Gwendolyn Bates has long loved fashion, from her early days of being named “best dressed” in her high school yearbook to launching and designing her own line of jewelry and accessories in 2015. And as a Black woman in the fashion industry, she understands the hurdles placed in the paths of minority designers like herself.
She recalls a time when a wholesaler for a boutique decided not to purchase from her after finding out that Bates is Black. That buyer attempted to place an order with a model that Bates had hired to work her booth at an event, and when Bates returned to her booth to facilitate the sale, the buyer said that they weren’t interested in anything Bates had to offer. Another common occurrence has been when Bates speaks with someone over the phone to schedule a meeting, and then when she arrives at the meeting in person, they’re visibly confused because she’s Black.
“Being a dark-skinned, Black woman in (entertainment industries) is pretty tough in general,” says Bates, who also serves as director of Fashion Week San Diego, an independent fashion week focused on showcasing emerging international and local designers. “If people have biases and blind spots in their perceptions of others with darker skin tones, it will undoubtedly shut down any kind of relationship and some opportunities.”
In response, Fashion Week San Diego recently launched its Diversity Fund Program to support designers historically subjected to racial, ethnic or cultural bias. The funds raised are being given to minority designers to help promote and showcase their work.
Bates, 38, lives in Oceanside with her husband Alex, and daughters Nia, Jazz and Wendi. She took some time to discuss the Diversity Fund Program, the outreach work she’s doing through her GFASH line of accessories, and supporting minority designers.
Q: What led you to focus on working in the fashion industry?
A: It was when I made my first bracelet and launched my first, legit jewelry business when I really began to focus on the fashion industry and how to start a business. As a teenager, I was well-known and photographed in my high school yearbook — not for having the most friends or being the loud extrovert, but for being the best dressed just about every day. It is safe to say that my love for fashion started at this point, and eventually evolved into me creating my own garments and accessories.
Q: Tell us about Fashion Week San Diego.
A: Fashion Week San Diego was started in 2007 by Allison Andrews. It was started to showcase the incredible talent we have here in San Diego. The purpose of the organization is to provide a successful platform to launch emerging brands into the fashion industry, in conjunction with providing several, year-long promotional pre-events for additional exposure. Further, Fashion Week San Diego is a buyer, consumer fashion week, and one of the first independently-owned and -operated fashion weeks in the U.S.
Q: Can you talk a bit about Fashion Week San Diego’s new Diversity Fund Program?
A: The Diversity Fund Program was developed to allow socially disadvantaged minority designers, who would otherwise not have the opportunity to do so, a chance to showcase their work on an official fashion week platform. Fashion Week San Diego knows how difficult it is to be seen, to be heard, and to financially participate in large fashion industry events in general. We also understand that some talent will never be able to show their work unless afforded the opportunity and an open door. We’ve taken our diversified and inclusive platform one step further and are giving opportunities to deserving designers by setting aside up to three allocated slots for diversity designers, every year, as long as we have the funds to do so.
The fund was started in June 2020, during a historic time in our country when we are seeing so much solidarity, not only among people in the streets, but major corporations around the world. The program was mapped out in a couple of days and implemented during the same week. The ultimate goal of our initiative is to provide a valuable and high-quality opportunity to socially disadvantaged brands, to showcase their work on an official fashion week platform, provide exposure, and help under-represented brands with a successful launch.
Q: What was the motivation behind starting this fund?
A: Aside from creating an opportunity on an official fashion week platform, we wanted to make a difference in the fashion industry with all of the current affairs circulating in our society right now. This probably could have happened a while ago, but now seemed like a relevant time to roll out the program.
What I love about Oceanside …
I enjoy the location of living in the city, but in minutes, we can travel to beautiful, rural areas. I love that I have friendly neighbors who don’t mind when my kids create a ton of noise driving a kart in front of their homes.
Q: Can you walk us through how the program works?
A: We will offer participants the opportunity to apply for the program annually, with an application submission deadline. First, the designers will apply using the application on our website. Second, the application will need to be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Then, the team will review the application to make sure the applicants qualify as someone who is socially disadvantaged, according to criteria set by the Small Business Act. Further, participation will be determined by the following criteria: must be an emerging brand, independently owned and operated, in the process of becoming professional, be of good character, committed to the Fashion Week San Diego platform, and have an income of 30 percent to 80 percent lower than the area median income of a specified city.
Q: Has the fund started? If so, how much money has it raised, distributed, and how many designers have received support?
A: Yes, we have raised and distributed $3,000, but we need to raise an additional $2,900 per diversity designer to give the designers all of the professional benefits associated with their time with us. This includes a professional look-book, branded video, showcase, public relations support, and more. One designer is currently benefiting from the fund and Fashion Week San Diego is covering the costs of all activities and opportunities directly. At the end of the program, we’d like to allocate any remaining funds to critical business needs, such as renewing business licenses, creating copyrights, or possibly covering a one-year subscription to Shopify or Wix.
Q: Are you able to share any information about the designer who’s currently participating in the program?
A: Koran Fields-Cameron is our first recipient of the fund. His entrance fee was covered by the program, and we are still seeking additional funding in order to give him a full Fashion Week San Diego experience. As we receive donations, we apply them to the entrance, public relations and advance events that the designer will take part in, along with other activities. The name of his brand is WVSH (Win Victories Stay Humble) and is composed of bold prints, over-sized garments, and has an urban San Diego flare in menswear and womenswear. Koran comes from very humble beginnings, is a military veteran, and is active in the community.
Q: The fashion industry has long been criticized for its lack of diversity; is this kind of financial support enough? Are there other forms of support that are necessary for minority designers in this industry?
A: I believe that what we are doing is the best route for now. Not only are we covering costs through the fund, we are giving the designers professional services that will set them up for success professionally, that they may not have purchased on their own. We are providing ways to network (this year it’s slightly different due to COVID-19), but we are expecting the advance events to provide productive networking and media exposure that will open doors for collaboration with other professionals and businesses. I also believe one-on-one mentoring would be highly effective on a consistent basis. Of course, we can do more and give more, but I think this is a step in the right direction. Maybe one day we will be able to afford a mentoring program for the diversity designers.
Q: I understand that you’re using your GFASH accessory company to implement outreach programs in your community? Can you tell us more about this?
A: We want to build confidence and class with jewelry with a purpose, so we have an outreach hub called Studio 830 that provides ways to give back to women and youth. We give women an opportunity to partake in a professional photo shoot, no matter their age, height or weight. Most of our participants are moms, military members or working women who we get published in local and national magazines. Another outreach program is SIC, a youth fashion activity-based project that serves as a suicide prevention program. We focus on activities and opportunities in the fashion industry and on entrepreneurial studies. I feel it is important to always give back, do things that put people first, and create programs that will have great long-term impact.
Q: What has your work taught you about yourself?
A: I am more resilient than I know, and I can pivot quickly to create relevant alternatives.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Be yourself!
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: In 2007, I signed a $36 million proclamation at the Pentagon on behalf of military spouses to further their vocational goals. I also think Gen Z and post-Millennials are pretty cool.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Sleep in and relax, grab a Boba tea … and head to the beach to catch the sunset with my family.