This year, November 13-17, brands like Nike, Gap Inc. and Nordstrom, which is home to a range of fashion brands, to name a few, came to AfroTech and jumpstarted the next generation of their business operations. 3M, the tech materials brand that has offered the fashion world a hand in the creation process, has also sought out the city of Austin, Texas to be relevant in the world of modern technology. Aurora James, the founder and designer of shoe brand Brother Vellies, was invited to a panel to discuss accountability between companies, proposing her Fifteen Percent Pledge program for companies to promote fashion and beauty brands Black and POC as they do the others.
All AfroTech conference guests come as-is, dressed in traditional white-collar office attire. Other tech enthusiasts and career-focused folks wore modern looks, sporting Jordan Brand sneakers, Fear Of God Essentials, or a mashup of the many HBCU relics, school pride with stylish pieces to complement. Fashion is a form of expression and in this context the world of technology shows its reach and its evolution, from dark rooms full of servers and bright screens to benches and outdoor cafés where work is done while inspiration is born around you.
Fashion was at the forefront of AfroTech, no doubt. Founder and CEO of Blavity Inc., and the six-year technology conference – since 2016 – Morgan DeBaun, perfectly showed the relationship between technology and fashion. As an avatar of the metaverse, DeBaun dressed up and found her way to a VR version of the conference in an empty venue, seen on the big stage screens at the Austin Convention Center. With some funny one-liners from her voice heard throughout the convention center and the on-screen avatar, DeBaun would eventually ascend the stage from a backstage ladder. She wore an outfit similar to her avatar of hers, greeted the audience, then encouraged the audience to cross the room to introduce themselves to each other.
DeBaun recalls that moment with humor: “Well, I knew what I was wearing weeks ago. This avatar must match the actual dress I’m wearing. The initial introduction of VR fashion foreshadows the many styles that descended on the AfroTech conference throughout the week. “I mean, the fashion and the effort is amazing. We have so many creators here—we have a ‘fashion cam’ that’s growing because we all dress up,” he says.
DeBaun has a passion for the nuances of career culture and the flexibility of humans to adapt while staying true to one’s individuality, especially in the tech industry, which can sometimes be cashed in or removed from outward expression. He explains these intersections, “you know, we’re proud of how we look: the colors, the vibrancy. And what I really love about AfroTech is that people bring their all and are proud of their culture.
As fashion is a major industry in global categories, the tech world has already seen fashion implementations in the space by innovators like Idriss Sandu among others. “They’re proud of where they come from,” says DeBaun of the AfroTech crowd. “[AfroTech is] more global this year than [it] has ever been and has people from all over the world, which is exciting for me. I’m waiting for the world to be ready for AfroTech to go global and I think we’re getting close. And part of that is definitely fashion and music.
Between panels involving tech guru Aurora James and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, or discussing achieving operational excellence at an e-commerce firm like Gap Inc., the fad would occasionally emerge and attracted the attention of thousands of people at the conference to relate. Music artist BIA, DJ Jasmine Solano and DJ Millie, to name a few, came with their street style inspired looks to perform and play sets for the energetic crowds at the Austin Convention Center.
In a panel with music producer Zaytoven, he talked about how technology helps him create. Recognizing the possibilities, he says, “goes hand in hand. For me as an artist, you have to look like you do. This is what draws me to any artist and makes an artist halfway special. I am very fashionable and best dressed in high school. So, I have to stay on my game on the fly, and as the weather changes and the new fad arrives, you have to be able to adapt.
He describes his early entrepreneurial days in elementary school advising the next generation of artists as a former local barber and church pianist. “For hip artists, they should be able to heal themselves. If you know how you want to look, you should be able to touch up. This is one of the reasons I became a barber, because I want to be cool and always look good. So I can’t wait for a barber. My clothes are too fresh.
He goes on to talk about the tech side of his business as a producer: “I’d like to get into that [Metaverse/Web3] space knowing it will only get bigger and better. I could be on stage and swap gear across the metaverse for three different drum machines. Swapping clothes on stage: I feel this is the future.
Nordstrom’s “Closer To You” program requires the department store to have a fully developed back-end to cater to customers’ clothing tastes with curated selections from their online inventory. These brands, including manufacturer Zaytoven, spent the conference days exploring the many corners of technology while looking for the next tech talent.
Through engagement with the tech community’s innate entrepreneurial spirit and personal sense of style, AfroTech is crafting the formula for a cutting-edge tech community that seeks to improve the engagement between humans and technology.