Atlanta Takes Aim at Racism in the Fashion Industry
It’s almost surprising it took until midway through Atlanta’s third season for the show to train its sights on the fashion industry. Rappers—like Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi—have become perhaps the figures driving fashion culture. And the business of fashion has long struggled to avoid even the most obvious missteps when it comes to race. The season’s sixth episode, “White Fashion,” takes aim at exactly that dynamic: it focuses on Bouchet, the white designer of a label called Esco Esco, who comes under fire for releasing a sweatshirt that reads “Central Park 5.”
Esco Esco is suddenly scrambling to make amends for its transgression, and that’s where Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) comes in. To right its wrongs—or as Bouchet describes it, “our little mix up”—the label is forming a diversity advisory board. Paper Boi, along with other ambassadors like Khalil (who uses an inflatable life vest with the letters “BLM” drawn on it as his signature piece of clothing), are called in to clean up the brand’s mess.
While recent episodes have used exaggerated, fairy tale-like narratives to explore real issues, “White Fashion” cuts a little closer to home. We’ve seen a strikingly similar set of events play out several times over the last few years: brands including Prada, Burberry, and Gucci have all taken similar steps after releasing products deemed racially insensitive. And if you’ve watched the recent documentary on the golden era of Abercrombie & Fitch, you saw how the brand promised to change after it put out a racist T-shirt: with the celebrated hire of a Diversity and Inclusion officer.
It bears noting that Paper Boi’s fellow members on the diversity council come in for just as much scrutiny as the brand does. Most of this scrutiny falls on Khalil, the activist caricature who immediately forgives Bouchet at a press conference. But all of the panel’s members are skewered, as is the idea of the panel’s usefulness. The members’ suggestions for change have less to do with remedying racism and more to do with personal gain: the Esco Eco representative dutifully writes down requests for business-class flights, for the brand to purchase stacks of one member’s book, and tickets to the upcoming Black Panther 2 this season of Atlanta keeps referencing.
“White Fashion” extends this season’s exploration of the ways white people respond to racism and guilt. “The Big Payback,” episode four, imagined a world where white people could be sued for reparations; the episode before that, “The Old Man and the Tree,” explored the harms perpetrated by seemingly well-intentioned white folks (while also calling into question the wellness of those intentions). The point the show keeps returning to this season is that no single gesture—not gobs of money, nor a position on a diversity council—can change the history of America’s relationship with Blackness, or alleviate structural, systemic racism.
The show’s message of an unpayable debt rings particularly true in the fashion industry. Historically, fashion brands have taken trends from Black communities (often without credit), while often giving very little back. And while there are still plenty of real-world analogues for Bouchet, Black designers in positions of power are trying to change things. Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean Raymond and A-Cold-Wall’s Samuel Ross work tirelessly to close this gap, while Virgil Abloh was known for being incredibly generous to younger Black creatives with advice and mentorship.
Perhaps the sharpest moment in “White Fashion” comes when Paper Boi suggests that the offending brand air a commercial encouraging customers to “reinvest in their hood.” After the ad comes back a sanitized mess (“You All Lives Matter’ed my shit!” Paper Boi yells), Khalil, his fellow diversity adviser, argues that the imbalance in the fashion world is very much by design. “Why would a company make a project that would teach Black people to stop buying their products and to reinvest in their own?” he asks. “Why would they fund their own demise?”
There’s literally thousands of reasons to be thankful for the SSENSE sale, not the least of which is the…