I am sitting within the emptied dining room of Freds Downtown, engrossed in a conversation around the subject of inclusive beauty in the luxury market, when a light tap on my arm steals my attention away. Beauty editor and influencer Kahlana Barfield Brown is trying to get my attention and begins motioning at my mouth. Unbeknownst to me, my red-stained pout has entrapped a small piece of lint, and the stunning beauty expert is subtly bringing it to my attention. I swiftly remove it and search her eyes to see if my lipstick is in place. She nods in approval, and I smile at her generosity.
We’re on camera, after all—recording the first installment of the Barneys In Conversation series just in time for Black History Month—and any flaw can be picked up by the lens. Still, I can’t help but think that this small gesture is an example of the intimacy and black sisterhood that is quickly forming between the women who have gathered here.
Sitting around a marble corner table, myself, Brown, Essence Fashion and Beauty Director Julee Wilson, Yahoo! Beauty Director Dana Oliver, writer and independent curator Kimberly Drew, and noted celebrity stylist Nikki Nelms go deep, quick. There is no time for diplomacy or to mince words—we needed to tackle the most urgent matters of the day: diverse product development in the post–Fenty Beauty era, cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation, how to engage the black beauty customer who happens to make up 85% of the U.S. beauty market, and the discrimination faced while working on set as a hair pro. Although we all come from different realms of the industry, the shared experience of mitigating black beauty, either in our personal or professional lives, created a unifying spirit that had us nodding, murmuring, and gasping in unison all morning. “It’s this universal experience of being a black woman: We see each other in ways that other people don’t,” Wilson explains passionately. The beauty expert was the moderator for the morning and affectionately dubbed the talk #BrownBeautiesAtBarneys. “You don’t know a black woman’s story by just looking at her, but there are shared things that she probably understands. Like getting a press, getting burned by the curling iron or hot comb, sitting in a chair for hours upon hours under the dryer, whatever it is. Whether it’s celebratory things or messed up, we all know we have universal truths that bring us together.”
And certainly the recent offenses that have rocked the fashion and beauty spheres this past month have made it very clear that black creatives within the luxury space must remain vocal about the changes we wish to see. As Brown explains to me after our talk and photo shoot dispersed yesterday, “I feel like this conversation can’t stop. I feel like this conversation needs to keep happening in order to see results—we have to keep pushing.” Already an in-demand speaker on the symposium circuit, Brown was so happy to see the beauty space taking on the topic of inclusivity just as passionately as fashion has. Drew agreed, adding, “The round table was a powerful opportunity to see what can happen when underserved groups in the beauty space get a chance to be heard.”
Distinct in its coverage, the conversation also felt like a telltale sign that Barneys was invested in bringing on more diverse beauty options for its consumers, especially after the wildly successful in-store and online launch of natural haircare line Brown Butter Beauty this past fall. The batch-made brand was the first of its kind to be sold at Barneys and was scouted by Social Media Manager Candace Stewart, who teamed up with Nikki Nelms to produce an original shoot for The Window that paid homage to black hair and introduced Brown Butter Beauty to Barneys shoppers. The line soon sold out four times over. “I feel like Barneys is taking the steps to see us, to cater to us, and so if this conversation can bring in and enlighten other retailers to help serve my community then I am so here for it,” says Brown.
In fact, it was the momentum of Brown Butter Beauty that prompted the Barneys team to launch the Barneys In Conversation series during Black History Month. The event came together quickly and organically. “In the meeting they were like, ‘Are you sure you can pull together people quickly before you go to Europe?’ I was like, ‘Oh we’re going to do this!’” Stewart laughs. “Every single woman we reached out to is someone I feel personally affected by in the industry. They are really pushing the needle at their job or stepping out to do their own thing. It was such a good representation of different areas in the industry as well.” From the editorial to the beauty pros to the art world, each influence was felt throughout the conversation that flowed—not to mention, the substantive takeaways.
Ending the conversation by asking us all to offer solutions, Wilson wanted to promote a feeling of progress and strategy. “I’m not about ‘canceling’ [brands], I’m about change,” she explains. “I think you can call people out and it be more for change than shame. So I think we need to keep places accountable for their actions. If you need to be dragged, then you need to be dragged. If you don’t, you don’t. But I think it’s on us to keep saying, ‘You didn’t get this right and this is how you should do it,’ and offer a solution.”