British Fashion Awards 2019 saw Rihanna's Fenty win in ‘Urban Luxe’, a category fraught with tokenism of black culture
Congratulations are in order for Rihanna, whose Fenty brand won in the Urban Luxe category at the British Fashion Awards (BFA) earlier this week. It does, however, raise a number of questions about the nature of fashion awards, and that BFA prize in particular. Urban Luxe is a category that was introduced only this year — and its motivations seem murky at best.
Fashion as an industry has long borrowed from cultures the world over, but this generation's fixation on streetwear owes itself wholly to black American culture. That much is undisputed, and it's a fact that black businesses and designers are often exploited and, until recently, unacknowledged. The precarious situation has begun to improve, with multi-billion industry behemoths such as Gucci working directly with Dapper Dan after fans of the fashion icon felt Gucci was aping the Harlem designer's work.
If the BFAs were any indication, however, fashion still has a long way to go before these forms of recognition are any more than tokenistic instead of truly inclusive. The British Fashion Council describes the Urban Luxe award as a category marking brands that have "redefined new luxe" and that are perceived as having "[elevated] 'casual' to high end and directional fashion". This year's nominees, besides Fenty, included Alyx, Marine Serre, Martine Rose, and Moncler Genius — a mixed bunch that share very little in common besides being (mostly) adored by youth and whose designs are loosely related to streetwear.
This raises the question: what exactly does urban mean? Is it a suggestion in relation to street and black culture? If so, the category sounds dangerously like ghetto-ism — the labels under Urban Luxe are invited to the fancy dinner but are seated at the children's table. It's a disservice to talents whose work is relegated to a not-explicit-but-strongly-suggested second tier. If this is an award for brands that are redefining directional designer fashion in a wider cultural context, should they not be more rightly recognised among their peers in the luxury industry? Should heritage, conglomerate-owned brands be the only ones considered leaders within fashion? Take Pyer Moss. Headed by Kerby Jean-Raymond, it is one of the most influential black-owned high fashion brands of the moment, having won the 2019 CFDA and Vogue Fashion Fund prize. Jean-Raymond is vocal about reductive categorisation, asking that journalists new to the brand not refer to it as a merely a streetwear label.
A direct parallel to BFA's 'Urban Luxe' category is the Popular Film category which the Oscars created but quickly scrapped after being faced with vocal dissent. The difference is, of course, that the Academy Awards is massively watched in popular culture, whereas fashion awards are insider industry events that matter little to consumers. Sure, fashion awards are allowed to be a little self-congratulatory; the BFAs are, after all, a fund-raising event for the British Fashion Council.
It does, however, say a lot about how the industry views design talents of colour and from countries outside of Europe. Urban Luxe feels like a small, albeit ill-advised step, in the right direction. That's heartening, but we can do better than that. 2020 beckons! Here's hoping that in the years to come, industry bodies such as the BFC and its American counterpart the CFDA, welcome nominees more representative of the wider fashion narrative and culture that they're claiming to represent.