All the Fashion

Fashion historian and alumna Kimberly Jenkins is helping rewrite a more inclusive narrative of fashion history and guiding brands through the complex intersection of fashion and race.

By Kristin Baird Rattini
Photo credit: Kyna Marie


This wasn’t a fashion faux pas, like wearing socks with sandals. It wasn’t even a faux “fashion emergency” as hyped up on reality television shows. When Gucci found itself under blistering criticism in February 2019 for releasing a sweater excoriated on social media as “the blackface sweater” for its resemblance to the offensive caricature, it was a true fashion disaster for the luxury brand.

Gucci turned to Kimberly Jenkins (’08 BA, Anthropology) for guidance. The fashion historian is dedicated to raising awareness about the social, cultural, and historical influences on why we wear what we wear—and what we shouldn’t wear. At the time, she was teaching a highly praised “Fashion and Race” class at her graduate alma mater, the esteemed Parsons School of Design in New York City. And her passion project, The Fashion and Race Database, was evolving into a vital industry resource on the subject.

“I was invited to have a conversation with Gucci about why these things matter and how to navigate this sensitive moment,” she says. The company flew her to its corporate headquarters in Milan and its Hong Kong office to share her insights into the intersection of race and fashion. “I can’t think of many fashion brands that would open up their doors to academics,” Jenkins says, “so it was great for Gucci to bring me in to introduce these concepts and histories to their staff.”

Jenkins has carved out a unique niche in the fashion world, one that earned her a spot on Vogue Business’ inaugural 100 Innovators list in January 2023. She is bridging the gap between fashion academia and the fashion industry to empower brands to make responsible, mindful decisions about what they create. Through The Fashion and Race Database, her podcast The Invisible Seam, and her consulting firm, Artis Solomon, she is helping create a more diverse narrative of fashion history and leading the conversation on the history and impact of race in the fashion world.


Making Opportunities of Her Own

Jenkins’ distinct career path has been shaped by both self-advocacy and serendipitous timing. “The arc of my career has been defined by knocking on doors and arguing for why my skills and this work can be useful,” she says.

The Invisible Seam
Jenkins’ podcast, The Invisible Seam, debuted to acclaim. (Credit: Curt Courtenay and Lauren Viera at Cadence 13)

She always knew she wanted to go into fashion. While majoring in cultural anthropology with an art history minor at UTA, she seized every opportunity to incorporate fashion into her papers and projects. “My UTA professors were very nurturing and supportive,” she says. “They gave me a lot of runway to explore what I wanted to do.”

As Jenkins was researching graduate school options, Parsons announced it would launch a new graduate program in fashion studies in 2010. “As I read the description of the program as a blend of fashion, anthropology, sociology, and history, it was all me. I was just beside myself,” she recalls.

To strengthen her application, she persuaded the Dallas Museum of Art—which had turned her down for employment a couple years prior—to take her on as a fashion curatorial intern. Her timing was perfect: The museum was preparing to mount its first-ever fashion exhibitions, one on African headwear and another on French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Jenkins gained “a master’s class worth” of invaluable experience at the museum and secured her spot in the second cohort of the Parsons program.


Rethinking Fashion History

Jenkins parlayed her Parsons degree into adjunct teaching positions at both Parsons and the Pratt Institute. Over the summer of 2016, she developed the curriculum for her “Fashion and Race” class, which earned her an award for outstanding achievement in social justice teaching at Parsons. She also returned home to Texas and to UTA’s Central Library to revisit the fashion studies sources she’d used in her undergraduate days and look for new material.

What she found is that research on fashion history beyond the Western canon was scattered and sparse, so she started building her own online library of diverse content and resources. “It became this larger-than-life project,” she says. That project became The Fashion and Race Database, which she launched as a free public online resource in 2017.

“The arc of my career has been defined by knocking on doors and arguing for why my skills and this work can be useful.”

“Fashion history for decades was this arc from primitivity to modernity. Europe was considered where modernity, where ‘real fashion’ happened,” she says. “Now all that is changing with the widespread reckonings like the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, and the continued fight for equality and representation by LGBTQIA communities. We are rethinking fashion history, how we teach it, and how we integrate a broader perspective.”

The database garnered growing attention, including from Ryerson University in Toronto (now called Toronto Metropolitan University), which offered Jenkins a full-time tenure-track position in its fashion program. She used her research funding there to significantly expand The Fashion and Race Database. “It was like moving from an apartment to a mansion,” she says.

The new and improved database debuted June 1, 2020, one week after the death of George Floyd and amid the heightened conversations about racial and social injustice. “The database caught the attention of everyone in fashion who was looking for how to address race and discrimination,” she says. “We received tens of thousands of dollars in donations to The Fashion and Race Database to see it grow.”

It certainly has. Now a subscription service, the database includes thousands of popular and scholarly articles, archived podcasts, and panel discussions. There are original essays and a calendar of upcoming exhibitions and conferences around the world.

“The database is just an incredible gift to students, educators, industry, media, curators, and to all of us who study and work in fashion,” says Ben Barry, the current dean of fashion at Parsons who had recruited Jenkins while the chair of fashion at Ryerson. “What Kim has created provides the foundation and tools to allow everyone to do the work of creating a more inclusive industry of fashion.”


Fashion and Race exhibit. Photo by Kimberly Jenkins.
The Fashion and Race exhibit at Parsons was based on Jenkins’ course of the same name. (Photo credit: Kimberly Jenkins)


Sharing Her Voice and Expertise

Jenkins’ profile in the fashion world remains on the rise. Upon moving back to New York in fall 2021, she interviewed Meredith Koop, the longtime stylist for former first lady Michelle Obama, for an event at the Brooklyn Museum. In February 2022, she appeared in “Riveted: The History of Jeans,” part of the PBS documentary series The American Experience. She discussed how ’80s hip hop artists remixed clothing, specifically denim, to their own style, just as they did music.

“That was so exciting for me,” she says. “I was very much a PBS kid. I was always watching documentaries where you’d see this professor against a backdrop, sitting in a three-quarter position to the camera. I thought, ‘One of these days, I would love to be that professor in front of the camera talking about something.’”

Jenkins was invited to collaborate with the Tommy Hilfiger brand and its People’s Place Program, a cornerstone effort by the brand to “open the door to everyone who has been left out by fashion.” “We brainstormed, ‘How we can bring these lessons to the public in an accessible, exciting, engaging way?’” she says. “We landed on a podcast.”

They signed on with Pineapple Street Studios, one of the biggest podcast production companies in the industry, to create The Invisible Seam: Unsung Stories of Black Culture and Fashion. The six-part series, which debuted in April 2022, celebrates the often-overlooked Black contributions to fashion and explores moments in history when Black Americans demanded respect, challenged norms, built community, and imagined the future, all through what they wore. Topics range from hip hop fashion to Black fashion pioneers like tennis player Althea Gibson to must-read books on Black fashion history.

“The podcast catapulted us into a whole new stratosphere,” Jenkins says. “It felt like my work at UTA, at Parsons, all those stressful moments when I wondered if it was worth doing anymore, suddenly all came together and had meaning. It was really going to move things forward, to push the needle.”

Her work with Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger provided the impetus for Jenkins to launch Artis Solomon, a consultancy that provides companies with bespoke research and insight into fashion history and theory. The firm’s name is a combination of the first name of her paternal grandfather, Artis Jenkins, and the first name of her maternal great-great grandfather, Solomon Williamson. The 19th-century sepia photo of Williamson that hangs on her wall is the same one that graces the consultancy’s website. He gazes into the camera with an intent expression and a large book on his lap. It conveys the importance of knowledge in her family, says Jenkins, and “ties in with the educational perspective I’m trying to advance through Artis Solomon.”

The consultancy has provided history research and cultural insights for documentaries, video games, and other projects. But its most popular service is preventative research.

“People want to know, ‘How can we just not make the mistakes of others?’” Jenkins says. “They want a playbook so they can navigate a certain design or product in this new social climate with a sense of cultural awareness and sensitivity.”

In August 2022, Jenkins left her position at Ryerson to bring that cultural awareness and sensitivity to a wider range of clients and institutions and to devote more time to the ongoing expansion of The Fashion and Race Database. She’s planning to offer online masterclasses and webinars and guided trips to museums to engage a broader audience in fashion history in new ways. “I’m talking with museums and universities around the world, asking teachers and students and fashion brands, ‘What do you want to see more of on the database? How can we help you more? What issues in society would you like us to explore?’”

“Kimberly is right on time,” says fashion journalist Charmaine Gooden, an instructor at Toronto Metropolitan University and founder of the Black Fashion Canada Database. “Fashion is about activism now. It’s about what fashion is doing to make the world a better place. Advocacy matters, and Kimberly is the right person at the right time.” UTA



Throughout the six episodes of The Invisible Seam, Kimberly Jenkins highlights books that are required reading for better understanding Black contributions to fashion. Here are three of her picks.

Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul

by Tanisha Ford (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

“It’s a foundational book for those of us in fashion studies, because [prior to it] we had few historical narratives that centered and substantiated the relationship between fashion, politics, and Black cultural identity.”

Empire of Cotton: A Global History

by Sven Beckert (Knopf, 2014)

“This book is critical for learning about how a capitalist economy was built around both cotton and slave labor. It’s a key book that we keep at The Fashion and Race Database, as it supports our argument that the fashion industry wouldn’t be possible without the exploited labor of our (Black) ancestors.”

The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion

by Antwaun Sargent (Aperture, 2019)

“Perhaps the most Instagram’ed book (due to its gorgeous cover), this book curates and showcases the brightest talent when it comes to fashion-forward photography.”


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