How a Queer Black Feminist Cultural Engineer is Turning Fashion Into a Movement

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday March 6, 2021
Originally published on February 21, 2021

Levi's x Fresco Steez
Levi's x Fresco Steez  (Source:Shaniqwa Jarvis)

Fresco Steez doesn't work with tulle. She's not reinventing a classic silhouette or winning the unconventional materials challenge on "Project Runway." But with a rapid-fire mind that can contextualize the intersection of fashion, politics, systemic racism and cultural identities, she is sending a clear message to advocates, allies and even oppressors: what we wear matters. Steez describes her new collaboration with Levi's as a representation of Black Culture, Black political history, and Black art and design.

Born on Chicago's South Side to a mother whose multidisciplinary work in art and design would lay the foundation for her future, Steez grew up with the firsthand experience of "being raised on the refund you check you get from student loans," witnessing her nephews placed in and out of foster care due to her sister's schizophrenia and visiting uncles at Cook County jail.

"All of these different intersections of identity, of course, created a specific and unique experience for me as a young black person on the south side of Chicago," Steez tells EDGE. "I found myself looking at the Disney Channel and feeling like, 'Why does it look like there's so much ease in the lives of the families that I see on TV, but there seems like there's a glass wall in between their experiences and the experience of myself and other Black folks in my community?'"

As a teenager, Steez channeled that energy into community organizing and began to form ideas about the systemic issues facing the Black community and what it might take to fix them. But it wasn't until years later, after her mother's death, that Steez more cohesively considered how art could be integrated into her work. She observed that, often, community organizers didn't have the creative spirit to design the new world they wanted to build. Artists didn't have the political analysis to connect their work to what was happening in marginalized communities.

The memories began to flood of time with her mother, who, despite being disabled, loved carpentry work and invited Steez into that creative process, "painting the future that we would build," she recalls.

Steeze co-founded BYP 100, a Chicago-based Black youth project grounded in community organizing, social justice and Black, feminist and queer issues. In 2020, she moved to Los Angeles and began networking but quickly pivoted at the coronavirus pandemic's onset, channeling her energy into digital strategies for the Black Lives Matter movement. She also designed the "Stop Killing Black People" mask, thousands of which were confiscated by law enforcement officials before their shipment to Minneapolis.

Steez describes the mask, as well as one that read "Defund Police" as functional pieces of art and design. "People could wear and illustrate their values and it started conversations," Steez says. "It was important that we reallocate police budgets to something more supportive to marginalized communities, especially in a pandemic. And all of that work led me to this collaboration with Levi's."

Steez considered a multitude of historical contexts and how we interact in today's world to create the Levi's capsule collection that acutely references moments in Black history but also encourages dialogue.

"You don't have to be the same identity as me. You don't have to have the same experiences that I've had throughout my life. But what I do know and can trust is that we have a similar shared vision for what the future likes looks like for our people," says Steez. "We might have different GPS systems in getting there, in getting to the promised land, but the promised land is a shared destination. I am willing to be in political debate with you. I'm willing to be in constructive critique. Heavy criticism. I am willing to politically struggle as long as we can reconvene on the idea that we have a shared vision for our communities."

Denim, Slavery and the Fabric of Change

Cultural architect and Trap Heals Founder Damon Turner.
Cultural architect and Trap Heals Founder Damon Turner.  (Source: Levi's x Fresco Steez)

Steez shares that denim, which over the centuries has become an iconic American material, is rooted in slavery, saying, "I appreciate Levi's making the space for me to say that Black people invented denim — and I want everybody to know that."

From the indigo-dying tradition of Nigeria's Osogbo people to the exploitation of slave labor in the Deep South, then later sharecroppers and Black tenant farmers, denim evolved from a material that exploited labor to one that empowered change.

"Black political struggle is one of the anchoring factors and what popularized denim in this country," says Steez. Denim's presence was seismic at the 1963 March on Washington and decades later at the Million Man March. From Woodstock to protests against the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam to the Black Lives Matter movement, denim has been at the forefront of freedom of expression and social justice.

Steez turned to several key moments in Black history for the Levi's collection, including the Haitian Revolution, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power, among others, to create a visual tapestry that delivers high-impact visibility through symbolism and typography.

"I started with, 'How can I connect for folks that all of these political movements lay the foundation for each other?' All of these things are connected," says Steez. These young Black people are out on the streets because the Black Panther Party took to the streets in the 70s. They Were able to take to the streets and advance on the political analysis of the Civil Rights Movement. And the Civil Rights Movement, they were able to make advancements on a movement before them. What I wanted to do in this collection is connect all these different political movements as a large arc of political struggle for Black folks. It's no coincidence that folks are fighting for what they're fighting for today. It's a long fight that didn't start in 2013."

'We Have to Expand the Storytelling'

Steez has long explored political struggle through a Black, queer feminist lens and brings that vantage point to the Levi's collection with a "Stonewall is Black History" patch. She says it's only been in the past decade that there's been a larger movement to reconsider that police violence only happens to Black men and boys.

"We have to get expansive across gender. If we are making an assessment, we have to actually do some analysis on who gets prioritized when we're talking about violence against Black people. We have to design a Liberation that doesn't just look like My Brothers' Keeper," says Steez. "An expansive solution that encompasses the Black trans woman doing sex work; the Black single mom that's the head of her household that isn't getting paid a living wage; the young queer folks experiencing violence on their campuses and have no community to turn to for protection. To expand those solutions, we have to expand the storytelling, which means that you have to understand that there were black Trans and queer folks on plantations experiencing an entirely different set of abuses."

Steez acknowledges the now-famous Black LGBTQ social justice leaders that worked in tandem with other movements. "You can't talk about Martin Luther King without talking about Marsha P. Johnson," she says. "You can't talk about the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas, or the Young Lords without talking about Sylvia Rivera — you can't talk about all these different political movements of the 90s without talking about Act Up. Don't try it. We can assert that "Black Trans Lives Matter' and organize young queer folks to build on the work of Marsha P. Johnson; because that brick got picked up and thrown. I'm about telling the full truth. That patch and that design are about telling the full truth of Black history and Black History Month."

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.