NEW YORK, United States — About 250 black fashion professionals released a strongly worded petition on Thursday, denouncing The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s anti-racism efforts and calling on the trade organisation to use its status to hold the industry accountable on hiring and promoting black people.
The letter, called The Kelly Initiative, was organised by editor Jason Campbell, creative director Henrietta Gallina and writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall. It is named in honour of Patrick Kelly, the black designer who was the first American to be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter in 1988.
Signatories include designers Edward Buchanan, Martine Rose and Victor Glemaud; fashion directors Gabriella Karefa-Johnson (Garage), Carlos Nazario (i-D), Tiffany Reid (Bustle Digital Group) and Corey Stokes (Highsnobiety); celebrity stylist Jason Bolden; Cosmopolitan beauty director Julee Wilson; stylist Shiona Turini; and Vogue Fashion News Director Chioma Nnadi.
Noticeably absent from the list of signatories are CFDA board members Virgil Abloh and Kerby Jean-Raymond, Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, activist Bethann Hardison, and designer Aurora James, indicating there may be different schools of thought amongst black professionals as to how to best push for change in the industry.
The Kelly Initiative group says that fashion has prioritised “optics over the authentic pursuit of equity” and says the CFDA has “allowed exploitative cultures of prejudice, tokenism, and employment discrimination to thrive, unbridled by the sort of watchdog intervention expected of an industry umbrella organization.”
The petition urges the CFDA to conduct an industry census to gather data on the racial makeup of employees at all levels of its member organisations, offer manager bias-mitigation training and ask its members to sign a pledge to create hiring opportunities for black professionals. The petition also demands that fashion’s headhunting and recruitment firms sign the same pledge and have their practices audited by a third party. After gathering the industry data, the petition proposes that the CFDA publish it on an annual basis to provide benchmarks and chart progress.
In a statement, a representative for the CFDA said it is following through on actions released in a letter on June 4, which included an employment program, and is continuing its relationships with Hardison and Harlem's Fashion Row on diversity initiatives. The organisation said it will also work with newer groups, specifically the Black in Fashion Council led by Peoples Wagner and publicist Sandrine Charles.
"Our priorities are to ensure that the CFDA is representing the needs of the industry, which include bringing more diversity and inclusion to it," read the statement.
Hardison, who works on diversity and inclusion initiatives with the CFDA, told BoF that it does not make sense to make demands on a council like one would a political organisation. "They are not an employment agency, they don't tell people what to do," she said. "Progress happens in progressive ways, it doesn’t happen in a snap."
As the growing Black Lives Matter protest movement shines a harsh light on racial inequality and discrimination throughout society, the fashion industry is reckoning with its own entrenched racism. Fashion’s ranks of top editors and executives are overwhelmingly white, and many brands have faced fierce criticism from employees and consumers for offering statements of support for the protest movement without addressing internal problems.
The CFDA's board meeting on June 2 focused on these topics, with a conversation led by designers Virgil Abloh and Kerby Jean-Raymond. They joined the board in September 2019 along with Maria Cornejo and Carly Cushnie during a push to diversify the trade organisation’s leadership and replacing, among others, Kara Ross (who drew criticism after husband Stephen Ross hosted a fundraiser for President Trump in August 2019) and Georgina Chapman.
On June 4, Chairman Tom Ford and President Steven Kolb released a public letter. That letter announced some actions, including an employment program to help place black professionals in fashion jobs and charitable donations.
The Kelly Initiative petition released Thursday said those initiatives fell short, describing them as “hasty attempts” to combat racism that were “so insufficiently conceived that they lacked a very name.”
The coalition also seeks to start “The Kelly List,” an annual index of 50 black professionals across the industry who will be given exposure and networking opportunities, and who will pledge to hire black professionals throughout their careers. The organisers also requested a video conference meeting with the CFDA on Friday, June 19th, also known as Juneteeth, a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the US.
"Contributing endlessly to fashion’s literal and figurative fabric, our hands have picked cotton and crafted couture, sketched flou and painted faces; today they shall seize the steering wheel of our destiny within the industry,” the petition states. "We will no longer be relegated to the backseat, or worse yet, completely sidelined altogether..."