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Tracee Ellis Ross on the power of fashion

Written by Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNN

Award-winning actor Tracee Ellis Ross says she has always loved fashion. She used to tell people that she came out of the womb asking where Barney's was. With a mother like Diana Ross, it's hard to imagine glamor and style being out of Ellis Ross' reach growing up.

In recent years, the star of popular TV show "Black-ish" has delighted onlookers with her bold personal style, both on the red carpet and on social media. Her Instagram account is a treasure-trove of fashion, musings on self-care and playful moments that have attracted a following of over 7 million.

This year, Ellis Ross launched an affordable haircare line, Pattern, which was over 10 years in the making. Created for people with curly and tight-textured hair, the range carries positive messages of empowerment and self-appreciation.

On Monday night, Ellis Ross will host the Fashion Awards in London, an event recognizing designers and brands for their contributions to the industry. She spoke to CNN Style ahead of the ceremony.

CNN Style: What kind of preparation goes into hosting an awards ceremony?

Tracee Ellis Ross: The Fashion Awards puts me right at the center of all the things I love, which is basically hosting a party, setting a tone and pace, and celebrating fashion -- something that is near and dear to my heart. So, I've come to (London) early to get myself settled and acclimated to this wonderful city. And then it's about getting my gorgeous frocks in order, preparing my opening monologue and lot of stretching!

Tracee Ellis Ross at the Valentino Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2018 show.

Tracee Ellis Ross at the Valentino Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2018 show. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

Beyond the obvious matters of utility and aesthetics, why is fashion important today?

For me, fashion started as a way to protect myself -- to have a bit of control over how the world perceives me. And I think, for many, that's still the case. I think fashion has evolved for me personally into a form of creative expression.

The business of fashion has great power. I think human culture is in a really interesting and fertile place right now, in terms of how we tell stories that actually reflect the truth of our humanity. And fashion is not exempt from that. Without using those annoying buzzwords like "inclusion" and "diversity," I think we're really seeing the importance of how an art form -- and I do see fashion as an art form -- is meant to be a reflection of our humanity. Although, there's still a lot of growth needed, in terms of how we make sure that the stories we're telling through our art, through our fashion, or through the business, actually reflect the world that we live in.

Tracee Ellis Ross speaks onstage during the 2018 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, California.

Tracee Ellis Ross speaks onstage during the 2018 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images North America/Getty Images For dcp

We've seen a number of high-profile examples of fashion brands getting this wrong, particularly in last 18 months. We've also seen lots of tokenism, whereby certain brands use "inclusion" and "diversity" as marketing tools.

I think tokenism has been around for a very long time, as has cultural appropriation. (But) we're waking up to the responsibility of those kinds of images and the detrimental effects they have. Some people think the point of "diversity and inclusion" is to listen to other people's stories and then tell them yourself. That's not the point. I think the point is to realize that there are gaps and spaces and blind spots that you didn't realize, and it's not your job to fill them in but instead to allow those spaces to be filled by those many different kinds of voices.

What you wear on stage will be a talking point. How do you go about selecting your outfits?

My aim, first and foremost, is to wear things that make my heart sing, and that I adore. It is always on my mind to be as inclusive as possible, but also to be respectful and appropriate to the environment that I'm in. So my intention is to wear nominated designers and British fashion designers.

The beauty of doing the fashion awards, for me personally, is that I don't have to play to the mainstream. I can play to those who understand volume and understand the decadence of certain designs and looks that wouldn't exactly work at a Vanity Fair party, or on the red carpet for the Golden Globes, but are dreamy clothing. So, you can expect a little bit of theater, and lots of joy. I know the fashion industry can sometimes be very serious, but one of my jobs on Monday night will be to bring an aspect of joy and celebration to the evening.

Ellis Ross pictured at the 61st Grammy Awards at Staples Center in February 2019.

Ellis Ross pictured at the 61st Grammy Awards at Staples Center in February 2019. Credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images North America/Getty Images for The Recording A

You launched your own fashion haircare line, Pattern, earlier this year. You've said, more than once, that you could chronicle your journey of self-love through your hair. Can you explain what you mean by that?

The beauty industry, and beauty in and of itself, can seem like a purely aesthetical adventure ... in simply caring about what one looks like. But the truth is that the beauty industry and the culture of beauty is steeped in some very real things. I'm a black woman who has navigated her hair within a standard of beauty and a world that didn't really make space for what naturally and authentically comes out of my head.

The act of loving myself, and loving my physical appearance, has been a journey of activism and self-love. I realized through my own journey of loving and understanding my hair that there weren't the products to support it. I realized that this wasn't just me, that there were large demographics of people that had been excluded from what was considered beautiful. So from that place, after 10 years and a lot of trial and error, I've launched this haircare line that I'm so incredibly proud of.

You had dinner with Elizabeth Warren in 2016, which I suspect feels like a long time ago. What comes to mind when you reflect on the last few years and look ahead to 2020?

The world is in what feels like absolute disarray. The things that I don't believe in -- that feel scary and don't support the kind of world that I want to live in -- seem to be gaining way too much attention and ground, and I find it very unsettling. But there's an opportunity for us to wake up and use our voices and our hands, and to support each other. I think it's too early for me to tell who I am able to support (during the US presidential election), but I am a voting American and I will continue to be that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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