An Honest Look At Racism In Fashion Means A Long, Hard Look In The Mirror
It’s time the industry does its part in initiating real change.
When the protests against police brutality, sparked by Minnesota police killing George Floyd, spread across America this summer, much of the fashion industry expressed solidarity in various ways with the protestors and the Black Lives Matter movement at large. And while monetary contributions, public statements, and promises to “do better” are important, despite even the best intentions, they are not enough to address the industry’s systemic racism. After all, in an industry that has been built on exclusivity — starting with who gets hired to design clothes and ending with who can afford to wear them — how can fashion become truly inclusive without changing from the ground up?
Fashion historically — and contemporaneously — prioritizes privileged and white voices; it has consistently kept Black creatives out of top positions, while simultaneously profiting off Black culture. The instances of cultural appropriation from even the last five years are too many to list in full, but they include a 2015 Valentino “Africa-inspired” fashion show, a 2016 Marc Jacobs show that had white models in dreadlocks, and February’s Comme des Garcons show that sent out white models in cornrowed, lace front wigs. The list of offensive campaigns and products of the last few years is even longer: Prada’s anti-Black figurines, Gucci’s blackface sweater, Burberry’s noose hoodie, etc.
And it continues, despite the industry’s recent anti-racist pledges. In July, just a month after countless messages were posted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Italian luxury label Marni could be found apologizing for a “Jungle Mood” campaign, which featured Black models in chains. Not long after, H&M suspended employees over the use of a racial slur relating to the name of a hat from its sister brand & Other Stories.
Whenever another offensive product or campaign emerges, the question everyone asks is: Why didn’t anyone stop this?
All too often, the answer is: There was nobody in a decision-making role who recognized these as instances of racism. This doesn’t excuse the white people who don’t understand what racism is, but it does make clear that, when people of color aren’t hired in leadership positions and sitting at the table when decisions are made, racism persists. Over the last few months, many designers have pledged to do better, by starting diversity and inclusion departments and initiatives and vowing to hire more BIPOC employees at their brands. But, as many in the industry have pointed out, as long as the executives and higher-ups remain white, real change is hard to enact — but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen through different parts of the industry.
Many people working in fashion are committed to addressing the issue head-on. In June, Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and PR executive Sandrine Charles announced the Black in Fashion Council — a collective made up of over 400 creatives, editors, executives, models, stylists, and more — with a mission to hold brands accountable and advance Black talents to all levels of the entire fashion industry.
Because fashion brands aren’t the only ones who are going through a reckoning. Media companies that cover said labels — ranging from Conde Nast (which owns Vogue, among other titles) to Man Repeller and Refinery29 — have also been called out for their mistreatment of Black employees. In June, following former and current Refinery29 staffers sharing their experiences of racism at the company, former editor-in-chief and co-founder Christene Barberich resigned. The editorial union (that I am a part of) stood in solidarity with everyone who came forward and demanded accountability from management, including requests for diversity in leadership and anti-racism training. Since then, Vice Media Group (the parent company of R29) has hired independent investigators to review the complaints shared, launched a pay equity analysis and a training program, and created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategy.
In August, the Black in Fashion Council launched with 38 partners ranging from Tommy Hilfiger, TheRealReal, and Prabal Gurung to Conde Nast and Glossier. (Recently, the latter apologized after racism allegations came to light.) With the support of the Human Rights Campaign, Peoples Wagner and Charles are developing an equality index score (not unlike the Corporate Equality Index for the LGBTQ community), to provide an inclusivity benchmark; they will then track the work that companies who’ve signed a three-year commitment pledge are doing to support their Black employees. “Any brand can pledge $1 million to the N.A.A.C.P. on Instagram, but who will follow up and check that they did it?” Peoples Wagner told the New York Times. She is right: Brands can claim to be anti-racist and put out diverse campaigns and imagery, but is that all just a facade?
Take, for example, the Marni campaign that, while featuring Black models and shot by photographer Edgar Azevedo, went horribly wrong after the images were retouched post-shoot without the photographer’s approval. Or fashion brands with Black models on the runway but all-white teams backstage, including ones for hair and makeup who often have no experience working with Black hair or darker skin tones. How can fashion address this? For one, fill their boardrooms and creative teams with people who actually reflect the diversity in the images they put out into the world.
Still, when the lack of Black fashion creatives in leadership roles gets brought up, many point to some signs of change: A large number of today’s most prominent fashion designers are Black and making (long-overdue) history. In 2018, Off-White’s Virgil Abloh became Louis Vuitton’s first African American artistic director. In 2019, Rihanna became the first Black woman to head a luxury fashion house for LVMH (which also owns LV), with Fenty, at the same time as her other label, Savage x Fenty, put on some of the most diverse (and exciting) NYFW shows in recent history. The same year, Christopher John Rogers won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, a year after Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss won the same prize. This year, Telfar Clemens’ label’s shopping bag was crowned the It Bag of our generation by The Cut, just months before the designer would go on to be nominated for the 2020 CFDA Accessories Designer of the Year fashion award (last year, he lost the award to The Row’s Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). And then there was Zendaya’s InStyle shoot for the September issue, for which her stylist Law Roach pulled all-Black designer looks — nothing less than a showcase of the incredible talent working right now.
There’s also reason to be optimistic about the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the organization founded to promote American designers. A year ago, it welcomed Black fashion and bridal designer Carly Cushnie and sustainable, Chilean-born designer Maria Cornejo, as well as Abloh and Jean-Raymond to fill seats on its board. “I’m rearranging the board so that it is more diverse in age and more diverse in every way,” CFDA chairman, Tom Ford, told WWD at the time. “Lots of people voiced a concern that the board, and the CFDA, was not diverse enough.”
Following the onset of the recent protests, the CFDA released a statement with its plan of action. The initiatives outlined — intended to “create systemic change within our industry” — include placing Black talent in all sectors of the fashion business, creating a mentorship program and an internship program focused on placing Black students and recent graduates, a diversity and inclusion training program, and monetary contributions to the NAACP and Campaign Zero. (The CFDA, with Vogue, also awarded $1 million to ICON 360, a nonprofit launched by Harlem’s Fashion Row’s Brandice Daniel to help POC fashion companies impacted by the COVID-19 later that month.)
While the initiatives outlined may appear to be meaningful progress for fashion, many with intimate knowledge of the industry said they weren't enough. Soon after the CFDA’s statement was released, the Kelly Initiative — led by writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall, editor Jason Campbell, and creative director Henrietta Gallina — sent a letter to the organization. Signed by 250 Black fashion professionals including designers Victor Glemaud and Romeo Hunte and stylists Patti Wilson and Jason Bolden, it called on the CFDA to increase its anti-racism efforts. “The CFDA is falling far short of the broader culture’s rapidly solidifying zero-tolerance policy for Anti-Blackness,” it read. “Amid these realities—in addition to those of a pandemic’s disproportionate toll within Black communities and amplified visibility of law enforcement’s disregard for the value of Black life—we remain unfettered in the pursuit of our seat at the table.” The statement concluded by proposing a four-point initiative, which called for manager bias mitigation training, meritocratic hiring practices, accountability audits, data disclosure, and support of Black professionals, among other things.
In July, the organization announced the 2020 CFDA Fashion Awards nominees. While names like Christopher John Rogers, Kenneth Nicholson, and Telfar Clemens made the list, it was mainly made up of established veterans — most of them white. Tom Ford — who won the ceremony’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014, is currently the chairman of the CFDA, and has won six other awards in the past — is up for two nominations this year. Also included on this list are Marc Jacobs, Thom Browne, and The Row's Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen who, while all incredible designers, have previously won numerous CFDA awards. “I am not saying that among the many recidivist winners are not some newish, disruptive names, as well as designers of color. But you can count their number on one hand, which means they feel more like token additions than an actual shift,” Vanessa Friedman wrote in the New York Times. While we have yet to see what steps the organization takes next, it recently named CaSandra Diggs as president, making her the first Black woman to hold the title since the CFDA was founded in 1962, and announced "strategic changes" to create opportunities for Black talent in fashion.
Another segment of the fashion industry that has also come under scrutiny for implicitly racist practices is retail. In May, Brother Vellies founder Aurora James launched her 15 Percent Pledge, calling for retailers to commit to buying 15 percent of their products from Black-owned businesses. “So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power. So many of your stores are set up in Black communities. So many of your sponsored posts are seen on Black feeds,” James wrote in an Instagram post. “This is the least you can do for us. We represent 15 [percent] of the population and we need to represent 15 [percent] of your shelf space.” This pledge has resonated with many people for its simple approach to fixing what has long been seen as a complex problem; with retailers committing to investing in Black designers in an actionable way like this, real change could actually be ensured. Since its launch, companies ranging from Sephora and West Elm to Rent the Runway and Vogue (whose September cover featured James) have joined the pledge.
But what if it wasn’t just the fashion giants who committed to a pledge to economically empower Black entrepreneurs? Consumers also have the power to change the industry, to put our money where our mouth (and Instagram feed) is, and: (1) not support businesses that profit off marginalized communities, and (2) shop from Black-owned brands. In June, as lists featuring Black designers have circulated on the internet, Beyoncé’s stylist Zerina Akers launched Black Owned Everything, a platform dedicated to showcasing Black-owned businesses. The account’s Instagram bio reads, “For When The Trend Is Over.” Because, while companies may be putting out statements and making donations right now, only time will tell if they genuinely care about equality and inclusion in the long run. Once “the trend” is over, are they still going to make efforts to make sustainable change in the industry? While no one knows the answer to that, what has become clear over the last months is, if brands do make pledges or put out statements promising change, there are people — including Aurora James, Black in Fashion Council, but also fashion-lovers and shoppers — who will hold them accountable.
In an interview with Bloomberg Business in June, when asked about what fashion-oriented companies can do, Carly Cushnie responded with this: “They need to be hiring Black people at the executive levels so that change can really trickle down. Big corporate companies should be establishing education programs, scholarship opportunities, internships specifically for Black people so that Black people can get the support, the knowledge that they need to enter these industries.” (In August, Cushnie, along with other retail and fashion executives, launched RaiseFashion, an organization that will provide mentorship programs for Black-owned brands and industry professionals.)
Companies will also need to make space. “I think if people in power, specifically white people in positions of power, actually want to change the world for the better, they need to say, ‘Okay, I have to take a hit,’ or ‘I have to step aside for other people, specifically minorities, to be in spaces and to have access,’” Christopher John Rogers recently said in Vanity Fair. “If we’re expecting Black excellence, we can no longer accept white mediocrity.”
With this in mind, it’s time fashion takes a look in the mirror — and then does its part in initiating change within corporate structures, by hiring more people of color in all positions but especially at decision-making, creative, and leadership levels, and committing to supporting Black talent, financially and through grants and scholarships.
And if it doesn’t? Well, then it’s hard to imagine much of a future for an industry stuck so firmly in the past.