We connect with Melanin and Sustainable Style founder, Dominique Drakeford, to share her work of celebrating the success of communities of color in the sustainable fashion industry while demanding a more inclusive approach to creation, style, and industry.
Dominique Drakeford is one of those movers who demands a room. Well, for me, it was my car actually, but it demanded my attention instantaneously. I heard her on the Conscious Chatter podcast talking about the lack of inclusivity of communities, particularly women, of color in the sustainable fashion industry; an industry otherwise considered mindful, conscious, aware.
However, Dominique, founder of Melanin and Sustainable Style, or MelaninASS for short, was explaining rather how the sustainable fashion industry was doing a gross disservice to women of color, many of whom inspire, design or make the clothing, because the only time they are ever included in the conversation is as garment workers or exotic far-off muses (to put it nicely), not the tall, long-legged blond who actually have these pieces in her closet. And that, she demands, needs to change.
Hearing her was a check to my privilege. I couldn’t get her message out of my head. And for a few days, I ruminated on what I knew right there on my commute to work: I need to talk to Dominique, share your story, and let her know that she is powerful. A few emails later and she is here with us in her own words — with the same, incredibly insightful, passionate voice that caught my attention — to spread her message of equality, inclusivity, and sustainability.
Let’s start with a little about you, the mastermind behind Melanin and Sustainable Style, what was your journey to sustainable fashion?
The journey was not a straight line by any stretch of the imagination but somehow my resume of work was the perfect blueprint for where I am today.
Education wise, I received my BA in Business Environmental Management from University California, Riverside. Whether it was my work in youth development, winning a student contest at the AEP (Association of Environmental Professionals) for wanting to start a sustainable fashion modeling agency, or working with an organization where I was on a committee that reviewed and awarded non-profit environmental grants to various Bay Area Organizations, I found myself engrossed in the environmental stewardship.
On top of that, I had a very eclectic and eccentric sense of style, which sort of created a foundation for using fashion to shape my identity. Almost immediately after undergrad, I moved to NY to receive my Master’s degree from NYU in Sustainable Entrepreneurship Fashion. It was this time in my life when I really started to merge fashion with sustainability at a more practical level. I worked with a myriad of brands, businesses, and initiatives like Donna Karan Urban Zen to Greenpeace, just really getting my hands dirty in this space. I did everything from event coordination to style to marketing to sales.
It didn’t take long for me to have my own PR and consulting business for ethical fashion (and later beauty and wellness) brands. I’ve learned so much in my 7 or 8 years here in New York and reflecting on all of my experiences led me to want to become a sustainable style “influencer” and the creative engineer behind MelaninASS. I will say though, that my career started in Oakland doing youth development work my underserved community and today – the work that I’m doing again is for young folks of color, the next generation.
On your website, you explain Melanin and Sustainable Style as your “baby,” what inspired you to launch MelaninASS?
Without question, MelaninASS is my baby – my passion project which I fully intend for it to manifest into some sort of international content or production engine. It didn’t take long for me to draw connections between fashion and race relations, colonization and oppression. What I’ve seen for about 8 years now is a space, an almost cult-like community, who never factor in the importance of inclusion, representation and the state of racist America into conversations about conscious living. I grew bored and tired of seeing the same pioneers being elevated and looking at the same faces in the crowd of folks talking about the same things. I wondered why the majority of the time I saw WOC represented it was as laborers for finely positioned tokens. I’ve gone to every single sustainable fashion panel during my time at NYU and whenever someone asked a question about underserved communities or diversity – it was a bullshit answer.
Additionally, I became annoyed that predominantly black media platforms weren’t covering sustainable fashion. And overall, I saw a huge injustice in this community – literally appropriation for fashion, beauty and wellness that is inherently for and by POC. They are creating products, conversations and spearheading initiatives that are just as fantastic as their non-POC counterparts. So she is my baby and I’m looking forward to watching her grow and more importantly having her become a pillar for a forward-thinking movement that’s much bigger than myself.
What are some hiccups or roadblocks you’ve experienced with MelaninASS, maybe as an entrepreneur or creative, or both?
The entire journey for me is trial and error. I never set out to be an “influencer,” “blogger,” “content creator” or anything of that nature. So believe it or not, I’m learning and evolving as I go. Like most entrepreneurs who aren’t trust-fund babies, I experience challenges with financial security. But the lack of funds and scraping together pennies actually doesn’t bother me as much as it should. What I find more challenging, but a fun challenge is consistently putting out meaningful content. Sustainably has so many taboos so working to change buying behavior and perception requires an uncomfortable change. This requires creative narratives for people to get and stay involved, especially since I’m focusing on communities of color. There are a lot of POC who are aware but there are also a lot who aren’t and when you factor in institutionalized racism and the various racial charged hurdles like food politics when you’re talking about veganism and wellness – it takes a different level of creativity.
But to be honest, I’m literally just going with the wind. I don’t see hiccups as something negative – instead, I use it as fuel. And I’m not necessarily in a hurry to scale and have this be a lucrative thing as much as I am about slowly learning what’s working and what’s not.
The last line of your About page on MelaninASS is: In a world of layered toxicity, we are proud to be a safe space promoting non-toxic style and diversity at the SAME DAMN TIME. I’d love for you to break down two parts of that for us: “layered toxicity” and “at the same damn time.”
Sustainability and POC are not in the least bit mutually exclusive. As I mentioned in my article for Regeneration Magazine:
“The idea of sustainability has been around long before the term was adopted here in the western world. Traditional craftsmanship and modalities such as being mindful of the earth and treating communities with respect has been rooted in the heritage and history of cultures of color for generations.
Culture has EVERYTHING to do with fashion, period.
We recently shared your article, Who The Hell Only Wants To See White Women in Sustainable Fashion, because we believe your message needs to be shared, how has this article been received? Why were you inspired at this time to write it?
I have a very mixed race audience and that article was very well received by everyone except the person who I anonymously quoted in the beginning. It was a much better outcome than my “Why I Think Ethical Fashion is a Privileged White Girl Thing.”
People who have privilege hate to 1) admit that they have it 2) openly talk about it and 3) often times don’t know how to navigate it for good because white privilege is normalized and is as organic as taking breaths because of how America was built.
I am aware that the sustainable fashion community in its essence is very white. But I was tired of seeing sustainable fashion brands who claim to be conscious, feminist-focused and ethical with their whole creative team and/or models white, while their labor and inspiration was by POC. It’s a false narrative and I have no problem speaking my mind on the subject that screams privilege and racism. It’s a complete step backward for this community and so many people have shared my sentiment but never felt comfortable to speak on the subject.
What piece of advice would you give brands just starting out in the fashion, more specifically sustainable fashion, industry?
Leverage the power of the internet and social media to thoroughly do research. Sustainability is complex with intersections of race, social constructs, and political contexts. Dig for those non-traditional conversations that are talking about the real complexities of sustainability. Let’s get a little more real, more intersectional and more creative with forward movement.
In addition to MelaninASS, you work as a Creative Director for sustainable fashion brands around the world, is there one project, in particular, you are most proud?
I recently creatively directed the cover of Ethical Style Journal’s upcoming issue featuring four powerful women (Safia Elhillo, Ashlee Piper, Hoda Katebi and Ariel Pierre Louis) who have an unapologetic voice in creating positive changes in sustainability and/or social justice. The magazine will be released this Summer so I’m super excited about that.
What’s next for you? Any future projects or collaborations you are working on that we can be on the lookout for?
I’m working on a book ( that’s all I can say at the moment)!
Finally, as a female entrepreneur and creative, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received that you would like to pass on?
Walk in your truth!
All photos: melaninass.com