Dominique Drakeford On How To Hold Sustainable Fashion Accountable

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“I love my whole entire name,” says Dominique Drakeford over the background noise of the wind sweeping over the East River. Dominique is a Bed Stuy, New York resident by way of Oakland, California. This summer day, however, she is near the water in Greenpoint for reasons she doesn’t mention. We just know she’s there - sitting on a rock, she informs me - under the sun, looking over the river, where she took the opportunity to center herself prior to dialing into our interview.

It goes without saying that in a city filled with sirens, honking, construction, and a constant grind that can quickly veer into burnout, Dominique Drakeford does entrepreneurship her own way. As a non-native, Drakeford brings a lot of the laid back, holistic West Coast mentality to how she navigates both entrepreneurship and the city.

“Living in New York, it hampers with all of your senses,” she observes, dismantling the unspoken taboo held by many a New Yorker that if you critique this city, you can’t handle it.

“I’m from California,” she continues, almost justifying her remark. “Me in California doing this (startup) is very different than me in New York doing this. I have a lot more variables to consider while living in New York trying to be an activist while maintaining my sanity.”

This is just the first of Dominique’s truths. Throughout our conversation together she lays out many of them, and it quickly becomes apparent that dismantling unspoken truths is kind of her thing. In fact, she’s built an entire company around the concept. Cue Melanin ASS.

How She...Dismantled the Narrative

Dominique’s company, Melanin ASS is an online magazine focusing on highlighting sustainable fashion and the people of color within the industry who often go overlooked for their many important contributions.

Coming from a strong background within social justice in the Bay Area, Dominique moved to New York, eventually landing in public relations. Her experience within PR led to a deeper understanding of the disconnect between public relations, media, sustainability and people of color. She particularly noted how this was true in the areas of green sustainability and nonprofit beauty. This led to the creation of Melanin ASS.

“Melanin ASS stands for Melanin And Sustainable Style,” Dominique explains.  “Essentially it's a platform that uplifts people of color in the sustainable fashion space, highlighting people who are doing really dope work, who don’t get the visibility and recognition they deserve, while also dismantling the challenging areas in (the industry).”

“There are so many articles about designers and so many articles about (sustainable) entrepreneurs,” Dominique goes on to describe.  “But not enough of them are about people of color. (Melanin ASS features) anything from nontoxic male brands and women of color designers, here in Brooklyn all the way to India. You’re going to see this awesome mosaic of representation that is definitely lacking.”

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The desire to provoke meaningful conversations isn’t a new one within the conscious industry. Sustainable fashion, in fact, champions itself on transparent business – especially regarding how products are made, the wages workers are paid, or ensuring “fair” trade.

“The conscious space is supposed to be just that - it's supposed to be more conscious. It's supposed to be more inclusive. It's supposed to have all these different levels of (toxicity) that aren't there. That aren’t the same as the mainstream industries. Yet, I find that way too often, there are a lot of similarities when it comes to those levels of toxicity,” says Dominique.

Dismantling truths - specifically around the absence of people of color in the sustainable industry - is the space where Melanin ASS plays. Within the conscious movement and especially within the fashion industry, people of color are still often left out of the larger industry and media conversation, not because they aren’t part of the sustainability movement, but because the movement has been co-opted and defined along a narrative in which the stories of people of color behind the movement go unspoken, unheard of, and unseen.

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“A lot of people of color have been in this space,” Dominique explains, “Just in terms of wearing tennis shoes down to the point where there is no tennis shoe left. I mean, that's sustainable, as opposed to rebuying. Vintage and thrift shopping has been a huge thing, especially in low-income communities. That’s sustainable but it wouldn't be considered sustainable in normal conversations.”

Sustainability as a whole is a cultural and ethnic concept. No exceptions.

The pattern of co-opting lifestyles from people of color around the world, and commoditizing them for Western profit isn’t new. Yoga has been appropriated from India by white men and women who no little more about Indian culture and spirituality than your college world history teacher (at best). Meditation and mindfulness has been uplifted from Asia too. Even cannabis, as Dominique points out in one of the Melanin ASS features she penned, has historically been used within Black communities as a way to cope with stressful environments. However, incarceration rates around Black people using marijuana have long surpassed rates related to white recreational use, and now, with the legalization of marijuana in states across the U.S., white people are still benefiting financially far more than the Black community. 

“Again, no matter what type of visibility, whether it’s runway visibility, catalog visibility; whether you are having a discussion... or there are so many events, summits, conferences, seminars I’ve gone to where I don't see that diversification represented authentically on panels. I don't see them in the audience. Sustainability as a whole is a cultural and ethnic concept. No exceptions,” Dominique explains.

How She...Built the Conversation

As fashion magazines come, it goes without saying that by design, Melanin ASS’s goal is much larger than talking about the latest beauty or clothing trends. Fashion is just the platform from which these other conversations surrounding sustainability, green beauty, wellness, and the exploration of important identity issues within the sustainable fashion community derive from.

Differentiating itself within the sustainable fashion world just one of the reasons why it has garnered attention. Content execution has been key in expanding its reach with within the industry and outside of it, and building notoriety.

One such content area that the magazine has gained much attention over is its iconic ethereal images of women of color, clad in sustainable fashions the world over. Not only are the images beautifully crafted, the subjects themselves - women of color in sustainable fashion – has gained high engagement due to its subversive messaging.

“In terms of…the visuals, I want you to see that (people of color) look fly in sustainable fashion,”  Dominique explains. “I want to tell stories because the written and the photography narratives are what transcends the conversation.”

For Dominique, this content choice is a carefully strategized one, closely following the narrative that you can’t be what you can’t see.

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Another area of notoriety has been in establishing the tone of the conversation itself. For many founders, being the first to space is often a point of controversy – do you want to be first to launch? Should you wait and learn from other startups' mistakes? Do you aim to make a small wave or a big one? But being one of the only platforms founded by and for people of color within the sustainable fashion word, Dominique realized this gave her the opportunity to set the tone for the way the conversation would take place in the industry:

“I can be blunt. I can be unapologetic. I can be as in your face as I want when I’m writing because I’m telling my truth and it's a truth you don't hear too often. Its immediately going to grab attention,” she explains of her approach.

Indeed Dominique’s content has continued to raise her profile. Dominique has been featured on on the podcast Conscious Chatter, The Good Trade, Organic Spa, UWM, Beyond Classically Beautiful and JET, amongst many of today’s other top consciousness publications. She attributes much of her success to people finding community within the dialogue, although she does note there has been some backlash.

“Of course, when you're criticizing a community that's supposed to be ‘doing good’, you're definitely going to have some backlash. There are plenty of bloggers, most of them white, who were not very happy that I called out white savior complex. Or, that I called out racism within this space. Or, that I called them out without saying their name and they realized I was calling them out.”

Yet this experience didn’t deter Dominique’s approach to her content or brand. In fact, she saw the backlash as a positive experience.

“I mean honestly, I love that. Not because I thrive off controversy. But that I’m ruffling feathers enough that I’m bringing that to your conscious. Because there are so many other people, especially white women, who are like, ‘you know what? I’ve never thought of this. I have to step back and look at how I consume information, how I put off certain energy. How I see the world. How I see me doing good. How I interact with people of color. How I’m taking up space.’”

How She...Remained Unapologetic

The space between entrepreneurship, activism, and nonprofits can get blurry. Some people define this space as sociopreneurship. Others define it as creative entrepreneurship, social impact, or in terms of business structures, B-Corps. The way in which brands position their own relationship with activism or social good can vary greatly. There are brands like Warby Parker, where although each glasses purchase means a donation to a child with visual needs, it's not the center core of the company’s positioning. Then there are brands like Melanin ASS, whose name alone tells you that they aren’t here to play.

Tapping into the root of that brand activism, for Dominique, is personal.

“Understanding as a Black American how movements are started - you have to be unapologetic. I know from my roots, all the strong Black women that I’ve read about, that I know about, were unapologetic, they were passionate about walking in their truth. And very big on creating a movement for social justice. I have that in my background, especially starting when I served underserved youth in Oakland.”

Understanding as a Black American how movements are started - you have to be unapologetic.

That truth is ultimately leading to a larger conversation within the sustainable fashion industry, and proving to expand on the progressive values for which the industry has branded itself to build on.

“This community likes to be very honest. I like to take my honesty to a different level and promote these kinds of conversations. Because we’re not really going to grow, we’re not really going to scale, we’re not really going to change until we have these uncomfortable conversations. And from those conversations, have these activations that are more inclusive and honest.”

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