OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Is the fashion industry racist, or is it ignorant? Or both?
While important barriers started to break down over the last year — when we saw a black designer installed at a major luxury house, black photographers shoot the cover of Vogue for the first time and more diversity than ever before in marketing images — fashion is still rife with systemic barriers for non-white creatives and executives, especially black designers, that the industry is only beginning to recognise and address. And it leads to increasingly troubling gaffes for fashion’s leaders, such as Prada’s monkey trinkets that closely resembled racist caricatures or Dolce & Gabbana’s stereotype-heavy China video campaign.
The challenges undermining inclusion in fashion were discussed at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate held at the end of November, when speakers and guests gathered in five salons designed to spark discussion and debate about some of the most important issues facing the industry today. Each VOICES salon addressed a central question, including: what can the fashion industry do to be more inclusive? The wide-ranging conversation, held under the Chatham House Rule ensuring anonymity, allowed participants to be honest and voice their disagreements.
Led in a discussion by model, agent and fashion activist Bethann Hardison, several participants shared deeply personal stories about their career trajectories and frustrations within an industry system that often fails to recognise or understand the challenges they face. With backgrounds in retail, design, public relations, agencies, activism and politics, the guests spoke for nearly two hours about some of the most difficult problems facing fashion.
What does progress look like? What is slowing down change? And where can progress be found? Six key themes emerged.
1. Understand the difference between diversity and inclusion. The two terms often get lumped together, to the detriment of real understanding and recognition of the barriers facing non-white people. Often in fashion, diversity is superficial, like the casting of different races of people on the runway or in campaigns, while the designers and executives calling the shots behind the scenes remain unchanged — and not reflective of the consumers a brand is trying to attract.
Real change can only happen when diverse decision makers and executives are allowed to enter the highest levels of the industry.
“Diversity doesn’t mean shit, it means trend,” said one participant. “That’s why in the 1980s, there was a resurgence of black models and then they disappeared. There weren’t enough people behind the scenes to keep them in power in the first place.”
2. Don’t let racism hiding as ignorance slide. Is the fashion industry racist, or is it ignorant? Is ignorance about white supremacy just a facet of racism? This was a point of debate during the salon, with participants describing the current state of the business differently.
“It’s a choice for white people to not think about race,” said one guest. “That’s the way that white supremacy works — I worry about not naming it as it is.”
“Calling racism ignorance or a lack of knowledge is a tool used by predominantly white people to perpetuate a narrative that racism is only when someone calls you [a racial slur],” said another participant, adding that racism is structural. The “conventional wisdom” that a designer cannot open a runway show with a black model because the first look won’t get covered by the media, for example, is racism hiding as ignorance.
Another guest argued that ignorant people can accept change once it has been made acceptable by others and once they are made aware of their actions, while racist people cannot be moved to change. The guest characterised the industry as ignorant more than racist. “For me, ignorance is much worse than racism,” they said, while also acknowledging that more progress can be made against ignorance.
3. Black creatives aren’t a monolith. Black designers, in particular, are often lumped together by the industry at large, whether it’s in the way their collections are reviewed or the kind of editorials they are asked to participate in — that is, only for black celebrities.
“Why is my race being introduced before my name before my title as a designer?” asked one guest.
“The only thing that separates us is that we come in here with no money,” said another participant. “We are all designing from our experience, we are all designing from our proximity.”
4. Conversations about inclusivity challenges are nuanced. While most participants advocated for taking an intersectional approach — considering the ways in which multiple forms of discrimination can overlap, whether its sexism or racism or transphobia — several guests noted that progress is thwarted when all diversity issues are lumped together in one conversation, such as the salon. It can lead to “whataboutism,” the practice of responding to a difficult issue by raising another “supposedly analogous issue,” as the Oxford Dictionary defines the term. And it can undermine the recognition and education that needs to happen in order to open more opportunities for minorities.
“That’s how it’s been approached in a way, that this is some blanket [issue] that we are going to blanketly fix,” said one participant, expressing frustration that a conversation about the challenges facing black creatives in fashion had “digressed” to include South Asian models, sizeism and other challenges.
“This is what the problem with today right now is,” continued the guest. “This is how it constantly feels when we try to get our point across…. This is how you silence us.” When these challenges are not given individual attention, it minimises the problem.
“Let’s stop looking at the problems facing African Americans in this industry as something trivial that can be compared to something else,” said a participant.
“Because there is so much anti-blackness within society, when it comes to conversations… other people actually just won’t listen,” said another guest. “They will always divert the conversation to be about other people.”
To that end, the salon conversation became polarised around a point about the challenges facing plus-size models and consumers. “Sizeism is no less hurtful or discriminating than racism,” said one guest. But much of the rest of the group vehemently disagreed. “To conflate them is, in some ways, to deny that the way race shows up is permanent,” replied another participant. “Size changes, race doesn’t.” If other guests thought that body size doesn’t actually change for most consumers, they did not voice the point.
5. Build your own business outside the system. Whether or not the participants agreed that fashion is beset by systemic racism or inherited ignorance, most agreed that the best way for non-white creatives to move forward is to continue to focus on building their own independent businesses.
One participant said that as a young person, they realised there were was not space for black creatives in the industry. “This second wave of black designers that you are seeing, this new wave… is going to keep happening whether you like it or not,” said the guest. “It becomes a way of life.”
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering in November, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.