More Than A Purse: These Black Designers Are Sending A Powerful Statement

"The spotlight is finally shifting towards us, and we're getting the voice and validation we deserve."

Beauty & Fashion

As black voices are being amplified exponentially, we are discovering more talented creatives who have made it their business to leave their mark on the world. The conversation around black lives, dreams, opportunities, jobs and so much more seems different this time. Thanks to Big Rona, the world has had no other option than to sit still and take heed. Now, I would rather not be amid a global pandemic and civil unrest at the same damn time but sometimes divine intervention is what it takes.

Without coronavirus, we wouldn't have a better sense of community, insane appreciation for essential workers, reduced carbon emissions, along with a slew of other benefits. Relatedly, I have treasured the amount of exposure of dope black folk that the stillness has ushered in.

Social media — a gift and a curse — has forced many black creatives to pivot by producing more relevant messages. In turn, consumers can support the amazing work of black artists, especially when the content is supreme. Many fashion designers have become more innovative using their platforms to convey their messages. And the fashion industry can be such a vigorous realm to maneuver because it has failed the black culture. From racial disparities to appropriation, the fashion industry doesn't always love us like they love our culture.

We had the opportunity to speak with two handbag designers who are sending real messages through their work. Ahead, find out what it means to be a black designer in this climate, their "why" and what inspired their latest creations.

Brandon Blackwood

Photo Courtesy of Brandon Blackwood

Owner/Founder of Brandon Blackwood New York
Brooklyn, New York

Jamaican-American designer Brandon Blackwood created his namesake brand in the spring of 2015. The four-piece collection of leather handbags was a passion project after completing school at Bard College. His leather handbags have been rocked by the likes of Solange, Zoe Kravitz, Keke Palmer, and Lupita Nyong'o. From Vogue to ELLE to WWD, Brandon Blackwood New York has the propensity to have the next cult-like following.

What inspired your handbag?

I was inspired by the recents events of 2020 leading up to the current protests around the world. The unjust killings of so many POC really triggered me (and pretty much every black person on this planet). I wanted to find a way to use my abilities and audience to facilitate some type of change. I figured the best thing to do was make a bag that had a strong message, almost like an act of self-defense against all of the hate. I also wanted to make an item that would provide long-standing financial aid to a charity fighting the bigger fight. I think that's why I chose The Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights Under Law. Pro-bono legal aid/council to fight civil rights cases and issues aligned perfectly with the climate and immediate needs of the people.

Photo Courtesy of Brandon Blackwood

How does it feel to be black designer right now?

It's a blessing and a curse. I think the majority of black-owned businesses have definitely seen a spike in overall sales. We're finally being sought after, after years of being on the back burner and not getting deserved recognition. Though it's been great building a new audience, it does feel a bit strange.

I don't want attention from people or companies to fulfill some performative fantasy. I want to be respected for the work I put in and for the things I create.

The spotlight is finally shifting towards us, and we're getting the voice and validation we deserve. But I think it's also important that we protect our gifts, and realize that though the majority are celebrating us, some may just be filling a void.

What do you want to achieve through your work?

To be 100% honest, I don't have one specific goal. Short-term, I want to raise as much money for The Lawyers Committee as I can. I really want this specific bag to make an impact and help change lives. I want to spread the word. Long-term, I would love to see more designers take on projects like this. To be able to inspire even more change, more missions, and more people speaking up would probably be the ultimate goal.

Blake Van Putten

Photo Courtesy of Blake Van Putten

CEO & Product Developer at CISE
Los Angeles, CA

CISE, a clothing line, located in Los Angeles, seeks to spread an inspirational message to the community through their bold prints and messages. "CISE's team of experts pooled talent and resources together to create unique products which depict the struggle and showcases the hopes of the less-privileged society in and outside the country. CISE store came to life and we launched our very first initiative for the masses: 'Protect Black People'."

What inspired your handbag?

I'm inspired and driven to create. Leather goods and luxury items have always interested me because they are seen as "timeless". While I was working on Wall Street for over three years, all the executives had their staple pieces that they've kept in their wardrobe for decades and that's the impact I want to have on other people. Whenever I create anything in life, I want to invoke emotion that causes permanent and positive change. I wanted to introduce a timeless item at an affordable rate that people will NEED to keep it in their day to day closet.

Photo Courtesy of Blake Van Putten

How does it feel to be black designer right now?

Being a black designer right now is like playing a never-ending game of Monopoly — you never will know if you've won or lost. I feel like I've spent so much of my energy just trying to rebalance with everything going on that it gives the mind a huge creativity block.

Every day I feel as if we are reliving and trying to be OK with the traumas that we've endured and are expected to continue working and creating.

It's hard, but these pressures are what makes diamonds.

What do you want to achieve through your work?

I want to be able to strengthen the black dollar by creating a community of creatives and designers that are passionate about their craft. Every time I sell out of my products, I have a new accomplishment, or even just celebrate, I'm happy because that means I'm one step closer to bringing my tribe with me. Currently, I'm helping 12 brands with their product development and merchandising, in hopes that they can grow and avoid the mistakes I've made.

Featured image Courtesy of Brandon Blackwood

In I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings, poet and author Maya Angelou details the five-year period of her childhood when she was mute – unable to speak – after the man who had raped her was murdered shortly after being released from jail. “My voice killed that man,” Angelou recounts in an interview with Oprah Winfrey on how her seven-year-old logic led to her years-long bout of self-imposed silence. It was only through her voracious love of the written word that she would eventually reclaim her voice.

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