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ESSENCE Fashion House 2021 was full of great presentations and panel discussions—one of which being the ‘Culture Not For Sale,’ panel.

Moderated by ESSENCE’s own D’Shonda Brown, the enlightening conversation heard streetwear pioneer April Walker and fashion visionary Venny Etienne explore the unfortunate experiences of independent designers being taken advantage of by bigger companies. Together, the group discussed resolutions for the ongoing conflict.

Courtesy of Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Venny Etienne is the Hatian-American founder and designer of the clothing brand Levenity, which was most-notably worn by Beyoncé in her Black Is King visual album, among many other beloved celebrities. April Walker is the founder of the legendary brand, Walker Wear, and one of the first women to enter and take over the male-dominated streetwear space in the 90s. Walker Wear has outfitted nearly all of the Hip-Hop greats, including Tupac, Biggie and Jay-Z, to name just a few. Although both brands have seen outstanding success over the years, they each still operate independently and lack the infrastructure that fuels larger brands, which unfortunately makes them a target for larger companies to steal their ideas and sell them to the masses without proper compensation or credit.

Most recently, Walker Wear filed a lawsuit against Virgil Abloh’s brand Off-White, accusing the larger brand of stealing Walker Wear’s oversized ‘WW’ design. “Social media is like this open curtain that allows people to do drive-by’s,” April said during the panel. After her cease-and-desist letters were allegedly ignored by Off-White and the retailers carrying the stolen design, she took it to the next step by filing – setting an example to not let bigger businesses take advantage of your business. The unfortunate experience is one that has become all too familiar for countless independent designers and is a prime example of one of the downsides of social media for the fashion world: the risk of having someone repackage your intellectual property as their own. “It’s the price we pay for using social media,” said Venny.

Courtesy of Shannon Finney/Getty Images

April touched on the importance of fashion creatives protecting their designs and working with a great legal team that understands intellectual property. Since independent designers don’t always have the funds to afford a legal team right away, she encouraged designers to educate themselves and research as much as possible. Miss Walker’s end goal for her lawsuit against Off-White is, of course, to win the case, but more importantly, to push a change in policy around intellectual property and start a legal fund for independent designers when similar situations arise. She is doing the groundwork, so designers can fight for their ideas when corporations try to capitalize off them. “We are not for sale,” said Walker. 

The panelists wrapped the conversation by explaining that having a distinctive voice as a designer helps with situations similar to those they have been involved with because it allows a designer’s work to be easily recognized by their supporters. They also encouraged the fashion community to continue supporting independent designers. “If she’s going through it, I’m going through it,” Venny said, in closing. Echoing his sentiments, April added: “Don’t diminish and don’t be apologetic about your voice. We are better together.”

Check out the full conversation in the video above and then head over to ESSENCE Studios to watch more of everything you missed at the 2021 ESSENCE Fashion House.

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