors, body art, shapes and sizes. Mason said the shoot was fun and an extremely easy and obvious way to be inclusive. 

“I think it all just starts with something as simple as a post on your social media. That’s where millennials are these days, and they’re paying attention to what local businesses are putting out,” Mason said.

“I just think it’s not hard to show a diverse community and posting all types of weddings. We’ve even done a couple of weddings for gay couples. That’s really important to me because we do not discriminate based on anything. We’re here to help. If you are getting married, we’re here to help.”

In addition to creating your own content, Bruin says it is important for local businesses to hire a diverse group of employees — something Barfield at The Edition Shop is working on.

“I think it’s important to have different points of view, and [our customers] can connect with one person on our team that they feel like they have something in common with,” Barfield said.

“In light of everything that’s been going on recently, I have kind of taken a step back in thinking about what I can do better. And I can say that most of the applicants that we get to work here are young white women, so I’m thinking of ways – how can I reach different crowds to apply for positions here?”

Barfield says she and her current employees have been having daily conversations about race relations in Savannah and in the entire country. 

“This is not just about selling clothes here. We want to improve Savannah, and I want this to be a place where we can talk about issues and not just work,” Barfield said.

The Edition Shop’s staff decided at the beginning of June to donate 10 percent of the store’s proceeds to Color of Change, one of the nation’s largest non-profit racial justice organizations. The store also has an online blog, The Paper Edition, where it will soon be featuring a monthly post from a local black or brown individual making moves in the fashion industry.

Bruin says local stores can make a better effort to add pieces from black designers and black-made products to their inventory.

Elondia Harden is the owner of ElonWick Candle Co., a soy candle company in operation since 2015. 

ElonWick Candle Co. started online, and as her business grew, she says she wanted to expand and have her candles on store shelves.

“I was more comfortable introducing my brand to my community, to black people, because that’s a comfort zone,” Harden said. 

As she branched further and further into Savannah’s local business scene, she too noticed a lack of diversity in vendors in local stores. She decided to start selling products at local markets to represent black-owned businesses and make a change. 

To Harden, it did not make sense to not sell black-made products at all stores in Savannah. 

“You welcome everyone into your doors and you welcome everyone’s dollar, which is the color green, not white or black,” Harden said. “Everyone benefits. You’re getting local money. Local people can tell their people, and your business grows. I think the big picture is that it’s just a win-win situation for everyone.”

Harden’s candles, available in-store at Ordinary Magic and Stump, all have interesting names, from “Savannah Shuga” to “Jamaica Me Crazy.” Perhaps the most eye-catching scents she has are “Protect Black Women” and “Protect Black Men.”

The conversation-starting “Protect Black Women” candle was created over a year ago in partnership with Cinquanta Cox Smith, who owns Coins and Connections, to honor black women for Women’s History Month. Harden says the products were a huge hit.

“I have the candle. She has the coffee mugs and t-shirts,” Harden said. “And it went crazy.”

This year, the two created the “Protect Black Men” line to honor black men the same way.

“We know historically, black men just don’t get the same type of, I guess, love, in society,” Harden said. “We know what it’s like to be black women, and we know what it’s like to see black men go through so much.” 

Harden says she experienced a boom in sales after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. She says it’s an honor to help spread the message in a time when the entire country is listening. 

“This is something that we can’t give up. We have to keep saying ‘Protect Black Men’ and ‘Protect Black Women’,” Harden said. “We need protection, we need equity, we need equality, we need respect and we need love. It’s an honor that we get to put that message on products that we create.”

Harden says she is hopeful that recent protests will push businesses to make more seats for people of color at the table, because until that happens, there will be no change.

Mason says she too is hopeful that if small businesses continue representing people of all colors and backgrounds, then large corporations will follow in time. 

“I think as a small business, it’s kind of your duty, especially when you get to a place where you have a larger following, I think what you say matters,” Mason said. “I think it’s really awesome to see local boutiques and local businesses really try to put in an effort. It’s not saying we’re perfect, and we’re still learning, but I think it’s really important to make sure that we’re doing this for other generations.”

Bruin says she thinks about future generations as well, saying she wants her nieces and nephews’ dreams to be “realized and actualized and multiplied to have generational wealth that they’ve been, we’ve been, robbed of and trying to have for decades.”

Bruin wrapped up her conversation with WSAV.com NOW advising young, black women who hope to be a stylist like her to “know why they’re doing it.” She says she strives to empower people, no matter what they look like or how they feel about themselves. 

“I wanted to stir up something on the inside of people,” Bruin said. “Because that’s what style and fashion did for me.”

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