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23 Black Visionaries Who Are Changing the Luxury World Right Now

The chefs, designers, curators and executives who are changing their respective industries in phenomenal ways.

David Adjaye, Aurora James, Kerby Jean-Raymond Photo: Mpi43/MediaPunch /IPX; Swan Gallet/WWD/Shutterstock; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

There’s hardly an industry that hasn’t benefitted from the contributions of Black people—and that extends to luxury.  From visionary designers who shape the clothes we wear and the spaces we inhabit to the culinarians and winemakers who craft some of our most memorable eating and drinking experiences, the luxury world wouldn’t be the same without their achievements. And because the things these creators make and do matter—and deserve recognition far beyond Black History Month—we’re highlighting a group of Black visionaries who are changing the luxury industry every single day.

PRIVATE AVIATION

Stephanie Chung, Chief Growth Officer at Wheels Up

Stephanie Chung

Courtesy Wheels Up

They say you can’t be what you can’t see, so it’s appropriate to credit Stephanie Chung with blazing a trail for people with sky-high aspirations. Chung became the first Black person to lead a private aviation company when she was appointed president of JetSuite in 2018. There, she transformed what had been a relatively no-frills business service into a white-glove experience aimed at luxury travelers—increasing revenue along the way. 

Now, as the chief growth officer of private charter company Wheels Up, she’s leveraging a career filled with high-flying achievements to find new opportunities for that business, all while the company prepares to go public in a deal that values it at over $2 billion.

If any of this sounds daunting, Chung has a strategy for not losing perspective. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. It doesn’t mean I never sweat the small stuff. It just means I compartmentalize and stay very much in the moment,” she told Robb Report last year. “I believe the best present you can give is your presence, and I apply this to all areas of my life.”

RETAIL

Aurora James, Owner and Creative Director of Brother Vellies

Aurora James in the front rowDior show, Front Row, Fall Winter 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France - 25 Feb 2020

Swan Gallet/WWD/Shutterstock

Even before she came up with the idea for the 15 Percent Pledge, Aurora James had already established herself as one of the most thoughtful designers of her generation with her accessories line, Brother Vellies. James’s offering of shoes, handbags and small leather goods has grown from a self-funded stall at an East Village flea market to an award-winning business with devotees all over the world. Her appreciation for and use of traditional African footwear styles and craftsmanship helped a new audience discover them at a time when the luxury world was still ceaselessly allegiant to France and Italy.

The concept for her pledge came amid the protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other black people at the hands of police officers. With people searching for ways to help the black community in a real and lasting way, James offered the idea that retailers devote 15 percent of their shelf space to black-owned businesses because black people make up 15 percent of the population.

Thus far, a handful of retailers have signed on, including beauty behemoth Sephora and the menswear e-tailer No Man Walks Alone. In an Instagram post, James called the pledge the start of a new beginning for black businesses of all stripes. “I will get texts that this is crazy. I will get phone calls that this is too direct, too big of an ask, too this, too that,” she wrote. “But I don’t think it’s too anything; in fact, I think it’s just a start. You want to be an ally? This is what I’m asking for.”

Chris Gibbs, Owner of Union Los Angeles

Chris GibbsNordstrom x Union & Company Block Party, New York, USA - 10 Jul 2019

Paul Zimmerman/WWD/Shutterstock

At a certain point in relatively recent menswear history, the once-firm lines between tailoring, sportswear and streetwear began to get very, very blurry. And while no single designer, stylist or celebrity deserves all the credit for this development, one of its most important proponents is, inarguably, Chris Gibbs, who owns and runs the influential retailer Union Los Angeles. The store’s genius is that it pays the same respect to established brands like Thom Browne and Comme des Garçons that it does to younger outfits like A Cold Wall, Bode and Botter. The mix is inspired by real-life guys who love good clothes and mix them up in ways you might not see on a runway. That sense of freedom and fun is what has endeared so many to the store, and to Gibbs’s unique point of view.

FASHION

Patrick Henry, Founder of Richfresh

Patrick Henry, the Fresh of Richfresh

Richfresh


With his eye-catching use of color (and a social media presence long on style and personality), Patrick Henry is challenging the notion of what a bespoke tailor looks like. His young brand, Richfresh, offers an irreverent take on suiting that appeals to celebrities and mere mortals alike. Since setting up shop about three years ago, Henry—who goes by Fresh to friends and clients—has designed clothing for John Legend, Lena Waithe, The Weeknd and Blake Griffin, to name a few. His work is characterized by imaginative color combinations and an allegiance to the peak lapel. 

Henry, like many independent fashion designers, also started producing masks last spring as the pandemic took hold, imbuing them with his signature angular cut. If you can’t spend the $3,300 his custom suits command right now, a four-pack of the reusable masks is on offer for $40.

Dapper Dan, Designer 

Dapper Dan

Dapper Dan  Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Daniel Day—the Harlem-based designer known as Dapper Danwas a household name long before Instagram and street style dominated the fashion industry. His commitment to his even more famous neighborhood sits at the root of the singularly luxurious streetwear he’s known for. “The first time I got some money, I bought me a brownstone in Harlem,” he said at a 2019 event hosted by the organization Harlem’s Fashion Row. “I’ve been in Harlem all my life, and I’m not going nowhere.”

In his long career, the 74-year-old designer has created original clothing for everyone from Mike Tyson to LL Cool J. And since 2018, he’s been at the helm of a bespoke atelier run in partnership with Gucci (a partnership born out of back-and-forth copycatting between the designer and the Italian luxury house); it’s the first store any luxury brand has opened in Harlem.

Gucci x Dapper Dan Men's Clothing collection

Gucci x Dapper Dan  Photo: Courtesy Gucci/Ari Marcopoulos

That put him in the unique position of counseling the brand’s president and CEO Marco Bizzarri recently, when Gucci sparked controversy with a balaclava sweater that no shortage of observers decried as blackface in knitwear. “There cannot be inclusivity without accountability,” he said in a statement. “I will hold everyone accountable.” The results have been positive and meaningful. Bizzarri has committed to implementing a four-part initiative to promote diversity and inclusion at Gucci that will create opportunities for a new generation of black designers. And that may be the most important legacy Dapper Dan leaves behind.

Kerby Jean-Raymond, Designer

Kerby Jean-RaymondWWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit: Movers and Makers, New York, USA - 29 Oct 2019

Jeff Fried/WWD/Shutterstock

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has consistently used the platform of his clothing brand, Pyer Moss, to have a conversation about race. His runway work blends a modernist’s point of view with a historian’s eye for detail: One memorable collection explored the untold story of black cowboys in the American West; another was a musical love letter to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the undersung godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.

His clear and vocal stance on racial injustice and police brutality is another central element of his work. In 2015, the designer and his label went viral with a t-shirt proclaiming “They Have Names” along with a list of black men who died at the hands of the police. (He later created a version with the names of black women who met the same untimely and unjust fate.) As his work has become more experimental, film has become an increasingly important part of his storytelling technique—one short shared before a show caused such a strong reaction that it nearly cost him his business and earned him death threats. None of that has stopped the designer from achieving great things since: An ongoing collaboration with Reebok led to the company naming him the artistic director of Reebok Studies__ just last year, and he won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2018.

Theaster Gates Jr., Artist and New Prada Diversity and Inclusion Co-Director 

Theaster Gates Jr.

Theaster Gates Jr.  Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia

After a 2018 blackface scandal of its own in which the company was called out for its blackface window figurines, Prada asked the artist Theaster Gates Jr. to lead a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council alongside director Ava DuVernay. The group’s long-term goals include hiring more diverse young employees and interns and offering scholarships and training, just to name a few. Gates has worked with the brand in various capacities (mostly on past exhibitions at the Fondazione Prada), and as the founder and executive director of Chicago’s Rebuild Foundation, Gates is used to working on creative projects that create a measurable and direct impact on overlooked groups. From supporting artists and the local workforce via Dorchester Industries to helping the Second City’s affordable housing efforts, Gates’s collaborative projects have enriched the black community in lasting ways.

Virgil Abloh, Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton

Virgil Abloh on the catwalk Louis Vuitton show, Runway, Spring Summer 2020, Paris Fashion Week Men's, France - 20 Jun 2019

PIXELFORMULA/SIPA/Shutterstock

As an indicator of a lack of representation, much has been made of the fact that you can count the number of black Fortune 500 CEOs on one hand. When it comes to black leaders of French luxury houses, that figure gets even smaller. In his position as the men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton, Abloh—who also leads his own influential brand, Off-White—breathes air as rare as his own abilities. The formally trained architect has been on a meteoric rise to the top of the fashion industry since he started collaborating with Kanye West in 2009. What guides him there is a forthrightly bold fusion of tailoring and streetwear, and a deep and abiding respect for the power of current and historical pop culture. On Instagram, Abloh recently pointed to his frequent allusions to The Wiz, which serves not only as a throwback to an unforgettable black cultural achievement but also an introduction to a group of people who may have never seen it. His ability to bridge those divides—and make doing so look effortless—is a part of what makes him such a singular talent.

Davidson Petit-Frère, Designer

Davidson Petit-Frère

Davidson Petit-Frère  Photo: Courtesy of Davidson Petit-Frère

In February 2019, WWD reported that Musika Frère, the bespoke suiting brand that counted everyone from Jay-Z to to Diddy to Nick Jonas as clients, would shutter. But in its place, its co-founder Davidson Petit-Frère has already established a new ready-to-wear brand, simply called Frère. “With Frère, we’re expanding into ready-to-wear and accessories with worldwide expansion as a goal,” Frère told Robb Report. The designer has the talent and chops to take the brand around the world—in 2018, Forbes named him to its annual 30 Under 30 list—but it doesn’t hurt that he counts some of the biggest names in entertainment as fans. “The support of black designers will only inspire the next generation to continue the legacy we are all working on building today,” he added.

 

ART

Rujeko Hockley, Curator

Rujeko Hockley

Rujeko Hockley  Photo: Scott Rudd

As a co-organizer of 2019’s Whitney Biennial, Rujeko Hockley was tasked with unpacking the American experience within contemporary art—a role she’s been training for. She’s been an assistant curator at The Whitney since 2017, where she’s staged conversation-starting exhibitions that explore protest and identity. Before she joined The Whitney, Hockley was with The Brooklyn Museum, where she co-curated an exhibition of art made by black women entitled “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85.” “We wanted to show that black women are not outsiders to the art world or to the feminist movement—we are right in the middle of it, being hosts and not guests,” she said in an interview with the clothing brand MM.LaFleur. A native of Zimbabwe, Hockley’s uniquely global perspective on the black experience was shaped by living in Barbados, Somalia and the United States.

Kimberly Drew, Author and Curator

If you don’t follow the Instagram account @museummammy, you should change that. With 340,000 followers on that platform and a Tumblr chronicling black contemporary artists that has its own loyal fanbase, curator and author Kimberly Drew’s online presence and influence beyond the digital space cannot be ignored. As the former social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Drew helped shape the esteemed institution’s digital presence. Although she’s focusing more on writing these days, Drew is still involved and visible in the creative space. She has been profiled in The New York Times, and even modeled in Chromat’s New York Fashion Week show in 2019.

 

ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN

Tariq Dixon, Co-Founder of TRNK NYC

Tariq Dixon of TRNK NYC

Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

The 2019 AIGA Design Census, a survey of American design professionals, found that only about 3 percent of interior designers are Black. It’s a fact that makes Tariq Dixon’s success stand out in sharp relief. Since 2013, when he co-founded the design studio TRNK NYC, he’s helped establish the firm as a distinct voice in home décor, and stands out for his curated offering of furniture, lighting, accessories and objects that feels both minimal and soulful at once. To wit: what other online design stores will let you add both a Flos table lamp and a vintage Grebo mask to your cart at the same time?

Dixon’s recent projects have turned the focus on Black artists. To celebrate Black History Month, he curated a digital exhibition of contemporary photographers and creatives called Resistance::Resilience, with work that, in Dixon’s words, “communicates not one truth about Black identity, but confronts the multiplicity intrinsic to centuries of resistance—and as importantly, the resilience that furthers our unfettered pursuit of self-actualization and equality.” A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Black Youth Project, an organization that supports young activists.

Sir David Adjaye, Architect 

Sir David Adjaye

Sir David Adjaye  Photo: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Sir David Adjaye’s visionary work had already had a massive impact before he was named as the architect for the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The $540 million building has been visited by thousands since opening in 2016, and it can’t have hurt Queen Elizabeth II’s decision to knight him in 2017.

Childhood travels with his diplomat father to Egypt, Mali, and Japan have served as inspirations for many of his projects. His recent luxury residential project in NYC’s Financial District at 130 William Street unites the old with the new through the textured exterior and warm charm and is crowned by a 7,000 square-foot penthouse. As a global creative, Adjaye’s reach is far, whether it be a skyscraper or a museum peeking through the clouds.

Ron Woodson, Interior Designer

Ron Woodson

Ron Woodson  Photo: Courtesy of Woodson and Rummerfield's House of Design

Ron Woodson’s interior design aesthetic centers around the carefree eclecticism of living in California. His work with partner Jamie Rummerfield at Woodson & Rummerfield’s House of Design includes everything from animal-hide upholstery to an epic crystal chandelier hanging in the center of a sumptuous bathroom. This fearless approach to design has not gone unrecognized, with The Hollywood Reporter including his firm on its list of Hollywood’s Top 20 Interior Designers in 2015. His clients have included Christina Aguilera, John Travolta and Courtney Love. Beyond interior design, Woodson and Rummerfield aim to salvage noteworthy architecture through their non-profit, Save Iconic Architecture.

 

AUTOMOTIVE

Sir Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton awarded knighthood after another stunning year on the track. File photo dated 15-11-2020 of Lewis Hamilton. Issue date: Wednesday December 30, 2020. Lewis Hamilton's incredible year has been capped by a knighthood for services to motorsport. See PA story SPORT Honours Hamilton. Photo credit should read PA Wire/PA Wire. URN:57336647 (Press Association via AP Images)

PA Wire

Champions are rare, but Lewis Hamilton, the barrier-breaking Formula1 driver who celebrated his seventh title in late 2020, is a singular athlete. His rise to the top of professional racing has been so consistent that it has at times felt inevitable, and it’s been so successful that he’s easily Britain’s richest man in sports. Queen Elizabeth II made Hamilton a knight in her 2021 New Years Honors.

But it’s his status as one of the few Black drivers at the pinnacle of race car driving that has made his presence feel all the more important in 2020. Unsatisfied with the league’s response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others this summer, he got vocal. “I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest of stars yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “Not a sign from anybody in my industry which of course is a white dominated sport.”

At his first event after the global outpouring of grief and activism those killings inspired, Hamilton took a knee before the race in a shirt that said, “Black Lives Matter.” His teammates joined him, many wearing shirts emblazoned with a call to “End Racism.” He kept it up at every race for the rest of the year, broadcasting the message to F1’s massive global audience.

“I’m aware of the platform that Formula 1 has given me, and I want to put it to good use,” Hamilton told Robb Report in December. Of the gruesome instances of police brutality in the United States, he said, “[They] created a ripple effect which has spread throughout the world. We now have to ensure those ripples don’t fade away.”

Bubba Wallace

Darrell Wallace Jr. (43) puts his helmet on and gets ready to head out to the racetrack during practice for the NASCAR Quaker State 400 race at Kentucky Speedway, Friday, July 13, 2018, in Sparta CA. (Gavin Baker/NKP via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Gavin Baker/NKP via AP

On the other side of the pond, Nascar driver Bubba Wallace waged a similar campaign, successfully lobbying his league to ban the Confederate flag, a once-common sight at races, from all future events.

“That’s a symbol of hate, and it brings back so many bad memories,” Wallace said during an interview at the time. “There’s no good that comes with that flag, and that’s the message we’re trying to get across.”

As the only top-tier Black driver in Nascar, Wallace leveraged his unique position to push the organization to adopt more inclusive practices and standards. His team, Richard Petty Motorsports, supported his activism, painting his car with black and white interlocking hands and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter at one event for which it was unable to secure a sponsor.

When it was reported that a noose had been tied in Wallace’s garage stall at the Talladega Superspeedway, the league went to great lengths to increase security and to require sensitivity training for all of its employees. And though an FBI investigation concluded that Wallace had not specifically been targeted by a hate crime, the seriousness with which the situation was treated signals that Wallace’s efforts are having a real and lasting change on a sport long dominated by people who don’t look like him.

Erwin T. Raphael, General Manager of Genesis

Erwin Raphael

Erwin T. Raphael  Photo: Courtesy of Hyundai

After over 25 years in the automotive industry, Erwin T. Raphael—the chief operating officer and vice president of the young car company Genesis—knows what people are looking for in a luxury car. In the past three years, Raphael has helped Hyundai’s young marque grow by leaps and bounds, from a virtual unknown to winning MotorTrend‘s Car of the Year (with the G70), along with multiple awards for safety, design and value. 

Although he’s witnessed the automotive industry become more inclusive, he believes that progress still needs to be made within leadership roles. “However, there are certainly still opportunities to further improve, particularly with respect to women and visible multi-cultural personnel in positions of leadership,” Raphael told Robb Report. So whether it’s inclusive Genesis advertising or encouraging more representation within leadership, Raphael is ready for Genesis to encourage the race toward progress.  

FOOD & DRINK

Marcus Samuelsson, Chef and Restauranteur

Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson  Photo: Scott Roth/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurants and properties reach from Stockholm to Harlem. His culinary empire mirrors both his success and his upbringing. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson fuses a variety of influences into his menus, demonstrating how adaptable and popular African cuisine can be across the globe.

At the Red Rooster in Harlem, he’s starting a new Dinner Series on February 27 that’s named for Fanny, one of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chefs, and master distiller Nathan “Nearest” Green. The aim? To celebrate the unsung diversity that has existed for centuries in the culinary world.

“It’s taken a long time, but it’s changing for the better, and I think really the African American experience has been the core driver of that,” Samuelsson said of this growing recognition. “It goes back to the civil rights movement, especially in hospitality because so much of the African American craft was in that space.  Fanny [and] Edith and Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green are great examples of that.”

 

Krista Scruggs, Natural Winemaker

Krista Scruggs, founder of Zafa Wines.

Krista Scruggs 

“No fining, filtering, additives, or funny business in the winery,” the Zafa Wines website openly states. The brainchild of Krista Scruggs, a queer woman of color, Zafa specializes in a natural, no-nonsense, old-world approach to winemaking. She even stomps the grapes with her feet to ensure the right flavor. And serving wine made with traditional methods to a new generation is definitely working: Scruggs was named to Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 Tastemaker list in 2018.

Scruggs has been honing her craft for years, and has risen from working as a shipping coordinator for Constellation Brands to being a vigneronne and winemaker in Vermont. Zafa Wines may be in its infancy, but its buzz is so vibrant that serving a bottle or three at your first post-pandemic dinner party will be a clear signal to your oenophile friends that you’re way ahead of the curve.

 

Ghetto Gastro, Chef Collective

Ghetto Gastro T-Shirts

Ghetto Gastro. 

Though the founders of Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro have an impressive Rolodex of clients (Virgil Abloh, Rick Owens, Instagram and Nike, just to name a few), they’re prioritizing their local community with a new headquarters, Labyrinth 1.1, according to a Wall Street Journal profile. The group, which consists of two chefs (Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker) and a CEO (Jon Gray) are mostly Bronx-natives, which helps bring an authenticity to their approach when connecting with the community.

The culinary collective has been busy of late. As Covid-19 ravaged the Bronx, the group teamed up with nonprofit Rethink Food NYC to distribute food to seniors, people of color, low-income families, and formerly incarcerated individuals in the borough. But soon, the collective turned its attention to another, all-too-familiar crisis: police brutality, as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade at the hands of police officers prompted global outrage and protests. The two organizations decided to tackle two issues at once, sending food trucks to feed protesters in Domino Park, Brooklyn, and Washington Square Park. The collective also joined forces with New Studio to launch a new line of t-shirts, emblazoned with phrases like “Black Power Kitchen” and “Food is a Weapon.” The shirts are now available on the Ghetto Gastro website, and all proceeds will go to Rethink, Color of Change and Summaeverythang Community Center.

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