“How Sway?!” 

You probably know who said this, but do you remember the context? It was 2013. Kanye West was a frustrated guest on Sway Calloway’s SiriusXM show Sway in the Morning. By this time he’d spent his own money trying to launch Pastelle, his storied fashion brand that never came to be. And then spent even more money on a luxury women’s line, DW by Kanye West, which he renamed Kanye West, that lasted for two seasons and showed in Paris in 2011 and 2012.

He was also upset that Nike, which he signed a deal with in 2007, wasn’t giving him more room to create, so he jumped ship to Adidas in 2013. Despite that new partnership, he’s agitated during the interview and calls on bigger companies like Nike, Google, and Walt Disney to invest in Donda, his creative agency, and his ideas. Calloway played big brother during the conversation and tried to offer him a solution.

“Why don’t you empower yourself and don’t [rely on] them and do it yourself?” Sway asks.  

“How Sway?!” Kanye yells before repeating the now iconic refrain: “You ain’t got the answers!” about five times. “You ain’t spend $13 million of your own money trying to empower yourself!” Kanye says. Sway counters, saying he’s spent thousands of dollars to get his clothing line off the ground, and West famously responds: “It ain’t Ralph, though. It ain’t Ralph-level. What’s the name of your clothing line? We don’t knowwwww.”

West’s argument with Calloway was focused on himself, but it told a bigger story about the financial barriers that come with starting an apparel brand, and as with most barriers, they become harder to break down when you are Black—even when you are rich, famous, and highly influential like Kanye West.

Kanye, like many, sees Ralph Lauren as the pinnacle: a more-than-50-year-old global lifestyle brand that brought in $6.16 billion in revenue in 2020. It’s a place most fashion designers don’t reach, but Ralph Lauren and his peers—Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, and Michael Kors—have a few things in common: They are owned by publicly traded companies, backed by massive financial engines, and the founding designers are white. These designers no longer own their brands, but they received the support needed to scale, be acquired and/or go public—much like James Jebbia’s Supreme, which was purchased by VF Corp. in late 2020 for a reported $2.1 billion and is expected to reach sales of $500 million in 2021. They have become, and in the case of Supreme, are becoming, heritage brands and household names in a way Black designers haven’t been able to as of yet.

Ownership within the fashion business is hard for everyone, and with Black people making up 13.4 percent of the US population, it’s expected they have less ownership. But it’s hard to ignore these numbers: According to a 2019 Nielsen study, Black consumers in the US have $1.3 trillion in annual spending power and their purchases have a halo effect that influences all consumers. But according to the US Census, Black people own only 7 percent of the businesses in the US. This poses a big question: Why do Black people own so little of an ecosystem that heavily depends on them to buy and promote its products? It’s a multifaceted issue that involves a lack of knowledge, support, and control along with the fashion industry’s limited perception of Black brands.