George Sully understands all too well the challenges faced by Black designers in Canada.
As a Black designer and entrepreneur who has been part of the Canadian fashion industry for the better part of his life, Sully knows what it feels like to experience racial discrimination in his work.
As the founder of Sully & Son Co. – a premium men's footwear and accessories company – and the co-founder of the women's footwear brand House of Hayla, Sully says he has been blocked from meetings with major corporations, while his white colleagues were invited to the table.
Sully said it's been difficult for Black designers to break into the Canadian industry and gain that initial recognition. He recalls people in fashion – photographers, writers, magazines, store owners, buyers – saying, “I'm always looking for Black designers, but I can't find them. Is there a list?”
After what he calls “designing in the dark” for too long, Sully set out to shine a light on the large community of Black artists by creating that list.
Launch of Black Designers of Canada
To help increase the visibility of Black creatives, Sully founded Black Designers of Canada in June 2020. This interactive online index promotes and celebrates Black artists and designers across the country, giving them a place to express themselves and share their creations.
To establish the platform, Sully put out a call on social media, asking people to nominate their favourite Black designers. The response was incredible. Today, the site features more than 200 Black artists and designers for fashion, accessories, furniture, industrial and more, and continues to grow.
“Before Black Designers of Canada, if you did an online search for 'Canadian Black designer', you'd get two articles – and those were related to Black History Month,” says Sully.
“Now there is a list to prove we exist.”
Black Designers of Canada has been hugely successful for designers of colour, Sully said, adding that designers associated with the platform have received a number of opportunities to showcase their work in film and television, retail, magazines and fashion spreads.
The year 2020 seemed like the right time to launch this platform, as Canada as a country was acknowledging its part in systemic racism.
“You can't work on something if no one acknowledges there is an actual problem,” said Sully. “If we acknowledge it, we can heal.”
Creating more opportunities for Black designers
While there are fashion and design awards in Canada, Black artists have historically been largely excluded. To address this, Sully created the Black Designers of Canada Award of Excellence to reward outstanding work in all aspects of the industry. This includes photography, web design, and e-commerce, among other categories.
“We have to award ourselves because no one else is going to do it,” says Sully “There are people that in any accessible universe would have already been celebrated and awarded. And not just as a token.”
But Sully is quick to add that not all designers receive an award.
“There are specific criteria designers must meet to be considered for an award. Not everyone receives an award just because they're Black.”
Now that the non-profit organization is established, Sully is looking at ways to provide even more support for talent at all levels of experience.
“Webinars and education are very important. If I'm putting these designers in a place where they can be seen, they need to be ready,” says Sully.
“I need to build infrastructure, to have educators from the industry speak to young designers, and even to mid-level and veterans who need assistance.”
People in the design world are already approaching Sully, asking how they can help.
Camesia Smith, Regional Manager, Black Community Business Development at TD, discovered Sully's work and nominated him for the 2021 TD Thanks You campaign. This annual TD program is designed to demonstrate TD's commitment to helping enrich the lives of its customers and communities by recognizing each year a set number of customers who have contributed to helping make the lives of others better by personally thanking them in unique and exciting ways.
This year's campaign is about thanking customers who are spreading positivity and doing extraordinary things in challenging times, without expecting anything in return.
On August 2, TD surprised Sully with a ceremony to unveil a 14-foot wall mural dedicated to him and Black Designers of Canada. Located at Queen and Ossington in the heart of Toronto's popular fashion district, the mural was inspired by the impact Sully has made on the Canadian fashion and design community, and was created to help give more visibility to his work so that he can continue to spread positivity in the community.
He also received a cheque for $10,000 to continue his important work showcasing and supporting Canadian Black designers.
Sully is excited for the recognition and for the positive impact it will have on the organization.
“These designers need exposure, they need meetings, they need placement," says Sully. "I'm happy TD saw me and gave me the opportunity to bring more eyes to the Black Designers of Canada platform.”
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