“I feel like a girlfriend has died.” – Michaela angela Davis
On Friday evening, cultural critic and writer Michaela angela Davis tweeted: “It is with a heavy heavy heart I have learned that Essence magazine has engaged a white fashion director, this hurts, literally, spiritually.” Michaela’s tweet erupted a series of reactions, re-tweets, and scores of Facebook comments. Responses ranged from shock, disappointment to utter confusion.
Our immediate reaction? As the publication unofficially deemed “Essence‘s little sister”—a growing young urban women’s online brand for news, critical commentary, lifestyle, fashion and beauty—it felt like our Mom walked us hand in hand to the center of the biggest shopping mall in the state, turned around, and left us. But we are no longer the little girls eyeballing the glossy giant who taught us how to love ourselves. We’ve been finding our way through the life, love and labels for quite sometime now; and the likely abandonment of the counselor who taught us everything we know is now evolving into clearer overstanding. The pressing question for many of us is how much does Time Warner have to do with the hiring.
In 2000, media giant Time Warner acquired 49 percent of Essence Communications Partners, and in 2005, the conglomerate purchased the remaining 51 percent. The news was met with a strong contention by the Black community who viewed the transaction as yet another Black business takeover. Time Warner’s purchase of the beloved Essence brand came on the heels of Viacom’s acquisition of Black Entertainment Television.
Essence announced it’s search for a Fashion Director in March after Agnes Cammock left the post several years before. The print’s latest Fashion Director was celebrity stylist Billie Causieestko, who had a brief stint with the magazine lasting less than a year. No information released on why Causieestko no longer holds the spot.
The company has yet to officially announce the new hire. However, media industry site Media Bistro released an article on Monday revealing the pick is Ellianna Placas, formerly of O: The Oprah Magazine and US Weekly. The report confirms Placas will make her official debut with Essence in their 40th anniversary commemorative issue in September. According to the brand’s announcement, the Fashion Director is responsible for developing and conceiving five to seven fashion stories and one feature per month. The position also requires the person to communicate the “Essence style mission on sales calls and represent the brand on television” among other managerial tasks.
CLUTCH spoke with Michaela angela Davis, a former fashion editor for Essence, and a current writer for the print, and fashion media personality Najwa Moses. Both women were gracious enough to share their honest and candid thoughts on the news.
Offering her immediate reaction to the hiring, Michaela says, “I am so so hurt and confused and frankly angry by this news. I feel like a girlfriend has died.” Michaela’s tweets and Facebook comments on the hiring informed many media insiders, and former Essence staff members who had no clue. “I am going against my own advice and publicly speaking when I’m so emotionally driven.” Michaela says she reached out to Angela Burt-Murray, current Editor-in-Chief of Essence. “I emailed her as a respectful heads up informing her that I would be speaking up.” Michaela says her feelings on the news have much to do with Black women’s hostile history with the fashion industry. Further explaining her concerns around the issue, Michaela wrote on Facebook: “It is personal and it’s also professional. If there were balance in the industry; if we didn’t have a history of being ignored and disrespected; if more mainstream fashion media included people of color before the ONE magazine dedicated to Black women ‘diversified’, it would feel different.”
Commenting on if the hiring of a White fashion director has to do with a possible Time Warner strong-hold, Michaela tells CLUTCH, “I do not dare speak on whose brand got who. What I do know is that I’ve seen women go to combat with the biggest of corporate big wigs to protect their audience.”
Michaela shares, “I remember when Vibe launched, I overheard Martha Stewart (whose magazine was a Time publication at the time) laying a corporate executive out–literally screaming at him telling him he has ‘no authority’ to tell her what to put in her magazine, and that he had ‘no idea’ what her ‘culture’ is like. Martha Stewart said ‘she was the expert!’ I will never forget that.”
“But closer to home Susan L. Taylor (former Essence Editor-In-Chief and Creative Director) demanded things for her people, and the community, like the free empowerment seminars at the Essence Music Festival.” Michaela continues, “My point is there are examples of people braving corporate pressures for the love of their audience.”
Connecting the news to the Shirley Sherrod controversy, Michaela says, “I think I am also so sensitive to this ‘unprotected Black women’ issue off the heels of Shirley Sherrod. The NAACP didn’t even call her or Google her history.” Michaela says, “How many qualified Black fashion professionals did they [Essence] call?”
Fashion media personality Najwa Moses has her own set of qualified Black women who should have received a call. “I can think of a few qualified Black women, and men too.” Najwa says. “My picks would be celebrity stylists Patti Wilson, June Ambrose, Kithe Brewster, Memsor Kamaraké, and Sydney Bolden.” Najwa also says that Michaela angela Davis herself would have been a good pick.
Najwa, a dominant force in the world of fashion media—particularly new media–also shared her immediate reaction: “I was blown away—in shock really.” Najwa tells CLUTCH. “I mean, how could such a prestigious title who is deeply rooted in its target audience let someone who is not even apart of the African Diaspora detonate our image?”
Offering further thoughts on the popular Black women’s brand’s very first White Fashion Director, Najwa reveals she doesn’t really look to Essence for fashion anyway. “I only look inward for fashion to be upfront, but I do look to Essence to continue to inspire and enrich the Black woman’s experience.”
Najwa questions, “How can a White woman dictate and decide what style and beauty is for the Black woman?”
But in a ‘post-racial’ world, some people call Michaela and Najwa’s point of view on the hiring reverse racism. One commenter on Facebook wrote, “I’m surprised that everyone assumes this is terrible news simply because the new person is White. We know absolutely zero about them besides that.” Another commenter stated, “What’s makes her not qualified? I hope that beauty can be found in every woman.” The commenter advised us all to consider her performance first.
Still, media insiders are not buying it. Joan Morgan, an award-winning journalist, author and long-time writer for Essence says she could care less how qualified the brand’s new white Fashion Director could be. “This is about the fact that the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to mainstream women’s magazines remains just about as segregated in its hiring practices as it did in 1988.” Joan referenced a 1988 Folio article about Blacks who are discouraged by the publishing industry’s “laissez-faire attitude toward recruitment.” Joan says, “When these same institutions (naming Conde Nast, Hachette and others) start to employ hiring practices that allow Black publishing professionals the same access to their publications, that’s when I can get all ‘Kumbaya’ about Essence‘s new fashion director.”
For many, the magazine’s bold step of hiring a White Fashion Director signals a new era–or the end of one. When we asked if this is an attempt to broaden the print’s demo, Michaela said, “Having worked at Essence, Vibe and Honey, I know all too well how incredibly difficult it is to get ad sales support. This is such a treacherous time for print.” But Michaela also says that Essence‘s long time cultural standpoint is the brand’s strongest selling point. “The greatest asset a brand can have is a unique promotable position. There is so much brand value there for Black and non-Black readers.” Michaela says if Essence forgoes it’s Black women’s posture, what would make its fashion pages any different from Vogue, In Style, or even O: the Oprah magazine?
Loyal Essence readers and media insiders are eagerly awaiting an official announcement from the publication on the shocking decision, or better an explanation.
How will a White Fashion Director affect the 40-year-old Essence brand—the publication that has become a formidable Black American institution? How will long-time subscribers respond—many who include aspiring Black female writers and editors? Najwa says only time will tell. “For the insider’s insider like myself, I’m planning to peep through the issue to see where it goes–but I won’t be buying it.”