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BoF Wanted to Celebrate Diversity. Fashion Leaders Saw More of the Industry's Superficiality Around Race.

The designer Kerby Jean-Raymond took BoF and founder Imran Amed to task on social media this week, criticising what he saw as the publication’s shallow approach to inclusivity. His comments found support among a diverse group of fashion insiders.
Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss | Source: Reebok
By
  • Chavie Lieber

NEW YORK, United States —  At the BoF 500 gala held in Paris Monday night, fashion's elite gathered to celebrate inclusion.

Throughout the night, guests drank cocktails in an ornate room in Paris’ Hôtel de Ville. The evening’s theme: Fashion needs to prioritise diversity and not just treat it as the latest trend.

But to some guests, The Business of Fashion was guilty of just that.

In a series of Instagram Stories posted at the event and the following day, Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind the acclaimed fashion label Pyer Moss, said that he was disassociating himself with BoF, accusing the publication and its editor-in-chief, Imran Amed, of cultural appropriation and exploitation.

Amed declined to comment for this story and was not involved in its production. Jean-Raymond declined to comment through a representative.

His comments, which he elaborated upon in a Medium post on Tuesday, touched off a firestorm of criticism on social media directed at BoF and Amed. On Instagram, supporters praised Jean-Raymond and offered critiques of their own, including the designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung, the model Joan Smalls and journalist and former Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth. Many of the comments started with the decision to hire a gospel choir to welcome guests into the party, though the online conversation quickly expanded to touch on how black talent is mistreated by BoF and the wider fashion industry.

Homage without empathy and representation is appropriation.

"Homage without empathy and representation is appropriation," Jean-Raymond wrote in the Medium post, titled "Business Of Fashion 500 is now 499." "Instead, explore your own culture, religion and origins. By replicating ours and excluding us — you prove to us that you see us as a trend. Like, we gonna die black, are you?"

In a letter posted to BoF early Wednesday morning, Amed wrote that what "both Kerby and BoF are aiming to achieve is to bring people together — not sow greater division." Amed opened his statement by noting that he felt passionate about diversity because he, too, "was also the only brown kid," and is also gay. He also defended his decision to hire gospel singers, writing that "the choir boy in me" had wanted to hire "a local, multi-racial choir."

“Kerby has every right to voice his concerns and we respect his perspective,” he wrote. “He is also right about several things. As Kerby points out, the fashion industry has often treated inclusivity as a trend, putting diverse faces in our ad campaigns, on our runways, on our magazine covers and, yes, at our parties because it’s cool and of the moment. But I can assure you that this topic is not a trend for BoF.”

The gala was part of a two-day event pegged to the launch of the latest iteration of the BoF 500, an annual list of notable personalities in the fashion industry. On Sunday, the company held a symposium, also in Paris, where guest speakers discussed different facets of diversity. The gala also celebrated the release of a print magazine focused on inclusivity.

The gospel choir overshadowed the festivities for some guests.

“Inclusivity or appropriation?” Welteroth wrote on her Instagram stories. “The answers are clear when a black gospel choir is used out of context as a backdrop for a mostly white audience in Paris, all in the name of inclusion in fashion. I am not one to promote call-out culture but as someone who grew up in a black Baptist church, my ancestors won’t allow me to absorb this shock silently. The paradox here is stunning.”

The answers are clear when a black gospel choir is used out of context as a backdrop for a mostly white audience in Paris, all in the name of inclusion in fashion.

But in the Medium post and on Instagram, Jean-Raymond made it clear that the choir and the gala were only the tip of the iceberg. He alleged that Amed had “exploited" him for ideas about how to make the BoF 500 more diverse, which he tied to a wider problem of how black talent is treated by the fashion industry: brands use symbols of black culture and enlist black creatives and celebrities to market and sell products. These businesses are rarely led by black people or seek to give black creatives a seat at the table in more than a superficial way.

Brands have publicly grappled with these issues, touting the use of racially diverse, non-binary and plus-size models in their campaigns as a sign of progress. Luxury labels like Chanel and Gucci have also hired diversity chiefs to signal their willingness to change in an industry that has a history of excluding minorities.

But some argue that the industry's commitment to diversity and inclusion is only skin deep. Gucci, Burberry, Prada and other brands have designed items that evoked racist imagery. In August, Dior pulled a campaign for its Sauvage fragrance that featured a Native American dancer, following accusations of cultural appropriation. The executive ranks at most major fashion brands remain predominantly white.

It was therefore important for Jean-Raymond to call out his treatment by BoF and Amed, said Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue and a BoF 500 member who attended the gala.

There's a trope of being angry black people when really we're being real and honest about what's happening.

“People of colour in this industry are notoriously in the cycle of being mistreated but are too scared to speak up because then we don’t get the promotions or the accolades,” she said. “There’s a trope of being angry black people when really we’re being real and honest about what’s happening.”

Fashion media in general has played a role both in exposing wrongs and amplifying criticism of brands that misstep, but also in perpetuating stereotypes and exclusion. Fashion magazines rarely featured non-white models on their covers until recently.

BoF has previously reported on challenges faced by black American designers, gender inequality and fashion's fetishisation of the English working class. Reporters have also conducted investigations into the teaching methods at the Antwerp Academy of Arts, and how the industry's treatment of accused rapist Ian Connor reflects the challenges black rape victims face in America. Sinéad Burke, a little person and disability activist, has appeared on a BoF print cover and has spoken at VOICES, the publication's annual conference outside London.

The VOICES conference has incorporated conversations around inclusion. At last year's event, Adut Akech spoke of her journey from refugee to international model; Sonam K Ahuja and Karla Bookman held a panel on dismantling India's patriarchy; and DeRay Mckesson, an American civil rights activist and member of the Black Lives Matter movement, outlined his vision for the dismantling of racism in the US.

However, some felt that BoF’s approach to the gala and inclusivity-themed print issue missed the mark.

“Diversity when it’s convenient to them,” the model Joan Smalls wrote in a comment on one of Jean-Raymond’s Instagram posts.

In his statement on Medium, Jean-Raymond wrote that his problems with BoF started with VOICES. Last year, Jean-Raymond participated in a panel discussion titled “American Fashion on the Cusp of Change,” along with model and advocate Bethann Hardison and fellow designers Patrick Robinson and LaQuan Smith.

Was the intent all along to milk people like me for insight into our community, repackage it and resell it back to larger corporations with no intent of making real change?

Jean-Raymond called the panel “degrading,” writing that fashion events tend to group people of colour together to “make us speak all together in the commonality of our blackness and force us to disagree on stages in public.”

Jean-Raymond wrote that Amed later offered him a spot on one of the covers for BoF’s fall print issue. He said the editor also “picked his brain” for names to include in the BoF 500.

Jean-Raymond said that Amed eventually rescinded the cover offer, and failed to mention his contributions at the gala on Monday. Jean-Raymond said that Amed did call out Pierpaolo Piccioli, the white creative director of Valentino, in his remarks. Along with rapper Jane Chika Oranika and the designer Dapper Dan, Piccioli was featured on one of the print issue's three covers, posing with Akech.

“Was the intent all along to milk people like me for insight into our community, repackage it and resell it back to larger corporations with no intent of making real change?” Jean-Raymond wrote.

On Instagram, Aurora James, the designer behind the fashion label Brother Vellies, said she found the Valentino story's positioning problematic. The piece explained how the Italian luxury label "embraced diversity" by casting Akech as its campaign face.

Black women don't need white men to make them feel beautiful or tell us we're worthy.

“Black women don’t need white men to make them feel beautiful or tell us we’re worthy,” James wrote. “I hold the same value whether I’m wearing sweatpants or a gown. I’m sorry you are not able to see us that way…. We don’t do what we do for you @BoF.”

Not everyone shared Jean-Raymond’s views on the gala.

In an email to BoF, Frédéric Hodgi, president of the VOICE2GETHER gospel choir that sang at the event, said he was shocked any guests took offence.

“For [Kerby], there was an appropriation of black culture only for trade purposes; of course, I respect his point of view but the fact is that it's not ours,” he wrote. “Most of the people in my choir are black … we all know our past, our history. But we didn't feel like we were exploiting at all while we were singing. For us to sing there last Monday night was like celebrating love, diversity, freedom, respect.”

For us to sing there last Monday night was like celebrating love, diversity, freedom, respect.

In an Instagram post, Oranika, an Alabama rapper and BoF 500 member who performed at Monday night's gala, applauded Jean-Raymond for speaking up while also noting that the event was "one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had."

"I also wish people would stop telling me how to feel about the timing of this dialogue and how it pertains to me," she wrote. "But this conversation is important. ... I think with the proper discourse, The Business of Fashion (and hopefully the rest of the industry) will begin to move in the right direction."

Critics like James saw Amed’s statement as showing a lack of understanding of the work that needs to be done.

“I love a strong olive branch but this was not that,” wrote James, who declined to comment for this story through a representative. “Let me tell you what Imran left out. 1) An apology to all of the other black and brown people in the room 2) A specific apology to black women. What BoF does by continuing to glorify people who play a large part in the systematic oppression and commodification of black women is NOT okay. WE are the ones that are suffering in this system the most.”

Inclusion in fashion is not a 360 experience.

Amed’s statement, Peoples Wagner added, could also set a bad precedent.

“Young designers will look at that statement and will think, ‘I probably won’t get an apology either so I won’t speak up.’ It’s disappointing because it’s a ripple effect on everything we do,” she said. “It’s 2019 and if we want to get anywhere with these kinds of things, you just have to say ‘I’m sorry, I messed up, and I want to do everything to fix it.'"

Phillip Picardi, editor-in-chief of Out Magazine and a BoF 500 member, said he believes the way forward is for BoF to follow through with substance, and to demonstrate the meaning behind its inclusive message.

“Good intentions are step one, but step two is a lot of really hard work and the predominant reason why these inclusive experiences feel so shallow is that often times, inclusion in fashion is not a 360 experience,” he said. “But I felt that the spirit of the BoF Gala, and of BoF in general, is to amplify and listen to voices, so I think it’s important to listen to Kerby and amplify his message.”

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