“It was something I was so driven and passionate about,” Joanna Deshay says about breaking into the world of fashion. “I had to do it. It was gnawing at me. So I left corporate America and I haven’t looked back since.”
Deshay grew up in West Africa with a Russian mother and Nigerian father who were both engineers. Because of cultural values, her family viewed fashion not as a career option, but as something that was just for fun, so Deshay knew that designing clothes was going to be a hard sell to her parents. When she reached her late 30s, she finally made the jump, leaving her 9 to 5 job of 15 years to start the Black Russian Label.
In 2009, Deshay entered Phoenix Fashion Week’s Emerging Designer Competition and became one of its first winners. The positive feedback she received gave her the validation that she needed to go back to school again. This time, she would be working towards her Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fashion Design from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
“It got to the point where I was telling my kids, who were 3 and 4 years old at the time, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do what you love,’ but I wasn’t doing what I love. I felt like such a hypocrite,” says Deshay. “It was the scariest and bravest thing I had ever done… No one I really know leaves a six-figure job to make no money.”
Working 50 hours a week and coming home every night to sew was exhausting for Deshay, but she needed to work as much as she could to afford her classes. She traveled back and forth to San Francisco to let professors see her garments, designs and patterns. She made her final leap of faith into the world of fashion after graduating in 2013.
It was then that Deshay created the Black Russian Label, choosing the name to honor her Nigerian and Russian roots. Her collections reflect the collective experience of being biracial, including an amalgamation of different patterns, colors and silhouettes. When she first got started, she found herself constantly cutting fabrics, sewing them together, designing outfits, grafting patterns, marketing, promoting and managing vendors. All the money she made was poured back into her brand.
“In my mind, worlds were always supposed to collide like that in this very harmonious way,” Deshay says. “It really affected the way I see fashion. I really see it [as something] for all. Part of what makes fashion unique and beautiful is getting to really represent your genuine and authentic self.”
Deshay mentored several individual designers and taught classes at the Art Institute in Phoenix for five years. When it closed in 2018, she became an adjunct professor at ASU. Since then, she has taught a wide variety of classes there, including courses on merchandising, manufacturing, fashion technology, intro to fashion, fashion entrepreneurship and capstone projects.
When the Black Lives Matter movement held protests for the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the summer of 2020, Deshay realized the fashion industry was missing a fundamental human connection. For example, Gucci’s Wool Balaclava Jumper was quickly discontinued in 2019 since the company received backlash that the garment resembled blackface. In Deshay’s mind, this demonstrates how frequent instances of racism, discrimination and unconscious bias are in the fashion industry.
This instance was not Deshay’s first time noticing the injustices in the world of fashion. When she became the first woman of color to become Regional Director of a fashion organization, four long-standing white female members who had been with the organization for years resigned from their positions. One of the first workshops Deshay led in her new position centered on diversity, equity and inclusion. The organization fought her on it.
“I remember them saying ‘This is not a thing. I don’t know why we have to play in the diversity arena,’” says Deshay.
The workshop ended up being the largest attended single-month workshop that the organization had ever conducted. The following month, the cover of Vogue magazine read: “Diversity: The hot fashion topic.”
“In fashion, you have to be ahead of the conversation,” says Deshay. “Being behind the conversation is problematic. That kind of validated what I had been reporting all along – we need to be talking about diversity in fashion.”
In addition to evolving the narrative of what is deemed fashionable and beautiful, Deshay recognized a need for further education on fashion as a global business. She wanted students to view fashion as a massive platform that takes place on a global scale. As a result, she began to advocate for a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Fashion class at ASU.
“That’s kind of been my mantra my whole life: I’m never going to complain about something I don’t see, I’m going to advocate and then put in the work to create it,” she says. “That’s why I created the class from scratch.”
Now that her Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion class has been permanently added to the course catalog, Deshay is pushing for it to be required for fashion students pursuing a bachelor’s in Fashion Design or a Minor in Fashion. The decision is riding on class evaluations.
“It can’t just be my fight. It has to be advocated for. This is where that allyship piece is really important. Non-students of color need to be finding importance in it,” says Deshay.