July 25, 2024

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Fashion Industry Veteran Claudia Swan on How Being a Fair-Skinned Black Woman Impacted Her Life and Career

10 min read
Claudia Swan

Claudia Swan

Born and raised in New York City, fashion industry pro Claudia Swan grew up in Brooklyn but immersed herself in the hip venues and culture of Manhattan as often as she could take a train into the city. After moving to London in 1969 to work for a marketing agency, she found herself at the epicenter of the fashion scene in London’s West End, specifically the iconic Carnaby Street. Her two years in the U.K. set the stage for her future in the fashion industry.

Swan returned to her New York roots in 1971. A year later, she met the love of her life, Ed Swan, and they married in 1977. From 1975-1985, she ran the New York office of a London-based fashion consultancy called Nigel French, Ltd., supervising fashion directors, consultants and illustrators while traveling the globe to work with the firm’s clients.

In 1985, drawing on her greatest assets—her numerous fashion industry friends, contacts and acquaintances—Swan branched out with a partner to open Kaufman and Swan, a headhunting firm that catered to clothing and accessory manufacturers to aid in their search for creative designers and merchandisers. Clients on Kaufman and Swan’s roster included industry heavy-hitters like Liz Claiborne, J.Crew, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

After two decades of living in New Jersey with Ed, Swan relocated to Boston and took a job with Reebok in Canton, MA, where she was responsible for recruiting apparel designers. 

In 2011, she and Ed retired to Sarasota. Today, at 80, Swan is involved in the community here as well as on Martha’s Vineyard, where she and Ed own a summer home.

Tell us about growing up in New York City. 

“I was born in Flushing, the second of four girls, and we moved to Brooklyn when I was about 12. My mother was a single parent for most of my life. With two sisters being 10 and 11 years younger than me, I spent most of my teenage years as a baby-sitter. My mother worked for the telephone company in the evening so she could be home during the day.

“It was a modest upbringing. We didn’t have a lot, but we were OK. I grew up in a Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Because of my fair skin, I looked more Puerto Rican than Black to a lot of people, especially the kids I grew up with. Most of my friends during my teens were Puerto Rican. In fact, I’m still close with one of them, named Eva.”

Who was particularly influential in your youth? 

“My Aunt Jeanne, who lived in Greenwich Village. This was back in the 1950s and ’60s, so she was an early beatnik and lived a progressive life. I’ve always said that she was like my Auntie Mame. She had lots of friends, smoked dope, went to poetry readings and jazz clubs, and would take me along. When I was about 15, I’d get on the subway from Brownsville, in Brooklyn, and go into Manhattan to visit the village. It was a wonderful time. I was exposed to this interesting lifestyle, and it made my aspirations grow as to what I’d want to do when I could afford to do it myself.

“Aunt Jeanne was a jazz fiend and knew a lot of jazz musicians. It was a passion of hers—she could listen to most albums and identify who was on drums, who was on bass, etc. One of her best friends was the jazz singer Betty Carter, who said to me, ‘Live every day, but don’t be greedy.’ To me, that’s the best advice.”

How did Aunt Jeanne inspire you? 

“I wanted more than a Brownsville/Brooklyn lifestyle. I got out to see what was happening in the world, especially in Manhattan. Some people who lived in the suburbs, or a particular public housing community, never went into the other parts of the city. They could get stuck in that one area.

“We lived in public housing, and there wasn’t anything culturally interesting to do. If you didn’t get out, that was your lifestyle. Because of the exposure Aunt Jeanne gave me, I had other experiences to look forward to.

“It made me realize that there was more to life. For instance, in high school I had a part time job in the Brooklyn Heights public library, which was the most interesting area of Brooklyn at that time. When I started working there, I knew it was where I wanted to live. As soon as I could, I got an apartment in Brooklyn Heights.”

Tell us about an experience with racism.  

“In the late ’70s, I was in a taxi with a friend on our way to the King Tut exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Someone in the car next to us was asking our driver for directions, but he didn’t respond. I thought he didn’t hear them, so I said, ‘They’re asking you directions.’ He said, ‘That’s OK. I’m not going to answer; they’re just [n-words.]’

“Now, my friend is Asian American, but the driver didn’t realize that I was Black. She looked at me and asked, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘The least we’re going to do is not tip him.’ But I took down all his information. When we didn’t tip, he called us every name under the sun. When we got back to the apartment and told [my husband] Ed, he immediately got on the phone and called the taxi commission, and we got a date to testify.

“The day we went to testify at the taxi commission, it was snowing, and I was going to London that night. I could have passed. But Ed said—and I appreciate this so much—that we were going. So we went and testified while [the driver] was in the room with a union lawyer.”

How about when you were a kid? 

“I didn’t experience racism as much as I experienced not being included with the other kids, especially in the Black community. I was always looked at like, ‘Are you sure you’re Black?’ I was not really accepted, except, obviously, with my friends and family. And I have the fairest skin compared to the rest of my siblings, so I’ve always looked like the odd one out.”

How did that make you feel? 

“It made me much more insular. I was quiet as a child and read a lot, while my sisters were rambunctious. I felt more isolated. For example, I remember being at a new junior high school, and when the instructor gave me some directions, I didn’t say anything because I was listening and understood what she was saying. I was so quiet that she asked, ‘Do you speak English?’

“I feel somewhat insincere complaining about things, because we were blessed. I had food on the table, a home and people who loved me. It was a difficult but not totally unhappy childhood.”

The Oprah Winfrey Network created a documentary called Light Girls that reveals a question that light-skinned Black women are always asked, which is, “What are you?” Did you get asked this? 

“Yes, I have experienced exactly that. In fact, it happened recently here in Sarasota. Ed and I were having lunch at a new restaurant, when the waiter approached us and asked me, ‘Are you Greek, Spanish, Italian or Jewish?’ I said, ‘I’m none of those. I’m African American.’ He said, ‘Well, you don’t look it.’

“First of all, the question was totally inappropriate. Then, his response was insulting. You don’t look it? I don’t need you to tell me how I look. White people are comfortable saying just about anything.

“Last year, at a dinner party of six on Martha’s Vineyard, the white man sitting next to me asked, ‘What made you decide you were Black?’ This was an educated man, a physician, who should know diplomacy and have at least some skills as to how to deal with people.” 

How did you respond?

“I said, ‘Well, I was born into an African American family.’ The facts are the facts. He acted like it was my decision—obviously, it wasn’t. But even if it was my decision, I would have made it.”

Does it still shock you when this happens? 

“It still shocks me because you would think that people are more sophisticated now—that they’ve seen enough people of different hues. So why question what someone is?  If you ask what their ethnicity is, when they respond, just accept what they say, as opposed to saying, ‘Are you sure?’ or ‘You don’t look it.’ That’s insulting.

“It’s also surprising because it seems like something people would have said in the ’60s or ’70s, but not now. And what’s interesting is that [the people who ask those questions] never apologize.”

Does your fair skin impact your life as an adult? 

“I have felt not fully embraced in many situations with Black people because they do not think that I’m Black, so they don’t include me. For example, many years ago, Ed and I went to a Black wedding in North Carolina. I got there a day before Ed, who was on a business trip. I went up to hotel’s hospitality suite for the wedding guests. I was asked, ‘Can I help you?’—implying,You don’t belong here.’

“There’s an unknown quantity about my fair skin, so assumptions are made. I’ve felt it all my life. I’m so pleased when I’m embraced, but there are times that I’m not because of it. That is not a ‘woe is me,’ statement; I’m very blessed. It’s just the truth of the matter.

“Speaking of assumptions, I have a wonderful photograph of my mother and me that I have in Ed’s and my home in Sarasota and on Martha’s Vineyard. When people come for dinner, it’s in a prominent spot. I proudly say that’s my mother so they know.”

Claudia Swan and her mother.

Claudia Swan and her mother.

You were involved in a turning point in the fashion industry. Tell us about your role—and if the industry as glamorous as it seemed during your tenure.  

“It was a job initially, then it became a fascinating career. The fashion industry was very vibrant then. It was exciting and people would do anything to be in it and stay in it. But the industry was going through many changes when I entered, not the least of which was AIDS. It had just been identified, and affected a lot of designers like Willi Smith, who introduced streetwear to the catwalk. They died, and it was only whispered about.

“I remember talking to a gay designer who was not happy with his job. He said, ‘I don’t care about the next shade of navy. We’re not looking for the cure for cancer or AIDS. That’s what’s important.’

“Also, when I first entered the industry, there were many family-run businesses and that was different because even though the brands were large and successful, they were still run like mom-and-pop shops.”

How did you tap into trends?

“I lived in London, working for an advertising agency, when Mary Quant and miniskirts were in. Carnaby Street was where we’d get inspiration. It was a time when none of us had a lot of money, but the women I worked with would have one good outfit and it didn’t bother them to wear that outfit every single day because it was the fashionable look, and they weren’t going to not be fashionable.

“My boss had the theory, and it was a good theory, to have his people on the road to spot what the fashionable people were wearing in places like San Tropez on the beach in June. We’d take photographs of what interesting people were wearing and store windows, and then do sketches. We’d return and change it a little bit then introduce it to our clients.

“Also, we’d tap into lifestyle things that were happening—for instance, hip-hop music or trends at museums and galleries. For example, if everyone was talking about the King Tut exhibit at The Met, maybe you’d suggest some contemporary Egyptian designs.”

We talked about racism in your personal life, but did it affect your career? 

“People didn’t know. When I was working at the consulting firm, they saw a white woman when they looked at me. But I didn’t hide [that I was Black]; they never asked.  If I ever was asked, I responded with the truth. But people just assumed I was white.

“When I was a head hunter in the fashion industry, for many years I would mainly interview designers. Some would say the most racist things while showing me their portfolio. And these were people who wanted me to like them because they wanted me to help them find a job. But they didn’t know that I’m Black.

“I would stop the interview and say, ‘I’m not going to find you a job. You’re so offensive, let’s not waste our time.’ I would say, ‘I’m African American, and you’re offending me, so let’s stop the interview.’ After that, I wasn’t going to work to find them anything.

“What happens with me being fair-skinned is that I hear the racist feelings that people really do believe and what they’re saying to their friends.”

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

“I want them to be reflecting on the times that racial equality was in the forefront and show their displeasure on how the country has regressed.” 

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill.


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