The conversation of diversity within the fashion industry saw its shift in 2017. On the surface, the industry has begun to move to a more inclusive space, including a spike in models of all shapes and skin tones marching down the runway at New York Fashion Week. And more importantly, fashion has begun placing more creatives of color like Edward Enniful and Shayne Oliver behind the scenes to tell the stories of young black creatives that we’ve been longing to see from this industry for some time. And though the spaces for accurate representation are finally being filled by more well-known brand, we’ve seen plenty of the next generation creating spaces of their own, in hopes of shifting the industry even further.
Enter Oluwa and Celestin, the e-commerce platform here to promote luxury brands created by black designers from all over the world. Started just two seasons ago by Tania Celestin and Ian Oluwa Omotoso, this online shop has quickly gained the attention of young, black designers and their loyal fanbases alike. With a goal of becoming what the company refers to as a “Black Barney’s”, Oluwa and Celestin is more than ready to create the destination that millennials of all races flock to.
See our conversation with Oluwa and Celestin co-founder, Tania Celestin.
What were you doing before you started this e-commerce website?
I️ was an agent and I represented hairstylist, makeup artists, and fashion stylists who worked with celebrity glam teams. So they worked with celebrities, red carpet events, advertising, editorial all of that. And Ian actually created a marketplace for artisans in Venice beach. We actually met through working in the luxury retail business together and we became friends before we even thought of the business idea. We would share music and were really into up-and-coming designers. A few years ago after meeting one day, we went shopping at Topshop and we were talking about how there was a lack of space for black designers. Especially designers that we would want to shop and how hard it was to find them in a store that has them all in one place. We talked and were like ‘What if we created one?’
When did you decide to venture into this industry?
Since I was young I️ always wanted to be a fashion designer. I️ had to come to terms with the fact that I️ wasn’t as talented as I would like to be — it always took me longer to do fashion illustrations and sewing took way longer than it should have. I️ really wanted to go to fashion school and I got accepted to Parsons, which was my top choice, and my dad was like ‘If you go to fashion school I️m not covering it.’ We’re Caribbean so he wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer, so I️ ended up going to a PWI, I went to Boston University, and I️’m actually happy I️ didn’t go to fashion school. Of course, fashion is still my passion, but it was really good to go into business law which has kind of helped me throughout my careers. I’ve worked in the music industry, I’ve done fashion PR and working with artist and helping them negotiate their rates and booking and all of that definitely came in handy, especially with this company working with our designers and setting up the best situation for both the designer and us.
What prompted you to start the site and focus on brands of the diaspora. I️ know you said you saw a lack of black brands in mainstream stores, but how did you get from there to creating a site that’s all about brands from the diaspora?
It’s kind of political but also not. When we were thinking of the brands it was about 3-4 years ago and a bunch of things started happening. I’m not sure if you remember in Barney’s and then Macy’s where black customers were accused of stealing and it became this huge thing where the movement of buying black kind of resurfaced and it became a huge movement where there were blackouts and people we’re tryna figure how to support black businesses during the holiday season. That definitely motivated us but at the same time, we didn’t want it to be a political statement we wanted this to be something that would last the test of time. We kind of wanna be a Black Barney’s in the sense that Barney’s is really into emerging designers as well as established designers. We realized that there was a space that wasn’t being fulfilled in helping black designers become household names just as easily as other designers. There’s a space for European designers, there’s a space for of course American designers and even Asian designers it’s a little bit easier as an Asian with people like Derek Lamb and others to create a space in the fashion industry.
The issue with black designers is that a lot of times they can’t create that space due to financial burdens a lot of times we get into the industry without a rich family member or we aren’t heiresses or anything like that, so we don’t come in with the same financial backing as other designers. Which makes it hard for the great quality, high fashion, black designers to reach their target market so we just wanted to create a space that showcased them in the same light that other designers are being showcased. Quality images really great focus on design and marketing which is why we created our brand. We don’t necessarily want it to be for black by black, we have customers from many different backgrounds. We’re just trying to create a platform for black designers to be in the same sentence as other well-known designers.
What’s your curation process like? How do you find these brands and how do you decide who gets featured?
So we kind of pride ourselves on being internet gurus. We find people from everywhere, we literally have a long-standing list of designers that if you asked me where we found them I couldn’t remember because literally every time we see a name or a collection we keep track of it and write their names down and the next time that we are looking for designers we go back in our list to figure out who would work best for our brands. We literally find them everywhere from articles in magazines or websites, talking to people finding out who’s the next up and coming designers, networking and all of that. It’s more of a process now because we are up-and-coming, we’re only in our second season. So we contact them and let them know about our brands and start the conversation seeing if this is something they’re interested in. We’ve had really great success with our designers as far as them understanding our vision and being down for testing us out and seeing what works out. So all of our designers from last season have signed on for this season as well and then we added 6 new designers. It’s a whole process trying to figure out which collections and which designers will work best with what we have and where we are trying to go with the brands and going from there.
What is the long-term goal as a company and what are your next steps?
In 5-10 years we want our first flagship store. most likely in New York since that is the U.S. center of fashion. Of course in the future, we want to have more department stores in other cities as well. In the next coming years, we’d love to have little pop-up shops in different cities and spreading awareness in our brands. In the next year. we want to focus more on our website gaining traction and getting more people to know about our website, creating relationships with more social media influencers and fashion bloggers, and adding more designers to our website and increasing our product line and price ranges and all of that. We really want to be a department store and we coin ourselves as the first black department store, carrying designs of the black diaspora because there are other sites and other stores that are great that do things similar to us we just want to do it on another level and bigger. We want to be a department store that houses everything, so we have homeware right now and of course, we have apparel and accessories. We want to expand into jewelry, shoes, and other product lines. So that’s our plan for the next year.
You mentioned the struggle of being young, black, and not having the finances to do a lot. What other struggles do you guys face as a young e-commerce platform that is essentially trying to grow into a big department store vision you have?
Financially, me and Ian are financing this on our own. We really want to make sure that the vision that we have is really taken care of and grows into what we believe it can be. The other challenge is really kind of educating people on these designers and helping our community see that they are as luxurious as other designers. I️ think even within our community it can be a little tough with black businesses trying to reach your customer and letting them know that your products are equal to the other. So that’s one of the things that we knew were gonna be a struggle but still, once you’re in it it’s a whole different ballgame. And just trying to let people know that yes, some of these things are expensive but there’s a reason behind it. Most of our designers hand make their items so they’re made to order and are made in the U.S., which is why they may be a little more expensive than you would expect, but we also have things that are more affordable as well. That’s the hardest thing though just kind of letting people know what’s out there as far as the quality of designers.
You and Ian have a huge hand in the creative direction, could you explain that process?
Ian has worked in the retail industry for years so he had that background. I’ve worked in branding and with different businesses from corporations to small startups. For this particular Fall/Winter marketing campaign we started looking for a photographer that we felt could help create our vision and bring it to life and we found Natalie Gordon who is an LA-based photographer and she’s from the UK. She helped bring the worldly vision, as well as kind of getting the sensibilities of LA because that’s where we met and we definitely wanted to have a campaign that was shot in LA and kind of brought that culture to life as well. Then we tried to create our concept and figure out exactly what we wanted to showcase in the marketing shoot and then once we found out the concept, we let Natalie know exactly what we were looking for in terms of location, makeup, styling. So we give them direction and of course, all of the artist we work with are really creative so they bring it to life in ways that we could never even think of. Then we work with designers in pulling items that would work with our vision and using that for the marketing shoot. The concept for the Fall/Winter marketing shoot was entitled “Transplant”, so it’s a New Yorker that moves to Downtown Los Angeles we capture her in the Autumn of LA where the weather is always temperate. She’s supposed to be a rich girl that takes a chance on different looks, she layers, she makes fabrics and prints, and the city is her playground and the sidewalk is her runway so she’s always on the go meeting up with friends or dates or shopping and she seems really interesting and active in a rush but she’s always put together. So we gave her that creative and she was able to help us put a team together to bring that vision to life. So we create the concepts and the direction of where we want to go and then we trust the artist to help us bring that to life.
Photographer: Nathalie Gordon
Photo Assistant: Steven Thompson
Stylist: Dominique Richardson
Hair/Makeup: Bethany Garita
Models: Melinda Elvenes & BJ Williams