The wedding industry sells itself with diversity. So why are professional opportunities whitewashed?
There is a surprising absence of Black people’s true spirit within our own wedding ceremonies.
This contrasts the contributions the Black community makes with our take on the Western wedding. For the most part, the Black community follows the “traditional” European blueprint, with possible regional flares here and there.
Apart from the plantation tradition of “jumping the broom” and the reception dance of the “Electric Slide,” a Black wedding typically does not stray far from the classical framework. This is mainly due to the lack of individuals in the wedding industry that can inject the style, culture, and originality that the community is known for when interpreting inherited social institutions.
In Kansas City, a growing number of Black professionals are beginning to fill these voids. In turn, providing a much-needed injection of self-awareness to create something fresh, new, and distinctive of KC Blackness.
The binding of two individuals in matrimony is one of the most important and revered life events a person will experience in most cultures, races, and religions. Exchanging sacred vows and symbolic precious items joins two individual lives into one. The ceremonial sacrifice of both participants to create something new, with friends and family to bear witness to the eternal expression of their love, is a celebration that has evolved over generations and eras. In western culture, weddings have expanded into a sprawling multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S. alone.
Avion Wallace—a local event designer and planner who makes up Naomi Lee Events alongside her mother Bertha Harrison—thinks Kansas City needs to catch up to other big cities.
“The Kansas City Wedding game is far behind for the Black community here, compared to other major metropolitan cities around the nation,” Wallace says.
As many in the Kansas City Black community could tell you, weddings happen few and far between. For many, the event is an extravagance in times of economic hardships.
According to Wallace, the average wedding in Missouri ranges from $30,000 to $31,000 from engagement ring to reception party. According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, the average income for a Black household was $45,438. Their white counterparts made an average of $76,057.
A young Black couple in the U.S. would need to spend over half of an average year’s earnings to achieve the ideal image of what we have been taught to be a perfect wedding. For many people within the Black community, our image of what that fantasy wedding looks like is based on what white Western culture made it.
In recent years, those who do have the economic means to put on the full show, with all the traditional aspects, have opted to incorporate as many Black-owned businesses into the production as possible. This is especially true since the increase of spirit to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Then there are those that may come from households where weddings are not exactly normalized. They may find themselves overwhelmed when they aren’t well versed in the intricate pieces a wedding and marriage consist of.
“Weddings are not normalized in the Black community because Black weddings are not normalized in the wedding community,” Wallace says. “Everything we do is from the aspect of us mirroring a borrowed ceremony.”
Wallace also noted the importance of the evolution of vocabulary and terminology that is used in our evolving culture, and being inclusive when it comes to members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their wedding services.
“We have to have a conversation in the industry about those traditional terms that are limiting, and using more general terms instead of bride, groom, bachelorette, bachelor, best man, and maid of honor,” says Wallace.
Wallace mentions her travels from Kansas City in 2010 to North Carolina for her undergraduate degree. From there, she went to New York for her masters, and Atlanta before returning to Kansas City to take care of her mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer. The two were able to use their shared love for event planning to build a deeper connection, eventually forming into a thriving business.
While away from home she was able to see how much further along the Black event scene was in bigger hubs.
“With more Black athletes, celebrities, and entertainers, Black event professionals have more of a chance to get selected for those big events,” Wallace says. “This brings coverage for their work through trade publications and social media shares.”
Here in Kansas City, the Black event scene may at first glance appear limited at best. Although certain specialists for this type of event can be hard to find—like a Black florist or Black-made stationery for invitations—the number of professionals in the weddings and event sector has been filling out over the past few years. Wallace and Harrison had the idea to create a styled wedding shoot of their own—pulling together a number of gifted and underutilized Black talent to show what is in store for this year’s wedding season.
For those unfamiliar, a styled shoot is a gathering of creatives who bring their work together to display the possibilities of work that could come from the collaboration.
“These shoots are big moments in getting your foot in the door to network and build ties among others in your industry but invitations to them are scarce,” says Wallace.
That’s because for the most part, locally, a lot of the connections in the wedding industry are built from long-standing business arrangements. These arrangements are not welcoming for newcomers or the inclusion of Black professionals to expand the field in Kansas City.
For instance, the larger venues in the city are majority white-owned, so if there is a Black couple going through that venue they may be given what is known as a “preferred vendors list.” Someone looking just at that list may think Black professionals are not available in the field. Or, if they are going off the strength of the venue’s recommendation, it may seem as if there are not any qualified Black professionals worth mentioning.
Harrison points out that venues and wedding organizations will “use Black models in shoots. But you will seldom, if ever, see Black creatives behind the scenes, or Black business owners.”
The unwillingness to diversify vendor lists limits the options customers have without doing their own research. It is even harder when there is an ever-present old guard mentality gatekeeping access to the new vendors who are ready to carve out their territory in the market.
For some, it spells unwanted competition toward larger-scale clientele. Wallace and Harrison recount an event they threw for the Chiefs Football player, Frank Clark, for his son’s first birthday party at Fiorella’s Jack Stack.
“From the beginning, we came in, and it’s just like they didn’t want to get us our respect. When we came in with our client, they assumed that we must have been his friend instead of professionals he sought out and hired,” says Harrison. “After planning the event and it going off as a success with a mixture of both Black and white vendors working together in this event, the only businesses tagged via social media by the venue were the white-owned businesses—not even the main people responsible for creating the whole event.”
After moments like this, the team knew there needed to be a change. Instead of waiting for invitations to be included within the events community, they began creating their own Black-owned collective filled with professionals from the community. They began looking to provide quality upscale resources for events such as weddings, while also helping to broaden and expand the culture of Black weddings as we know them.
Styled shoots like this are important for creating the much-needed visibility to show there is affordable cost. A good number of our creatives move to more lucrative cities in various industries, including the events scene, to gain larger profiles in their respective fields.
This lack of mainstream publicity forces many Black creatives in the industry to seek out alternative means to get their work out to the masses. Many of the Black professionals praise social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram for bringing work in.
More recently, the popular app Clubhouse has played a big part in keeping the rather small Black events community connected with their counterparts in Black communities around the nation. So, when certain wedding sensations may take hold, they know about it first. These collectives are immensely important in fostering encouraging and supportive relationships instead of unhealthy competition due to the limited number of clientele in the area for Black event professionals.
When asked what a Black professional adds to the job that a white counterpart might miss, many Black professionals involved with the event said that they mostly add a new frame of thought. With the influx of self-taught innovators looking to bring the Black community something of their own, we can look forward to seeing innovation in the near future like we have never witnessed before.
The team of local Black professionals for this styled shoot is what I can describe, after meeting many of them, as the “Black wedding Avengers.” Bringing together the best, brightest, and up-and-coming individuals in the community to show what they can do. Included in this group are Black photographers, event venue owners, makeup artists, cake decorators, florists, wine sales, and décor professionals. Each brings their own expertise and talents to create an experience that is new to the wedding scene in Kansas City.
As anyone with a basic knowledge of weddings could tell you, one of the most important parts of the event is the photography. Two young professionals from the Kansas City area who participated in the shoot are Shaun’Nita Washington of Golden Image Photography and Myles Vann of Myles V Photography. Both of whom are college-educated individuals who inadvertently stumbled into event photography while working full-time jobs as they pursued their passions on the side.
Both Washington and Vann began their careers in the industry right before COVID-19 hit, bringing the wedding industry to a screeching halt. With the world starting to open back up and smaller, more controlled gatherings are starting to take place, both are finding that many in the Black community are hiring newer, less established photographers as opposed to more experienced, more expensive individuals with a larger portfolio.
For Washington, one of the obstacles is capturing each and every detail of one of the most important events of a person’s life.
“It’s my job to be patient and do everything on my end to make sure that the stress is off of the client on their special day and they know I will do everything to get those memories that they will cherish forever,” says Washington.
Both photographers were lucky enough to study under more established professionals from within the Black community who guided them on their journey. Washington found a mentor in photographer Marie Rood of Lininger Rood Photography, now located in Tennessee, after meeting at an event for business professionals in 2019. Vann gained an interest in wedding photography a year into his career after assisting his fellow Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother, Anthony Robinson, with a wedding.
“[It was] interesting, just learning by seeing the different types of shots and angles he was getting,” Vann says. “[I] just studied the way he was able to create a story with the pictures he was taking”
It can be hard for photographers to find older role models for guidance as many may view the increasing numbers in the field as unwanted competition. The importance of having a Black photographer is vital for the perspective of a Black vision to be captured.
Washington, a young Black woman building experience and defining her style, opposes the traditional, established, white, contemporary style.
“A new aspect and outlook that may be currently missing in local photography. Just a creative style with changes in style as it rapidly happens,” says Washington.
Conversely, Vann notices that his primary clients are those in the Black community, which has become a hallmark of his work.
“My photography can be described as professional and elegant, but also something unmistakably Black,” Vann says.
It also seems to be harder for young Black photographers with limited resources to break into the scene, as funds are a large determiner of the quality you can offer and display. Both photographers have recently established their respective websites, goldenimagephotog.com and mylesvann.com, to maximize online exposure and reach.
Location is a stressful part of the wedding industry for any couple looking to accommodate two separate groups of strangers in a cohesive event. In Kansas City, there are few smaller outlets looking to provide spaces to the Black event market.
One upside of COVID-19 is the need for smaller groups for intimate gatherings. Local business owners like Tanisha Mitchell of Stylez Remedy, Shardea Sheers of Vivid Events KC, and Shahidah Salaam of Life of The Party KC are using these locations to bring a wide assortment of events to the community.
“It’s a family-owned business, along with my husband and children,” says Salaam, an event decorator and owner of two event spaces. “We opened Elegant Affairs event space and The Gallery in 2019, we had to close after the pandemic. But since things have started up, we have serviced around 25 weddings.”
In addition to weddings, Salaam’s business does a fair amount of work with baby showers, gender reveals, and birthday parties. We don’t happen to see a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into any given event. Pulling off successful larger events within the local Black community may consist of collaboration between other Black planners. Professionals in this field understand the need for cooperation to make weddings something classic and distinctive, while also propelling the careers of others in the Black community.
“I always add in my flavor,” Salaam says. “That’s what sets me apart, we add a little bit of seasoning on everything we do in terms of décor. We bring glitz and glam to bring that upscale feel.”
Tynisha Mitchell, who stumbled upon the occupation by accident, began organizing smaller events for friends and family. In her six-year tenure, she has become a major fixture in large-scale luxury events like weddings. Many couples have opted to wait for the world to revert to some normalcy before attempting the already daunting task of planning and executing a wedding, let alone the wedding of their dreams. Even still, Mithcell has continued to hone her skills and elevate her capabilities in these tough times.
“Sales went down due to we are not able to do large numbers, but creativity went up,” says Mitchell, recounting the issues facing the industry with COVID-19 regulations. “We had to do more virtual parties and drive-by baby showers where people set up in a driveway and everything was distanced.”
When reflecting on what set her apart from both the classically trained white planners but also her Black cohorts, she informed me that she is known for her “creativity, detail, and sass. That sass and not being afraid to use less formal, fun colors, or being able to think outside of the box is what sets my brand apart. I go outside of tradition.”
Mitchell is not at all worried about attracting clients to her resources as she has established herself as an innovative, independent visionary. At times that could be a downfall with difficult clients who walk into a consultation and try to bring unrealistic expectations of what an event will consist of given time and budget.
“I want to create an experience for the ones out there who can’t,” Mitchell says. “When I see someone who comes in with every detail already made up in their mind, those are red flags as they have their vision and at times it’s hard for someone else to tap into your vision as you see it completely instead of working together”.
Perhaps one of the most important details for a bride, aside from the dress, will be hair and makeup. A Black woman’s hair is nothing to play with. It takes time, effort, and expertise to deal with, as well as developing the right tonal mixtures for makeup. For Britanni Fontleroy from B.Rich Talks Beauty, beauty is a serious and delicate matter to be entrusted with by any woman on their wedding day. Hair and makeup in the Black community isn’t something that can be easily outsourced to someone outside the community, who may not understand the complexities of working with Black hair and skin.
Originally from Los Angeles, California, Fontleroy moved to Kansas City when her husband changed jobs four years ago. Having been in the makeup game for the past 10 years and starting her own cosmetic line before moving to Kansas City, Fontleroy knew she had something to contribute to the scene.
“I basically picked all these different ideas on how makeup is so important to all the industries. I am self-taught. I am doing this full time and I have been able to collaborate with a lot of different creatives, but I specialize in bridal,” says Fontleroy, who’s created partnerships like the ones with the others featured in the styled shoot. “I work hands-on with a lot of event planners, which we call glam squads, and create these super teams. There is comradery here but there is potential for more of us to come together as Black professionals on mass events to create a shift.”
When discussing the topic of Black skin tones and the complexity of blending, it was understood that outside artists may not know how to work around that. A lot of this also comes with an artist possessing the adequate number of shades that work on Black women of many colors. While the city may not be lacking in Black makeup artists, Fontleroy is looking forward to others getting involved in getting their names in the scene.
“I see the Black wedding scene being big and going beyond what anyone is expecting,” Fontleroy says. “We are doing such new and big projects in our creative expression.”
This, she says, requires access to funds in order to go above and beyond. One way people have been saving money is by altering their catering. Smaller, more confined events call for less food, which means the availability to find smaller, local providers to meet those needs.
One thing most couples would probably not want to skimp on is the wedding cake. The cake, in many cases, is the centerpiece for the whole reception. In Kansas City, Black bakers have applied their craft in all event settings to make edible creations excite any creative imagination.
Kenisha Henderson, the owner of BranedByKCakes LLC, has been baking for three and a half years.
“It’s something I was always exposed to, but I would move away from it and come back to it,” says Henderson, who now bakes full time. For her, there is never an off-season due to year-round cake orders for birthdays, holidays, and any other time people would like to enjoy a delicious treat on their table.
“The hardest thing was making the cakes, it’s a lot of trial and error and learning your way to a point where you just make it look easy,” Henderson says, while laughing. “Some people do want to find a Black cake maker because there are just different, personal preferences for cakes and just the flavors that we are brought up liking.”
Developing a team is a strong hope for Henderson and brings more exposure to the massive undertaking that Black bakers in the field are shooting for, as weddings begin to start back up.
With the increase in numbers of Black professionals in widely known areas like event planning, design, hair, makeup, and photography, there is still a wide gap for smaller services that may be harder to break into.
Take for instance Rodney Thompson of Thompson Designs. Thompson has been in the business of flowers since he was twelve-years-old, and has watched the landscape change in terms of diversity, availability, and need for local florists.
“I used to go and clean up a flower shop after school, sweeping up the floor, dumping the trash, filling pots up with water. It got me $25 a week, which back then was a pretty nice amount for a kid,” says Thompson.
Since then, he has been using his skills as a florist to supplement his income. Flowers are a major part of most weddings, capturing the style and feel of the event while highlighting the fashion and décor. Neighborhood florists have become virtually obsolete as new businesses arise to put the most exotic plants and flowers at your fingertips with a call or online order instead of the in-person guidance offered by those still operating in a changing industry.
“You don’t see many flower shops anymore, let alone any these days ones run by a Black male florist,” says Thompson. “It used to be more of a common trade in the community for previous generations, but has slowly phased out for one reason or another—mostly, I would say, based [on] gender roles for what’s seen as man’s work.”
Thompson breaks down these stereotypes while creatively expanding what he can do with his craft. He decided to capitalize on the “paint ‘n sip” craze, using his knowledge of floral arranging to teach what he calls “Wine and Design”: classes over floral décor while enjoying a glass of wine.
One person in the Black community to contact for wine needs is Shay Philips, the woman behind Godly Fine Wine. Philips stands as one of barely two dozen Black wine producers in the country. Still relatively new, Philips created a large blanket of exposure through her wine and has capitalized on the need for a Black-owned wine producer in the wedding sphere.
“Wine is something that is extremely spiritual to me. In the Bible, it talks about how one of Jesus’s first miracles was turning water into wine. Wine was served at the Last Supper,” Philips says.“Godly Fine Wine came from trying to create a vibe for a community that enjoys wine. The growth that comes from this wine is insane because we hope to be in stores this year.”
In this age we are seeing an increasing number of professionals in surprising places, emerging to bridge the gap for those who want to buy local while buying Black.
This team of Black professionals is taking on the old practices and stylistic norms of the traditional wedding scene and charging headfirst into the battle to make our ceremonies reflective of us.
For too long we have played by a playbook given to us and, out of fear or apprehension, dare not make deviations to the setup. However here in Kansas City, the overall feeling is truly optimistic. Moving forward won’t be moving alone. Together, perhaps making enough noise to get noticed will be the catalyst this movement needs, in order to take flight into a new era of Black wedding excellence.