George Sully on Success, Legacy, and the Importance of Black History Month

George Sully is among Canada’s most celebrated fashion designers. But the Bata Shoe Museum inductee and designer behind the Starfleet boot in Star Trek: Discovery spent years being overlooked by the mainstream industry, an all-too familiar tale for Black creatives. Hisstatus as an industry legend is well-earned by hard-won, but he is finally getting the recognition he deserves – and with an upcoming Harry Rosen collaboration to boot – and using his platform to uplifting other Black designers in the process.

This summer, following the protests for racial justice, Sully, who co-founded Sully & Son Co. and House of Hayla, recently launched the Black Designers of Canada, an index of Black Canadian fashion talent that now includes 180 designers. His goal is to spotlight and celebrate Canada’s Black fashion talent, shedding light on how racial inequality creates impossible hurdles to mainstream recognition.

Here, Sully tells Sharp about his career, his legacy, and what Black History Month means to him.

George Sully wears the Masai Ujiri x Patrick Assaraf collaboration with Harry Rosen.Sully is wearing a piece from the Masai Ujiri x Patrick Assaraf collection, available exclusively at Harry Rosen.

What has your experience been like as a Black Canadian fashion designer?

 I know that I’ve definitely gotten some wins. But at the same time, you think about it and you say ‘how far would I have gotten if it was already said and finally acknowledged that systemic racism is a thing?’ There are prejudices and racism (surprise!) does exist in Canada. You know that you’re doing really great work, you know that the stuff is premium, you know that it’s deserving, but what’s the disconnect? Why is my counterpart who has half the acumen, half the education getting the opportunities so fast and furious?

My experience as a designer, I’ve never [said] ‘cry for me’ but I’ve always been aware of where I can go and where I cannot go. I don’t have to walk this path knowing that it wasn’t cut out for me, but here I am with the machete cutting through.

And you’re finally receiving long overdue recognition for your work.

[This year] was a great moment, because ‘Oh my god, I’m not the only one, I’ve been saying this my whole life!’ It was such a feeling that the lights were turned on for the first time. Because, did you know that I was the maker of the Star Fleet Discovery boot for Star Trek? Or being a Bata Shoe Museum inductee, you’d never know. My child, I could take him to the museum one day and he could see my product encased in glass. But you won’t know that because it’s like success that looks like me is not covered.

“I’m able to work with great companies and be able to express myself. I don’t think this would’ve happened if the road wasn’t corrected.”

Speaking generally of fashion and our country and inclusion and exclusion and all these things, I say to myself what if I didn’t have that gumption or what if I was notorious or what if I wasn’t go-go-go? What if I wasn’t that person? After creating Black Designers of Canada, it was a powerful thing because I know a lot of people that called me back after it launched and said ‘Man, I was about to give up, I was done. There was just no chance for me here.’ Then all of a sudden when there was an opportunity for photographers, stylists, magazines, movies and just the whole gamut, going through this website, using it as an actual resource pulling these great qualified designers. Now I’m getting these calls [from designers saying] ‘I just got pulled for this shoot’, ‘I got a mention’ or ‘I got an article’ and it was powerful.

Because the truth of the matter is that we uncovered something that was in front of us the whole time and I put it on a platform to say that there’s no excuses to pretend that we don’t exist, like ‘sorry George I tried to look but there’s only 5 designers, am I right?’ There’s actually 180 now on our website. Different, diverse designers. Surprise! They’re not all athleisure! They’re runway ready! I think we only have 7 athleisure brands on the whole site. Which is okay but it’s telling the story of what you thought or the stereotype that Black designers are only that thing when we know that together that we’ve helped build the culture of fashion and we’re integrated: all our stylings, our swag is embedded in fashion. I have an old saying: ‘We appreciate being brought to the table, but it would also be nice to be acknowledged that we helped build the legs on which it stands on.’

What are your proudest accomplishments or career highlights?

I have been doing this for a good 20 years. I don’t know what I was doing but I was doing crazy stuff even back then to get opportunities. Being inducted into the Bata Shoe Museum, that was legacy work for me. When my kid goes and can see his dad’s work and be recognized, I think that was an important part for me.

The Ciroc collaboration was huge for me. Recently the LG was really dope. The Nobis [collaboration] was super dope. All these great things with really great brands that have been established but the difference was I actually got paid what I asked for.

What does success look like to you?

To me, success looks like  being able to feed your family without a question, without any thinking about the next job. I think that what success looks like to me is freedom to work with who you’d like to instead being forced to work for somebody for the cheque. It’s just freedom. And I have that now. I’m able to work with great companies and be able to express myself. I don’t think this would’ve happened if the road wasn’t corrected.

Finally, what’s the importance of Black history month to you?

To be honest, it brings new meaning to Black history because guess what? It’s not 28 days of Black history; we live it 365 days a year. Black history has caught on a new meaning. Instead of celebrating Black history, it’s more zeroing down on the fact that it shouldn’t be 28 days, the shortest month of the year. We should just be highlighted just like everybody else: Canadian first. It should be like ‘he’s a Canadian I’m going to feature him like I would other Canadians’.

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Photography: @shotbymadstillz