Could Ellianna Placas Have Been Successful At Essence?
Rachel Tension, our newest contributor, is an impossibly gorgeous multicultural style obsessive with a PhD in race relations from the School of Hard Knocks. In her third piece for Styleite, she analyzes the real reason why Essence’s first white fashion director was let go after just two short years.
Ellianna Placas’s appointment as the first white fashion director at Essence two years ago caused a firestorm of controversy and protest. But commentary on her firing from the magazine this week has been fairly restrained. And that’s probably because her departure proves the point of those original protests: that, unfortunately, there was no way a white woman could do that job.
An unnamed source told Page Six yesterday that Australian-born Placas was reportedly let go because she and editor-in-chief Constance White “had different visions for fashion coverage.” Placas, who had been a stylist for Life & Style, O, The Oprah Magazine, and House Beautiful, specialized in the kind of aspirational imagery you see in ad campaigns for American luxury sportswear brands. (Above, see Selita Ebanks getting off a chic private plane in the fabulous Cayman Islands with a gorgeous man and even more gorgeous luggage from Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss in the February 2011 issue. Adjusted for accessories and melanin levels, it could easily be a Michael Kors campaign from the early aughts.)
Placas’s aesthetic is charming and clean — and even almost award winning. While she hasn’t commented on getting canned, she has updated her LinkedIn page to note that she’s no longer at the magazine, and also points out that “2011 saw Essence nominated by ASME for the National Magazine Awards in the fashion and lifestyle category in the company of Vogue, W, Real Simple and Women’s Health.”
Good company to be in, sure. But those magazines don’t focus specifically on black women — they portend to focus on all women, while really (let’s be honest) finding artful ways to sell stuff to white ladies with disposable incomes. And if Essence’s fashion pages looked like Placas inserted a few dark-skinned models into, say, a spread from Lucky, then she wasn’t doing her job.
It all boils down to this: Can a white woman understand how black women see fashion? And more importantly, can a white woman understand how black women see the world? The answer to both questions is a big, fat, ringing, no. Essence and other magazines dedicated to black women — like Ebony, and American Legacy, and Sister 2 Sister — were all founded because traditionally white magazines excluded them, either out of indifference or fear to speak to them.
Unfortunately for Placas, understanding your target consumer is a key part of creating a relevant product for them. Sure, Placas could take trends and make them look great on models, but could she really ever translate that into a viable working knowledge of the way black women dress and consume fashion? I’ll hazard to agree with Justin Fenner, Styleite’s former Fashion News Editor, in his assessment that “Placas will never fully understand a black woman’s point of view.”
Because of that, while she may have done a good job in her two years at the magazine, she might never have done a great one. And Essence’s readers surely deserve the absolute best out of one of the few magazines that strive to make them feel like fashion belongs to them.