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On Shifting Power in the Fashion Industry and Being a Black Creative: An Interview with Lisa McFadden

Photo credit: Victor Mirontschuk

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Lisa McFadden, founder of Lisa McFadden Millinery. McFadden has worked as a fashion illustrator, fashion and technical designer, patternmaker, and now as a milliner – a hat designer – for her own label.  McFadden taps into vintage inspiration for her collections and adds contemporary flair.

Hi Lisa.  Thank you for talking to BlackHer.  Can you tell us about yourself and your work? 

I am a New York-based designer with over 20 years of experience in the fashion industry.  I earned my BFA in Fashion Design from the American Intercontinental University in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated with top craftsmanship honors.  One of the most inspiring moments of my career was when I was critiqued by French couturier Pierre Cardin who, upon seeing my student work, said I was a designer who “knows her job!” I have a tape from that moment that I still carry around with me.  

Why did you focus your fashion business on hats?

I wanted to follow the business model of Coco Chanel.  She began as a milliner, grew her brand/client base, and transitioned into apparel with the little black dress.  Also, starting with a (literally) smaller product is a less expensive way to introduce one’s point of view as a designer and to enter a chosen market.  Ralph Lauren is another example of a designer who started small to grow big. He began with neckties in the 1970s and grew his business into a global brand featuring every category of design.  Likewise, FUBU started off selling hats, t-shirts & sweatshirts out of cars, to later become one of Hip Hop’s apparel powerhouses. 

Speaking of Hip Hop fashion, BlackHer readers may be interested in learning about April Walker of Walker Wear, who is the first Latina woman entrepreneur of Hip Hop fashion. She relaunched her brand with logo tees and baseball caps and has expanded into activewear.

That’s great news!  More power to April! 

I know a lot of Black women who love hats, including Black women churchgoers. We look amazing in them. Do we wear hats more often than most people, or is that my imagination?

Black women are known as the purveyors of hats in America. The ‘church hat’ has always been a part of our culture.  Even the younger female Sunday service attendees emulate the elders of the church by wearing hats with silhouettes and styling that continue the tradition. Most women also wear hats in the winter for function, and my signature hat, the Crush, is functional and stylish. My hats are for women who are looking for something stylish – not basic. 

Overall, women tend to reserve higher-priced, handmade millinery purchases for special occasions and events.  I’ve found that women are getting more and more interested in wearing and buying hats these days.

To what do you attribute this? 

In general, the royal weddings and celebrity hat sightings have shined a bright light on specialty headwear, which is terrific for milliners. We handcraft hats and headwear.  Appreciation of the artistry involved in making a bespoke piece has elevated the hat game. Now, as I mentioned, these pieces are more expensive than casual or machine-made headwear, and it takes a hat loving woman to wear a fabulous hat with anything, going anywhere and anytime.  Price point can be a factor, however, and it just takes educating the public about the craft to discern the difference between a handmade hat and one that isn’t, what goes into making it and why two hats that look similar can be priced differently. Ultimately, I think people buy what they want when they understand that they are making an investment.

Can you tell us about Black women and the fashion industry?  What’s our role as consumers and creatives? 

Our African ancestors have always been a beacon of inspiration for creativity.  In addition, designers always say they ‘look at what’s happening on the street,’ which means they’re looking at the youth culture, their lifestyle, and fashion innovation.  Although Black women are the largest consumers of everything and have long been innovators of style, we are still not as represented in the fashion industry as we should be. Many Black and Brown hands are working behind the scenes in the industry. Our impact has been significant, but we still have to push to have our seat at the decision-makers’ table. 

There has been an undeniable shift in fashion, where one can become the fashion star one wants to be on one’s own terms.  

The fashion industry is changing, which is providing more opportunities for designers of color.  Iconic stores like Barneys are closing. Thanks to social media and online shopping, consumers are seeking out designers directly and from the comfort and convenience of their phones. New York Fashion Week is a click away. Bloggers, stylists, and self-proclaimed influencers are your fashion reporters!  Known and unknown designers post their own professionally shot photos to their online stores and curate their social media presence. They decide the “what, how, when, where, and who” behind their business. They are literally telling their own stories. The power shift within the fashion industry is happening, and for that reason, the opportunity has never been greater for Black creatives.

Why do Black people and black women love fashion so much?  What’s your theory?

I don’t know that Black people/women love fashion more than other ethnic groups, but I think our relationship with clothing and how we’re perceived by society plays a part in how we dress.  Clothing is an expression of who you are, how you’re feeling, what you think of yourself and your environment, your profession, your status, etc. The issue of showing “status” may be the most important one for Black folks because we have a history of having to prove our worth to others.  What you put on your body and your head can change your whole demeanor and how people perceive you.  

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes? 

My mom and sisters are my Sheroes.  They are supportive, selfless, smart, creative, feisty, and funny Black women.

Let me ask you the Miracle Question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up in the morning, and it’s December 2020.  The miracle has occurred for Black women.   What happened?

Reparations are granted via free education, and all student loans are forgiven!

Learn more and shop at Lisa McFadden Millinery. And check out the BlackHer Holiday Guide for more great gifts and books by Black women!

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