On April 3, Black Fashion Fair founder Antoine Gregory put out a call for his followers to share some of their favorite family portraits. At the time, Gregory was pondering how images like these have long reinforced stereotypes, as opposed to exemplifying the diversity of the Black experience.
Hundreds of quote tweets quickly poured in, with users sharing intimate looks at their family's lives across the Black diaspora, from treasured album photos of parents honeymooning in Haiti to family gatherings in '90s Nigeria.
"I felt a sense of community," Gregory tells PAPER. "It was like I was looking at images at home in my photo albums. I remember feeling how crazy it was that we share so many of the same experiences while being miles and worlds apart from different places. "
But there was an even more personal component and layer behind the outpouring of submissions. According to Gregory, this was something that Black people really needed in a time where everyone's being exposed to something traumatic. "I really appreciated the vulnerability of people sharing something personal and having a real community behind you," he says.
"Because it's not always easy, and people pass away, like the people in the photos may not even exist anymore and that can be triggering for you," he continues. "But here you are sharing it because you know this photo, that moment brought you some type of joy. And it was really beautiful to see and maybe super emotional."
Gregory had just launched the first installation of his platform's "Designer Series" with Theophilio founder Edvin Thompson: a family portrait-inspired initiative and capsule collection that celebrates the Brooklyn-based designer's Jamaican roots with T-shirts depicting imagery from Thompson's childhood. But the crowdsourcing of Black family portraits from Twitter provided an opportunity to take the concept even further. "That's when I was just like, this needs to be more than just one family, it needs to be all of our families," says Gregory.
So the two creatives decided to expand on their joint capsule and make it completely personalized by allowing more people to be included. Customers will now be able to send in their own family portraits to be made into a custom tee with Theophilio's crystal logo emblazoned on the front. The "Family Portrait II — "Family Reunion" T-shirt" retails for $178 and can be customized by emailing your photo to firstname.lastname@example.org with your order number.
In reclaiming these narratives, Gregory and Thompson and shedding a light on the long history of photography as it relates to the diversity of the Black experience and how it's been underrepresented in these spaces. The T-shirt, too, is not only a blank canvas but a symbolic tool of how Black people have used it to construct political, aesthetic and cultural representations of themselves and their worlds.
"I think, so often we don't own our own images as Black people," Gregory says. "And when you think of just like throughout history, Black people's images were never really kept by institutions, they weren't kept in museums, they weren't in libraries. And if they were, they were very stereotypical representations of Black life. And through this collaboration and through our family portrait series, we get to see the many variations of our lived experiences and the celebration of that. So this collab was really about the celebration of that."
The original capsule that went up in February during Black History Month completely sold out as the response on social media signaled just how much users have been relating to Black Fashion Fair's approach to storytelling and its ties to the community and culture.
"It's really nice getting to really choose your own stories and how you want it to be told and owning your voice in that," says Thompson. "We really love having that opportunity to merge that relationship with our consumers where we want them to be involved in what we create. This really goes to show the brand's ethos and ideology, how community is very important to us."
To coincide with the release, the duo are hosting an event for Juneteenth, where they're calling it a "Family Reunion" as a celebration of Black stories. "I think our community has been just monetized with black trauma and how everyone is kind of subscribed to that in a way," says Thompson. "I think us bringing this initiative to the forefront, especially in our community, I think it just really initiates more of like a celebration amongst ourselves. And I think that's very important because we need more joy, I think we need more celebratory events, not just Juneteenth, but actually continuing after this."
"To be able to take your family images and literally carry it with you and share it as a visual representation of who you are on your body, that's really cool to me," adds Gregory. "I think that's the best part about this. Because when I'm saying revalue, reconsider the Black family image, I'm talking directly to us, to everyone. I'm talking to white people: we deserve to exist in these spaces, but also you exist in a space and you need to value it too. So it's something for everyone."
Photos courtesy of Theophilio and Black Fashion Fair
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