As she was putting together her portfolio collection during her last year as a fashion student at Parsons School of Design, Najla A. Burt called her mother for help. She needed to come up with a name for her clothing line.
“We had a conversation around why she should not make her label her name,” Cynthia Burt, Najla’s mother, recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast. “We talked through the legal thing of not making your name the brand, because there are so many avenues for people to sue you personally. But beyond that, Najla said, ‘We’re not going to say or make anything public about the fact that we’re Black.’”
Sure enough, social media posts from the brands early days show off the clothes, not the women behind them. “If you go back and look, you won’t see any pictures of us,” Cynthia said. “We deliberately wanted people to make their own judgments about who they thought we were. Are we French? Are we European? [Staying out of the limelight] worked for us.”
Najla ultimately settled on a name: Dur Doux, the label she and her mother have run out of Washington, D.C., since 2013. She serves as creative director for the line, and Cynthia is vice president.
The name is a direct translation of “hard soft” from English to French. “Those two basic words were the way that I designed my entire time at Parsons,” Najla said. “There was this softness and the elegance of the fabrics I chose, and then there was a completely different side with this edge and rawness.”
Najla, 41, creates looks that are pure fantasy, layers of puffy tulle skirts made tough with a surprise cut-out or shock of neon coloring. The pieces unabashedly ooze glamour, which feels like a form of protest given that the label is based inside the Beltway, a region not necessarily known for style.
Even in the wake of a pandemic, where sweatpants are sold out and the fashion world is a mess and a half, the Burt family still banks on the endurance of what they describe as “relaxed luxury.” It’s what they have built their spring collection, which will be their New York Fashion Week debut, around.
“We grappled a lot with what we could do going forward in 2020,” Cynthia said. “One of the things we latched onto is the idea of trying to make yourself feel good and chic right where your life is. We’re bringing the whole style thing down a level and making it more real for the life that we’re facing.”
For the spring collection, the Burts asked their social media followers a question: Where would the Dur Doux woman go if she were allowed to travel? What would she wear?
“We wanted to all think about the places and adventures we’d like to have, but not take things into a realm of being delusional,” Cynthia explained. “It’s not the full tulle gown, but we used a hint of tulle here and there.”
When the mother/daughter team spoke with The Daily Beast two weeks before their fashion week debut, the pair were busy putting finishing touches on their pieces.
The designs were created at a home studio in Arlington, Virginia, where Najla and Cynthia are quarantining. Though they work with a contractor and seamstresses based in New York, visiting the city during the pandemic felt too risky. So they made do with Zoom calls and phone meetings, creating a collection with a team they have never met in person.
Dur Doux will show at a NYFW unlike any other; there is a scarcity in the lineup, and with heavy-hitters like Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Pyer Moss taking a season off, and the calendar has been shortened.
Most shows, including Dur Doux, will be digital. It is not the traditional way the pair thought they’d be showing—but then again, the Burts doubted they would make it this far to begin with.
“It’s somewhere we have always wanted to be, and thought about year after year,” Najla said. But after applying for a slot on the CFDA’s calendar for three years and getting rejected each time, they stopped trying.
“Most designers have that process of being tested,” Cynthia said. “We both got to the place where we felt like the clubs and the circle was too tight, and we’d never be let in.”
The Burts say they were contacted by the CFDA, a fashion trade group and one of the main organizers of NYFW, in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The CFDA has been criticized by activists for a lack of equity in its ranks and for what many see as performative activism.
“I think the CFDA contacted us with a true degree of genuinely caring about the lay of the land for Black designers,” Cynthia said. “We needed to have a very, very, very frank dialogue with the CFDA. There was a very genuine, heart-wrenching conversation with Steven Kolb [the president and CEO], and it just went from there.”
The conversation touched more than just their lives as Black creatives in the fashion industry. “I spoke about being at Florida State University, marching on the university president’s office with my husband, when I was seven months pregnant, and having policemen [use] pitbulls and tear gas [on protesters],” she said.
“These are the things most white people in the professional realm don’t want to hear. They want to hear about how you were an exceptionally intelligent person and earned two full scholarships for college. They want to hear that you had a life like theirs, that your journey has been like theirs. They don’t want to hear about the real journey.”
But Cynthia feels that the CFDA’s interactions with them have felt “genuine, authentic, and professional.”
“It gives me hope that we are not lost as a society in a place that we can never come out of,” she said. “We’re thankful for that.”
“I saw my mom just kind of bubbling with creativity, and it definitely wore off on me”
Cynthia met her husband and Najla’s father, Dr. John Burt, when she was a 17-year-old freshman at Florida State University. It was 1969. She was a native Floridian living away from her family for the first time, and he was an out-of-state student from Indiana with a passion for civil rights.
“At the time, I think there were 15 Black students total at Florida State,” she said. “So we had to meet. There was no chance we weren’t going to meet.” John went on to become the first president of FSU’s Black Student Union, and the first Black student to hold a university government position there. “We were like a mini-version of Martin Luther King for Florida,” Cynthia recalled.
She remembers getting dropped off at her dorm for the very first time, and how her white roommate did not want to share the space with her. “Her family came in, saw me sitting in that room, and they immediately turned around and left,” Cynthia recalled.
“I sat in my room for hours and didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t understand why no one would talk to me. People would pass by the open door, peep in and look at me strangely. There I was, the biggest moment of my young life, and I was suspended in a situation where I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.”
Cynthia went on to marry John, settle down in Tallahassee, and have four children. She became the Deputy Commissioner of Education for Florida, but also had a creative streak and made most of her children’s clothing. As the youngest, Najla was always in tow, accompanying Cynthia to fabric stores and watching her read sewing patterns.
“I saw my mom just kind of bubbling with creativity, and it definitely wore off on me,” Najla said. As a teenager, she began making clothing for herself and her friends. She thought about going to fashion school, but her father disapproved: “Fashion wasn’t a career, and he wanted me to have a career.”
Like her parents, Najla ended up at FSU, studying advertising and business administration. She spent her twenties a bit adrift, working for media companies and ad agencies in DC.
“I felt like I had no purpose,” Najla said. “That creative itch just bubbled up.” So she enrolled in some local fashion courses. The change made her “feel alive,” but she wanted more.
Her sister lived in Brooklyn, and Najla would visit her on the weekends. It was 2008 and she was 30 years old. When the recession hit, she was laid off. “Everyone else in the company was flipping out, but I thought, this is my ticket. I’m leaving. I have severance money, and I have a place to go.” She packed her bags, moved in with her sister, and applied to fashion schools. She had her eye on Parsons.
One day, a thin envelope from the art school arrived in the mail. “I thought it was a rejection letter, since there was no big envelope,” Najla said. She got her sister to open it—and was accepted.
Cynthia remembers the tearful, celebratory phone call that followed. “We’re very spiritual people,” she said. “And I was happy that God opened a door and let her walk into whatever her real life was. A mother always feels good when her children can know what that feels like.”
Najla attended Parsons with one goal in mind: “I wanted to make a global brand.” She wanted more than just name recognition; she wanted to become the representation she did not have as a Black student. Though she describes her education as “top-notch,” Najla alleged some professors used “microaggressions” against her.
“A lot of it came from professors who thought ‘I’m not sure why you’re here,’ or ‘You don’t really belong here,’ or ‘You’re not going to be able to do what this student does,’ or when you produce a project that’s uber creative or great, there’s shock, because you’re a Black student,” she said. “I think it is those types of things that you have to deal with as an African-American designer.”
In 2018, Jetuan Jones and Nyle Fisher created Parsons Black Alumni, meant to “support the careers and mental wellbeing” of former students of color. Najla has been involved with the group since then, and never felt satisfied with the school’s interactions with the organization.
On June 12, more than two weeks after the murder of George Floyd spurred a global protest movement, the Instagram account for Parsons BFA Fashion school posted a message apologizing for past treatment of Black students, faculty, and staff.
Using Dur Doux’s Instagram account, Najla commented, writing, “We find this statement a bit disingenuous. As a graduate of the New School and a Black fashion designer, after a 2 year struggle to form @parsonsblackalumni, support from administrators and faculty is virtually non-existent. Additionally, calls and emails seeking a dialogue with the new Black President of Parsons are consistently ignored. You have a group of your graduates who are deeply committed to the items you stated. Maybe a productive first step would be to embrace @parsonsblackalumni in achieving your vision.”
According to Najla, Jason Kass, the interim dean for the School of Fashion, invited her and Jones to a Zoom call with other administrators. The goal for the Black alumni was to schedule a meeting with Dwight A. McBride, the first Black president of Parsons. (McBride took over the position in April.)
“It was a singular effort to try to bring together and formalize an alumni group,” Najla said. “We were getting literally zero support, and pushback, from the interim dean. We felt like the easiest and most productive thing to do would be to request a meeting with the president, but they basically refused that.” She remains deeply unsatisfied with the school’s response to criticism.
“There is so much more work that needs to be done,” Najla said. “If you call yourself the top fashion school, right next to [London’s] Central Saint Martins, you should be leading the way in assisting diversity [efforts].”
According to the Princeton Review, Parsons’ student body is only 2.9 percent Black. When reached for comment regarding Najla’s experience at Parsons, Amy Maslin, the school’s assistant vice president for communications and public affairs, sent a statement that did not address her experience directly.
“We are grateful to the many brave members of our community who have shared their experiences with racism and discrimination over the past months, and we recognize there is more we can do to ensure that equity, inclusion, and social justice are guiding our institutional policies, planning, and programming,” it read.
“Parsons is committed to being as responsive and supportive as possible and is taking specific steps to fully live these values. These steps include supporting our Black students and alumni through mentorship opportunities, professional engagements and a special monetary fund that helped graduating students finish their thesis collections; forming a committee dedicated to advancing equity, inclusion, and social justice on our campus; surveying and updating our curriculum to ensure it is more inclusive; and hiring more Black and non-white faculty members.
“This work is fundamentally important to our mission to educate students to be effective citizens and leaders in a globalized and socially just world, and we will continue to hold ourselves accountable to accelerate and advance these necessary changes.”
“Everyone who is in the industry and a person of color just wants to see it be different”
When Najla graduated, she called Cynthia and asked her to be a part of the brand. They settled in D.C., dressing ambassadors’ wives and local influencers, quickly building a name recognition in the scene and becoming the darlings of regional shows.
But their scope remained large: “We want Dur Doux to be an international brand, not just an American one,” Cynthia said. “We think European design is a whole level beyond American fashion. That’s been our professional opinion long before we knew we’d work with the CFDA.”
They want success for themselves, and also for the wider community of Black fashion professionals. “Everyone who is in the industry and a person of color just wants to see it be different,” Cynthia said. “Fashion is universal, and the people who do fashion at the greatest level are European. So we want to forge avenues and relationships with all of those people, because when people of color come together, we make the fashion industry thrive.”
It starts with the collection they will show at NYFW, which they’ve titled “Femmes Voyageant,” in honor of women traveling—despite Americans being on lockdown for the foreseeable future.
“Keep in mind that this collection will not be loaded out until 2021,” Cynthia said. “So our prayer is, there will be a vaccine or something that allows people to recapture the experience of living on this planet.”
Where will the Burts go when they’re finally allowed to take a proper vacation? “First place is the Maldives,” Cynthia said. “Two weeks of sand and glimmering water. We need that to reinvigorate our souls.”
That’s not to say she’s over their day jobs. “Some days, really, the tears just come,” Cynthia said. “I think, ‘Who gets to do this? Who gets to have a beautiful, wonderful, little being, and watch them grow, and then be a part of their dream?’ You feel so alive when that happens. Who gets that? We do.”