THE BLACK DESIGNERS OF CANADA INDEX: NO MORE EXCUSES
George Sully is on a mission. And we all should be. In 2020, with the year we’ve had so far – a year that has combined a global pandemic with an equally as global #BlackLivesMatter and anti-police brutality movement that has sparked worldwide mobilization and discourse – we should accept no more excuses from this point on. With the Black Designers of Canada Index, an interactive platform that “exists to highlight and amplify black designers across Canada,” and celebrate black excellence in design, Sully is imploring that things must change in the industry and beyond, allowing no more excuses for lack of acknowledgement, understanding, accountability and inclusivity.
By Luisa Tarantino
Based in Toronto, George Sully is a passionate man of many talents – a shoe designer and entrepreneur, he is also a brand architect and philanthropist. Co-founder of Sully Wong with partner Henry Wong, House of Hayla (a women’s shoe brand), and Shoenado (a design consultancy firm, whose designs you’ve certainly seen on CBS’ Star Trek Discovery), George Sully has always had artistic leanings, using his knowledge of graphic design and creation to get into fashion, falling in love with shoes and sneakers after meeting his business partner Henry Wong.
However, Sully emphasizes that he recognizes that his acumen, skill set, and determination has played a part in his success – he’s simply had no choice but to do it all himself. In his own words, he’s had to “catch his own pass” and “build his own hype” in order to puncture through because the fashion industry simply does not afford black designers the same opportunities and attention. Indeed, for a lot of black designers and black creatives in the fashion industry, the industry is all “smoke and mirrors.” For those designers with no resources or opportunities coming their way, it’s all matter of “creating [their] own hype and [their] own stories,” and yet even then, the fashion industry and the media consistently shut the door on black designers. In fact, the fashion industry doesn’t even let black designers on the premises, let alone to the door.
“For people like me, even though I’ve gotten in, there’s a cap,” says Sully. Even for the designers who do get a foot in, opportunities and exposure remain limited because systemically, the industry, and society in general, isn’t built to allow for the success of black and minority designers and creatives. “It’s the craziest feeling knowing, for black people especially, that you have to be twice as good as your competition to even get a leg in or some sort of opportunity. And there’s also the problem of nepotism inherited in this system that’s not really built for us. It’s the weirdest thing feeling like you’re just punching at air and having doors close and opportunities escape your grasp even harder than they do for other people — and that’s systemic racism. It’s deeply rooted and embedded in the industry and in society.”
As much as creative industries and brands, businesses, and corporations bank in on the ideas of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity,’ such concepts often become a matter of mere numbers, given that there is any diversity to be found at all. “People make lists like ‘Top 30 Toronto Designers,’ and there’s not one black designer, as if we don’t exist. As if we’re just an idea.” And when black designers do appear on lists, they’re afforded a measly ‘Top 5 Black Designers,’ as if such lists once a year (if at that) are repentance for never giving black designers any press at all.
For Sully, the Black Designers of Canada Index seeks “to mitigate the excuses that we [black designers/creatives] are ghost, that we do not exist. This platform speaks to the industry in its entirety – to the stylists, magazines, tastemakers, department stores, writers, photographers, and more. For anybody using the excuses that we don’t exist or for those who just don’t know or don’t realize, this platform is giving black designers an outlet to say ‘here we are.’ We are not just a top 30 or a top 10 of only the designers you do know. We’re the Top 150 plus.” Having received so many submissions of incredible designers, each one better than the next, Sully notes that it makes you realize just how badly the industry has muzzled and buried black designers. “This platform is for the people that are genuine, that realize just how awesome this platform is. And now these resources are going to have to go up the chain, because now there’s no excuse to not be aware.”
And now more than ever, it’s important to put this all into perspective. Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic for people to pay full attention to Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and systemic racism, despite the fact that every year — no, every day — the list of black men, women, and children killed by the police gets longer, and that black people and people of colour have been affected by systemic racism in every facet of their lives. It took all 9 minutes of George Floyd’s arrest and death, the literal knee on Floyd’s neck, as Sully points out, and the entire world stuck indoors, to get people to even acknowledge what has always been going on. And it took the Amy Coopers and Mulroneys of the world to force Canada to acknowledge our own racism problem.
“For anybody using the excuse that we don’t exist or simply for those who just don’t know or don’t realize, this platform is giving black designers an outlet to say ‘here we are.’ We are not just a ‘top 30’ or a ‘top 10’ of only the designers that you do know. We’re the Top 150 plus.”
Sully jokes that he now relegates everything to before #BlackoutTuesday and after #BlackoutTuesday, but in many ways, he’s right. Millions took to social media to show support, to reflect, to mourn, to mobilize. Even a myriad of companies, brands and corporations, otherwise silent and inert in times such as these, spoke out. But, Sully underlines, such words and actions need to be sincere. It can’t just be about trying to gain a halo, or about not getting thrown into the fire in a world where social media and cancel culture go hand in hand. “After #BlackoutTuesday, people are trying to find me and scrambling to catch up, and now trying to atone some way somehow, and that’s okay, because for the people who are righteous about it and true to heart, I’ll take it. But we’re owed for a lot of time and opportunities lost. So many designers could have been so much more than they are now if they hadn’t had a knee on their neck,” he says. “People need to be sincere and real about it. The industry needs to finally give us equal footing, not more, not less.”
Post-#BlackoutTuesday, things can no longer be the same. One of the first steps, Sully emphasizes, is acknowledging your sins. People need to be held accountable and take responsibility. Now that the whole world is looking, that we’ve been “forced to look,” the industry needs to take action. It’s time that those traditionally in power stop talking and listen instead.
So, how can one take action? One way, says Sully, is to collaborate and acknowledge. And collaboration and inclusivity have to be more than just a mere “craft project.” It needs to be tangible. The same press that has blamed black designers for not having any coverage despite never covering black designers, or the department stores refusing to stock black designers because they aren’t known despite never giving black designers access or opportunities, need to make significant, structural changes.
“We can’t allow for any more excuses,” asserts Sully. “The Black Designers of Canada Index serves as a resource for those who really do want to support – because if you want to support black designers, you need to really want to buy from us and invest in us. It needs to go beyond a post or a like – you need to put your money where your mouth is,” he laughs. “Because for a lot of these designers, it’ll be the first time they’ll have their image and their branding on another site for free. This whole time, black creatives have had to celebrate and champion ourselves. But now we need people to finally say, ‘I see you.’”
“Privilege here in Canada will never be the same because we’ve pulled the blanket off of your heads, and we can’t go back to the way it was before. Because now there’s an amazing directory of more than 150 kids doing amazing things, so how can you release a ‘Top 30’ list of designers that doesn’t include black designers again? Everyone is going to have to get informed, and retool their panels and their tastemakers, and their ideas of who gets in or who gets attention or who gets what’s best of anything.”
Indeed, this media storm can’t just be temporary, as they sometimes tend to be. We can’t forget to keep paying attention, and we can’t forget that one action isn’t enough – change happens when you change the whole damn system. “We’ll see which media picks up who and what next season,” Sully muses. “And which department stores look deep into their souls, knowing they have 20,000 square feet of space and not one black designer on their shelves. The buyer is just the buyer, but the person upstairs is the one pushing the buttons. And I’d understand if there were 50 black shoe designers, for example, but there aren’t. They just don’t want it to happen. The math doesn’t add up.”
The fashion, entertainment, media, and cultural industries have had to take a good look at themselves in these recent weeks and ask ourselves and each other: How can we support black artists and black employees better? How can we be more inclusive? What systemic and organizational changes can we make? How do we hold ourselves accountable for our past and present transgressions? How do we set a system in place to hold ourselves accountable, and how do we make sure we ask ourselves how we can contribute and make a change every single day and in the future? One thing is for sure – we, collectively, can no longer accept excuses, nor can we go back to the way things were before. The revolution awaits.
If you are a black designer in Canada, you can fill out a submission form through BDoC.
You can also donate to Black Designers of Canada here through their GoFundMe page.