A Conversation with: Charmaine Gooden of Black Fashion Canada
Canada has a storied past in the world of fashion, one that has been well-documented. What has often been left out of these tellings is the work of the important Black and multiracial Canadians who were industry pioneers. Enter Black Fashion Canada, a database founded by Charmaine Gooden that started as part of a Facebook discussion group in 2021, to document Black and multiracial trailblazers from the 1960s to the 1990s in the world of fashion. This includes under-acknowledged models, muses, designers, photographers and makeup artists who accomplished greatness despite facing systemic racism.
As a journalism instructor at Toronto Metropolitan University, Gooden engages young journalists and gives them the opportunity to document history through contributing work to the database, such as profiles like that of designer Winston Kong, or of model and author Ethné Grimes-de Vienne.
We spoke with Gooden about Black Fashion Canada, its inception, significance and where she hopes to take it in the future.
Tell us about your career. Why did you join the world of fashion journalism?
I was good at English in school, but I couldn’t study English as a profession so journalism was the alternative. I’m a reader, and readers are writers, so I have always had that ability in me. As far as fashion is concerned, I have always loved it. From my upbringing growing up in Jamaica, in the West Indies, and in Black culture, fashion is very important. We paid attention to style. I knew what it was like to have clothes made by a dressmaker because there was that tradition. I graduated from Carleton University’s journalism program, and that time, from the ‘80s to ‘90s, retrospectively turned out to have been a golden era for fashion in Toronto, and the world at large, so it was a perfect time to enter into the field.
What inspired you to start the Black Fashion Canada database?
As an instructor at TMU, I was always calling on American references. You wouldn’t know that there had been all these Black and multiracial people that were bringing their talents to the fashion industry here in Canada. I was also inspired by the racialized students who I taught. They would come to me and say things like “because I saw you, I went further,” or, “because I saw you, I saw more possibilities for myself.” I think they were saying that they finally saw someone who had made a career in this country’s industry. I thought I needed to let my students know the shoulders we stand on. I wanted them to know that there is a heritage and a foundation here.
How did you pitch Black Fashion Canada to the powers that be?
Well, TMU fashion professor Kimberly Jenkins, had set up The Fashion and Race Database in 2017, a library of resources that provided a better understanding of the world’s history in fashion. I was so inspired, and I knew that her data was important because it was being used by the school’s fashion department. The only issue was that there was no Canadian content, it was primarily American. In speaking to her, she really encouraged me and said “go for it.” Fortunately, I also have a good relationship with Asmaa Malik, who was the journalism department’s Associate Chair, so when I told her about this project, she was on board. We integrated it into the Fashion Journalism class, and the work is just really, really amazing.
This database is meant to serve as the first round of research for a lot of the people who are profiled. How did you go about finding everyone that the students were introduced to?
That was my time in the industry. The ‘80s to ’90s golden era, I lived a lot of that, so I know who the players are. I know the true stories. It is for that reason that I am doing the fact-checking. Nobody can get a thing over me because I was there and they know that I know the truth. I also have the contacts, and the level of expertise to reach out to people. I truly am the person for the job.
What has the general reaction been since the database launched?
Peers come to me and say “great idea Charmaine, these stories are so important.” Everyone is so encouraging, saying that this information is vital because it doesn’t exist. I feel like I am the right person at the right time, and it is just so nice to be caught in the flow of something that can help move you along because it’s a challenging project. I got to meet with people over this past holiday season who would say, “Wow we had no idea,” and “Thank you for doing this,” and to tell you the honest truth, that is the reward I’m looking for.
Where do you hope to see Black Fashion Canada go from here?
I want to keep it growing. I want to move this across Canada. Right now, I have been doing Ontario and some of Montreal, but I want to branch out. I’m researching to see if someone else has done this for Halifax, Winnipeg, or Vancouver to potentially collaborate with them. I also have the second edition of this to work on. My class this past fall compiled 24 profiles, so I’ll be working and fact-checking this edition to have it published in June. This Black History Month I have been booked to do a number of speaking engagements, some with universities, some corporate, and what I’m finding is that a lot of corporations now have someone who is focused on diversity and inclusivity within their structure. Within our stories, we talk about the barriers, and what the industry was like back then, and I have this data to use to then say that, unfortunately, so little has changed. So the work in the database really is the foundation.
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Thomas Publow is a contributor at Glossi Mag. Currently finishing his degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University, Thomas considers himself an expert in all things VMAs and Beyoncé.