NEW YORK, United States — In the current culture of accountability, where activism is shaping the zeitgeist, the fashion industry has staged an extraordinary consumer-facing performance, checking the boxes on race, body, gender and other forms of inclusivity. In an industry that’s hardwired to embrace the new only to quickly move on to the next trend months later, is fashion’s current interest in inclusivity simply a fad?
Driven by deepening cultural shifts and the rise of a new generation, once-disenfranchised communities are realising their value and are demanding to be seen and heard. White, cis-gendered people are no longer the only acceptable face of beauty and luxury, and fashion brands are responding — to a degree.
Fashion’s performance of racial inclusivity is most visible on the runways, which long ago became consumer marketing spectacles for most major brands. According to The Fashion Spot, which has been tracking diversity and inclusion at the shows since 2015, the Autumn/Winter 2019 catwalks included more models of colour than ever before: 38.8 percent of the 7,300 models cast across the New York, London, Milan and Paris runways. For now, fashion’s inclusion of non-white models seems to be sticking, marking progress from the near whites-only casts of recent seasons — but when it comes to size, gender and age, the numbers tell a very different story: that of fashion’s mere flirtation with inclusivity as a seemingly symbolic gesture.
What’s more, when you look beneath the picture presented on the runway, and examine fashion’s underlying power structure, what you find is male, cis-gendered whitewashing. Data is limited, but a close look at the executive committees at major fashion companies shows that they are packed with white men. Not surprising, then, that brands like Prada and Gucci have been slammed for racially insensitive gaffes, while others, like Valentino and Chanel, stage self-gratulatory performances of inclusion with little substance.
When you look beneath the picture presented on the runway, [...] what you find is male, cis-gendered whitewashing.
Valentino has been eager to colour its couture catwalks with all-black models. But if a black person were to turn up for a meeting at the headquarters of the celebrated fashion house, they would encounter a sea of white faces. And what to make of the headlines about South Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech Dior closing Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 2018 couture show, the second black model in 15 years to do so?
A series of PR crises, brought on by charges of racism, have certainly got the attention of brands like Gucci and Prada. But their responses to these crises — which often feel more like scripted, Hollywood-style productions than meaningful action — are revealing.
Let’s start with Prada. Last December, when the Italian brand was called out for producing a monkey figurine resembling blackface, the offence was met by public outcry. Eager to dampen the uproar, the brand cobbled together a head-scratching “Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council” led by artist Theaster Gates and director Ava DuVernay (neither of them fashion insiders) to “elevate voices of colour within the company and the fashion industry at-large,” according to a company statement. “Prada is committed to cultivating, recruiting and retaining diverse talent to contribute to all departments of the company,” the statement continued. But this kind of PR speak has little to do with tasking fashion recruitment firms to comb the industry for qualified candidates from marginalised groups, like any other company bent on diversifying its ranks.
Gucci, similarly, tried to dress up its errors after being slammed for producing a balaclava sweater resembling blackface two months later. While designer Alessandro Michele declares his love of black people, the company still fails to sufficiently include them in the corridors of its offices, and Gucci effectively fought off its PR crisis with more PR, announcing the appointment of Renée Tirado, former chief diversity and inclusion officer at Major League Baseball, as its global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, along with a slew of nice-sounding diversity initiatives, in a carefully managed rollout that’s symptomatic of fashion’s superficial, showbizzy communications tactics.
Forced to address the inclusion issue earlier this year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) published a report entitled Insider/Outsider Inclusion & Diversity In The American Fashion Industry. “We have been witnessing a long overdue change in fashion where people at all levels of the industry are increasingly tuned into the need for inclusion and diversity,” explained CFDA President and Chief Executive Steven Kolb, adding: “The emphasis pertains to all areas of inclusion and diversity, among them: abilities, age, gender, race/ethnicity and sexual orientation.” Kolb went on to underscore the organisation’s commitment to “convert awareness into action.” But the document was no more than a gutless re-hashing of the need for change that came across as a superficial way for the CFDA to simply attach its name to the upswell of interest in inclusivity.
“Let’s wake up and initiate the #TimesUp analogous moment that this industry desperately needs in regard to anti-blackness, instead of pacifying ourselves with panel discussions, tokenism and stats quantifying upticks in the casting of models of colour,” wrote fashion designer Kibwe Chase-Marshall in response to the CFDA report. “Let’s quit pretending, roll up our sleeves and do the real work of structuring a culture of equity and let’s do it expeditiously,” he continued. “Fashion’s diversity and inclusion efforts have by and large been self-congratulatory performances, doing little to address the rampant race-based employment discrimination occurring in the design and executive sectors of the field. In those spaces — regarding race discrimination — time is far from up.”
Jason Campbell is the editor-in-chief of JC Report and the founder of ClosetHQ.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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