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- Interview by Frankie Graddon
This year, more than ever, we are looking ahead and asking ourselves: “What can we bring to the table to make the world feel like a brighter, better place?” So, for our back-to-work issue, we wanted to interview an inspiring person who embodies the values that we embrace: motivation, focus, passion and positivity. There was one woman who immediately sprang to mind – Hannah Stoudemire.
As the co-founder and CEO of Fashion For All Foundation, Hannah is a tireless champion of diversity and equality. Together with her business partner, Ali Richmond, she is one of the fashion industry’s leading change-makers, working with designers, brands and organisations to make fashion an authentically inclusive place.
Uniting activism with an impeccable sense of style, she is regularly captured by photographers on the streets of New York, where she lives with her daughter.
When we catch up during the height of summer, Hannah is flat out. The global pandemic has hit the fashion industry hard, while the Black Lives Matter movement is at the very top of the agenda. Over a transatlantic phone call, she speaks to me about channelling challenge into positivity, the importance of staying grounded and why fashion is a powerful tool for change.
To say that 2020 has been a difficult year is an understatement; not only are we in a pandemic, George Floyd’s death has aided the exposure of ongoing police brutality and systemic racism in the US and globally. How are you feeling at the moment?
I’m normally a super-balanced person with a routine, but George Floyd’s death on 25th May and everything that built up and exploded after that, sent me into an ungrounded place. I was experiencing the emotions that the Black community felt and it left me feeling overwhelmed and erratic.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been meeting with my therapist twice a week (with the social and racial justice work I do, I have to see a therapist) and I’ve signed up to a trauma group. This is definitely traumatic for Black people and I want to openly express that we don’t have to normalise this trauma and it’s OK to seek the mental health you need to receive a break. This is why I am now able to speak from a very balanced place. I am back in control and ready to jump back in and continue this fight that is being waged every single day.
At the end of the day, it boils down to consideration, humanity and compassion – that’s all it takes
It’s been four years since you founded Fashion For All Foundation, what changes have you seen within the industry?
Because of the public outcry over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other names, within the last few months we’ve seen the fashion industry finally break its silence, but also go beyond that to acknowledge they have been silent, and to take action and commit to areas of change.
For example, we work with Tommy Hilfiger on a regular basis and he’s put his money where his mouth is and created the People’s Place Program, which is investing $5 million for the next three years for the advancement and representation of more people of colour in the fashion industry. The CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America], who we’ve worked with over the past four years, are speaking up even more. Whereas once we had to convince them why they should do something, now they are doing it on their own. And, recently, Dario Calmese photographed Viola Davis for the July/August issue of Vanity Fair. It’s a shame that I have to say he’s the first black photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover, but that happened.
Can you tell us about the #BreakingTheSilence campaign, which you launched in May this year?
I didn’t want to experience what I had in 2016, where I voiced how important it was for the industry to speak out, only for it to fall on deaf ears and have five more years of Black people being terrorised, brutalised and murdered. We launched the campaign immediately after George Floyd’s death and it was received so well – everyone jumped on it and reposted it.
There are four pillars of the campaign. The first is that we have to acknowledge there is a problem and speak up. The second is taking action by doing something that will make a difference, such as donating to a campaign and signing and reposting a petition. The third is education; we can’t suffer from trauma, then jump back in the place of power and educate those who aren’t part of the Black community on how to be anti-racist. Seek it out and educate yourself. The fourth is to make a long-term commitment; sign up as a monthly donor to an organisation promoting representation, diversity and inclusion. More than anything, resources are needed in the Black community because that’s what has been withheld from us for so many years.
How do you hope the fashion industry moves forward now?
I hope that when organisations reach out to the major heads of fashion publishers and brands, and try to engage them in open conversations around race and equality in fashion, they participate and open themselves up to an honest and uncomfortable discussion.
Most importantly, we need more hiring of Black people in senior creative and decision-making roles, immediately. Putting up a statement saying you’re committed to change is symbolic, it’s literally the same as painting Black Lives Matter on the street, but it’s not changing your policing policy. Brands are putting a Band-Aid on a situation and looking at optics; what can I do to make it appear like we are inclusive? Instead of focusing on looking inclusive, be inclusive by putting Black men and women in the driving seat, because that’s where real change takes place. And until that happens, I’m not convinced. I don’t know that I am hopeful this will happen, but I hope it happens.
I realised I had a voice and a platform, and although it wasn’t as big, it could make a difference
We love your skincare highlights on Instagram. Can you talk us through your routine and what products we’d find in your bathroom cabinet?
Skincare is really important to me. I don’t like to wear a lot of make-up, so if my skin is looking great it means I don’t have to do anything – just add a bit of lipgloss and mascara. Every Sunday I steam my skin with a face steamer to open my pores. Then I do an all-natural hot water and raw oatmeal mask which I’ll leave on for an hour while I work. This makes my skin softer, more balanced and even in tone. I put on under-eye patches from Burt’s Bees or Bliss every day and I use eye cream at least twice a week. I also love Peach & Lily Glass Skin Refining Serum. It’s a little pricey, but it’s worth it for making you look like you have zero pores. And I used SPF 50 every day, it’s the best thing for preventing wrinkles.
I’m actually in the middle of developing my own oatmeal mask and under-eye patches. I cannot wait to introduce them.
How do you stay feeling balanced and with a sense of wellness in the face of a high-powered, all-consuming work life?
The first thing I do each morning is pray. It takes discipline because usually I want to grab my phone, but I really want to focus on love and gratitude, so I thank God for all of my blessings and focus on everything that is good in my life. Then I’ll stretch and go for a walk to the park with my daughter and sit in nature to write in my journal or read a chapter of a book. I’ll often bring the Bible to the park with me and read psalms out loud. I have to start every morning like this or else my day will be chaotic. The world is crazy so I have to control what I can, and that’s framing my day and feeling balanced. That way, if I interact with something unexpected, I’m rooted in peace and I can respond with self-control.
September is normally a busy fashion month. How do you mentally prepare for it?
The Fashion For All Foundation runs an eight-week programme over the summer, so while the rest of the industry takes a break, we’re staying on our toes and on top of current events, and engaging with designers and industry leaders. This helps us prepare for the big return-to-fashion moment as we’re tuned in and ahead of the curve.
However, I do try and get away over the Labour Day weekend at the beginning of September. I usually go back home to Ohio and visit friends and family for a week or two, which I find very grounding. I need to get out of the city so that I can return and be ready to hit the ground running.
The global pandemic means the international Fashion Weeks aren’t going to take the same format as usual. Does the industry need physical shows or is it time for a change?
I’m looking forward to a new format. Every couple of decades we should revisit old systems and see what’s working and what’s not. We have evolved so much as a society, so let’s use more technology and fewer materials, and minimise waste. Right now, virtual experiences might be the best option because they can be done from home. It’s not as fun and interactive, but is it socially responsible and does it help with the climate? Absolutely. Fewer cabs, fewer flights etc, would help minimise our footprint in regard to fashion, and we need to participate in fashion from a very responsible place. I am overjoyed that we are having a reset and reboot and we’re going to figure it out.
You co-founded Fashion For All Foundation, an organisation which promotes equality and diversity in the fashion industry, in 2016. What led you to setting it up?
The main motivator was the silence the fashion industry clung to in the face of social and racial injustice. In 2016 I was working in the Lanvin flagship store on Madison Avenue, and I saw how the industry rightly spoke out about issues such as when the LGBTQ+ community came under attack during the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida. However, when two black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – were shot in the same week a month later, there was no outcry. There was nothing.
I realised it was my responsibility as a person of the Black community, and as a human, to speak up and say when something is wrong. That sense of urgency provoked me to hold a silent demonstration outside New York Fashion Week Men’s, which became the start of Fashion For All Foundation. My close friend [and co-founder] Ali Richmond suggested we turn the moment into a movement by creating a foundation that focuses solely on promoting diversity and inclusion, and normalising Black lives within the industry.
During your 2016 demonstration at New York Fashion Week Men’s, protestors wore T-shirts with the names of Black people who had been killed by police brutality, to urge the industry to acknowledge the loss of these lives and take action. Can you tell us about that moment?
I wanted to do something in 2014, when a 12-year-old boy called Tamir Rice was murdered in Cleveland, Ohio. I was going to New York Fashion Week three times a year and always getting spotted by street-style photographers, and I remember thinking, “if they’re going to photograph me because of what I have on, I would like to make a statement and wear Tamir Rice’s name on my shirt.”
At the time, it wasn’t popular or accepted to be that bold. You almost got shamed or blacklisted, and brands wouldn’t touch you for being too political and too outspoken. I was afraid of the backlash and the fear crippled me. But 2016 was the catalyst that charged me, and I stopped fearing the consequences. I realised I had a voice and a platform, and although it wasn’t as big, it could make a difference.
The fashion industry is such an influential platform, and in many ways very innovative. Why do you think it has taken such a long time for it to acknowledge inbuilt prejudices?
I think it’s human nature to shy away from taking responsibility for wrongdoing, because no one wants to feel guilty. On top of that, if something is working for you, why would you want to fix it? The people at the top of the industry have the privilege, the power and the money, so why would they share all of that?
However, people have to come to terms with the fact that their comfort and luxury lifestyle is there because someone else is being repressed. That’s overwhelming. I overwhelm myself thinking about what steps I need to take to make sure my actions are not repressing someone else. It takes a lot of candidness, maturity, truth, soul-searching and reflecting. At the end of the day, it boils down to consideration, humanity and compassion – that’s all it takes. I don’t think the fashion industry lacks it, I think it’s underdeveloped. We have to exercise that muscle and normalise it.
Which designers do you feel excited about right now?
Tommy Hilfiger is number one. He is a leader in this industry and has always been for all people. In February, we launched the Tommy Hilfiger x Fashion For All internship programme to hire black people and put them in spaces where they aren’t usually afforded the opportunity to intern. He’s the most authentically generous person I’ve ever met.
Aside from him, Fashion For All Foundation has had a relationship with Ralph Lauren since we launched. He has always advocated for diversity and inclusion – that’s just who he is. We’re excited to see what comes from the brand. Phillip Lim, of course – he’s ever-present and always thinking of people. He’s recently done an amazing project called ‘New York. Tougher than ever.’ which encouraged the people of New York to hang in there during this tough time. Prabal Gurung always shows up and speaks out, so I want to give credit to him. And Tracy Reese has done an amazing job at continuing to use her platform as one of the only Black designers who has existed for so long and been successful in this space. She always advocated for the Black community and is always ahead of the curve – she has a new sustainability brand which I’m excited about. Two years ago, we asked Jonathan Cohen, of Jonathan Cohen Studio, to speak to our emerging designers and he’s become one of our mentors. I’m looking forward to seeing how much more he contributes to the conversation, because he authentically wants to be part of the solution.
You’re renowned for your impeccable sense of personal style. How do you approach getting dressed?
I see fashion as framing a narrative; whatever I am wearing, I am telling a story and I always want to curate the perfect narrative for each day. I never pre-plan what I’m going to wear; every morning I look at my wardrobe and ask myself, “What do you want to say today?” and dress to communicate that. I pull a lot of inspiration from Princess Diana, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O and Diahann Carroll, and I’m very detail-orientated. But no matter what, I will always have a story behind what I’ve chosen to wear.
What pieces are you going to be investing in this season?
Three years ago, I lost all of my luxury investment pieces. I was moving out of my apartment and had to put a selection of pieces into storage while I was on a missionary trip to the Philippines. The day I needed to pick everything up, I wasn’t able to and I lost it all. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was so sad.
I love looking at silver linings and that experience taught me not to be so attached to material things, and now I’m much better at editing. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the fun part is that I have an excuse to reinvest in my wardrobe. So, this season, I am investing in a pair of Ferragamo loafers, a classic black leather bag from Prada, a pair of classic horsebit Gucci slides and a really great vintage trench. I’m looking for second-hand things first because I want to be responsible with fashion.
What first drew you to working in the fashion industry? Has it always been an ambition?
I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in fashion. When I was six, I remember my mum buying two hats for me and my sister: one yellow, one purple. My sister’s favourite colour was yellow, but I remember wanting the yellow hat because I’d already laid out my shirt, shorts and jelly shoes for the day and the yellow went better with that outfit!
I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, where the fashion industry is tiny, then I did my undergrad school at the University of Cincinnati, where the industry is even smaller. During my junior year, I had my daughter, totally unplanned, but I was so determined to work in the industry that I decided not even a baby was going to stop me, so after I graduated, we relocated to New York. I’d researched Audrey Smaltz [the former model who founded the production company Ground Crew] and I knew that if I could assist her, I would be successful in fashion – she’s a legend. I showed up at her door every day until she said yes. She let me intern for her and I would have to bring my daughter because I didn’t have childcare – she’d sit quietly and do her schoolwork while I ran my errands. Audrey is like my grandma – she’s family. She’s the president of the board for the Fashion For All Foundation.