A conversation with sociocultural fashion expert Kim Jenkins

Kim Jenkins is changing the discussion about the fashion industry and how its social, cultural, and historical influences show up in our daily lives and determine how we “fashion” ourselves.

She is a lecturer, researcher, and consultant that specializes in identifying why we wear what we wear as influenced across the intersections of psychology, race, gender, and economics. Kim believes that there is a purpose and meaning in how we dress and put ourselves together.

What we choose to wear, she says, is an external expression of the sense of purpose we have in our lives. It’s a topic she is passionate about exploring as a way to foster greater understanding and connection.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Kim about how the concept of race influences fashion, why it matters, and how open-mindedly considering our own and others’ fashion choices can teach us compassion.

Kim Jenkins.
Kim Jenkins

Conversation as a vehicle for connection

Kim approaches her work with what she refers to as a broad perspective of fashion: “I scale-out into the bigger picture — to the way we think about things, the way we connect. How we can draw connections between how we present ourselves and put ourselves together? And, how that aligns with our identity, the way we see ourselves, how we wish to be seen, and how we’re just always working on ourselves.”

Contrary to popular belief that the fashion industry is navel-gazing, Kim is more curious about co-mingling with communities outside of the industry to share her insights. She thinks that’s where awareness and change can indeed happen. By starting conversations around fashion choices and what they communicate (or what we may think they communicate), we can build bridges with others to come to better understandings.

Kim speaking at the traveling workshop and lecture series, ‘Fashion & Justice.’
Kim speaking at the traveling workshop and lecture series, ‘Fashion & Justice.’

“I’ve always been interested in innovation, vision, genius, and productivity. All those conversations that are definitely not discussed in fashion studies…”

Talking about how to put diversity at the forefront of fashion and understanding how it impacts the “Western beauty ideal” is crucial to fostering innovation, Kim says. It is essential to understand the history and development of Western beauty ideals because it is a reason there are marginalized cultures and racial bodies, people who don’t fit in the “whiteness” of the structure.

This is where separateness emerges and where conversation as a vehicle to understand people, even when it’s difficult, is crucial among varying perspectives. Otherwise, judgment without connection continues to fuel secludedness. Kim says: “I’m interested in correcting a lot of those misinterpretations and enlightening anyone to the fact that fashion and conversations about dress have depth. It has a more profound meaning than we consider.”

Kim Jenkins

How race influences fashion

Kim identified that at the heart of “separateness” is the concept of race and how we relate to it. And how we identify with race shows up in how we dress.

“Race is a social construction designed a couple centuries ago to empower one group of people over another…We have “racialized identities” — people who, generation after generation, are told (and then believe) that they are a certain race. We see the vestiges of it in the news in terms of discrimination and how people feel when they see someone who looks different than them.”

Identifying the importance of this connection, Kim decided to create her class at Parsons School of Design — “Fashion and Race.” The field of fashion studies is relatively new (only formed in the last 20 years; nothing specifically regarding “fashion theory” was published until the late ‘90s). Because the field is young and evolving, there is still a lot to uncover about what fashion means on an individual and cultural level and how it affects the way we view and interact with one another.

“It’s a nascent field, and we talk about things like the intersection of fashion and psychology, the intersection of fashion and politics, the intersection of fashion and war…” Kim said. “We also talk about fashion and the shaping or construction of one’s identity. But, one thing I notice that my fellow scholars weren’t addressing (and probably with good reason because it’s a very tender subject) is one key aspect of our identity. That is race.”

Race is an issue she believes is essential for people to address because it is one we all face, whether it’s acknowledged or not. “It would be negligent or foolish to pretend that our diverse group of students at Parsons School of Design doesn’t regularly confront the construct of race in various aspects of their life.”

The objective of Kim’s “Fashion and Race” course is to explore and address the constructed identities that emerge within a racialized context to gain access, visibility, and power. It critically-addresses the historically and socially-accepted standards of identity and value.

Kim speaking at the FIT Symposium, 2018.
Kim speaking at the FIT Symposium, 2018.

Social innovation

Kim took her teachings outside of the classroom when major clothing brands began taking notice of her work in the past year. She started to apply her expertise to consult and help companies identify their “blind spots” and broaden their visions to be more inclusive.

“I’m all about vision and representation, correcting misrepresentation and tapping into the ethos of a brand. What is the kernel of your identity? What is your vision and how can we broaden the vision together?…People think they’re being innovative or visionary and it’s just like the whitest space. It’s just this space that does not have a diverse group of ideas…”

Along with awareness of a need for more diversity within brands, the issue of cultural appropriation, or “cultural plagiarism,” as coined by scholar Minh-Ha Pham, is another timely and complicated topic. Still, Kim says, it’s one that is prevalent in the fashion industry and must be carefully considered.

“When you’re a group of oppressed or marginalized individuals and your material culture, style, food, music, clothing, or hairstyle is taken by someone who is enjoying power — that’s when this becomes a messy situation and where emotions get involved. People become angry and start putting up walls. At the heart of the matter, it’s about power-sharing and profit-sharing, as well as recognition, not misrepresentation. All of those factors are swirling around when people see someone who is in a position of privilege or power wearing something that belongs to a culture that is not their own natively.”

So what is the antidote? Dialogue. We can be too quick to assume the worst and judge other people, she says, rather than being willing to talk and learn. But when we open up the conversation, first with ourselves and then with others, we create space for understanding.

Kim Jenkins

“I believe things can start to be ironed out through conversation. I’m a cultural optimist in that way. That’s what is at the heart of this work…How can we think through these things? What’s the bigger picture? How can we do things better? What’s a more efficient way to do things?”

Talk therapy

When we allow people to work out their ideas for a certain amount of time, it can be therapeutic, Kim says. That’s why she structures her work around dialogue and creates platforms for people to engage in it safely.

Whether facilitating discussions, challenging companies to consider and talk through the limitations of underrepresented classes, or expanding the narrative of fashion history to understand misrepresentation better, Kim leads with inclusivity and compassion to fuel innovation in the fashion industry and our society at large. How should this transformation be measured? Kim says by how it withstands pressure over time and how it improves people’s lives.

“Innovation is the gift of vision, the circumstance of resources, and a unique life experience to know what to do with those things.”

Kim pairs her own life experiences, her expertise, and a particular focus on conversation to create innovation. The power of education and open dialogue creates consideration and comprehension. It helps us to come closer together rather than further apart, something we need more of in our world today.

Kim Jenkins