Is the Fashion Industry Serious about Diversity and Social Justice?

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“A change is gonna come,” the immortal words of American recording artist Sam Cooke for his iconic hit song by the same name, rings true almost sixty later. In the past few weeks, the country and the world have been turned upside down over calls for social equality for African Americans and other people of color in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed African Americans at the hands of police brutality. Everyone, from small children to major corporations, has taken notice and many have taken action. Whether by marching in protests, signing petitions, or making posts of solidarity on social media, more and more people are refusing to stay mum on this issue.

The fashion industry, with its history of championing progressive causes from women’s rights to LGBT rights, is not sitting on the sidelines. Many fashion companies have backed this movement in various ways. Some took to social media to post black squares for “Blackout Tuesday,” some reaffirmed their support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and others committed to donating a portion of their proceeds toward social justice organizations.

For those offering financial support, slogan tee shirts have been their quickest route. In Amsterdam, the local chapter of Black Lives Matter has brought together seven black-owned fashion brands for a special tee shirt benefitting organizations including Kick Out Zwarte Piet, The Black Archives, and Black Queer & Trans Resistance NL—all organizations responsible for creating awareness and organizing multiple protests against white supremacy, transphobia, and racism in the Netherlands. Beauty brand Anastasia Beverly Hills has pledged $1 million dollars toward the fight against systemic racism beginning with a $100,000 donation across organizations including Black Lives Matter, The Innocence Project, The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Black Visions Collective, and The Marshall Project.

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While brands are trying to put their money where their mouth is, because philanthropy is trending, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon. It is easy for brands to donate to causes and make social media posts, but the fight for equality must dig deeper than cutting a check.

Keeping non-profits well-funded is necessary, but real structural change and equality for under-represented groups must also happen behind the scenes. Many of these brands who have made financial contributions or published socially conscious social media posts have been accused of racist actions in the past. Anthropologie, a company best known for their bohemian style clothing, was more than happy to post a black square in support of Black Lives Matter. However, they were later called out by several former employees claiming that Anthropologie profiles black shoppers. Others followed, pointing out how the brand doesn’t feature Black or diverse models in their campaigns.

In a capitalistic system, the greatest power people have is their purchasing power. That concept has led to the birth of organizations that ensure Black creatives are get the representation they deserve. Aurora James, the fashion designer behind contemporary brand Brother Vellies, launched the 15 Percent Pledge in June 2020. The mission of the organization is to get major multi-brand retailers to stock at least 15 percent of their brands from Black-owned businesses.

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Sephora was the first brand to commit to the pledge. In addition, Sephora contends that they are working on a long-term plan to diversify their supply chain and will work with venture capitalists through their Accelerate program, which supports independent brands, including black-owned businesses, grow. Beauty company Glossier is also working on putting real money in the hands of black-owned businesses. The company recently committed to putting $1 million to work. $500,0000 of that money will be donations toward organizations fighting racial injustice, and the other $500,000 will be grants to black-owned beauty businesses.

Rent the Runway, the online service for renting designer dresses and accessories, soon followed suit, becoming the latest brand to join the 15 Percent Pledge. Not only has the company committed to stocking fifteen percent of their shelves with product from black-owned businesses, but they have also committed to fifteen percent of their freelance creative talent being black.

At the peak of coronavirus, fashion designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder of streetwear brand Pyer Moss, created a fund to help raise money for black-owned businesses. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix also donated $120 million to HBCU’s in an effort to “reverse generations of inequity.”

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Making sure black entrepreneurs can build and continue their businesses is just the beginning. Companies need to work to create more diverse teams from the business professionals to the creatives. Of the major global luxury fashion brands, the only two notable black creative directors are Olivier Rousteing of Balmain and Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton..

When Edward Enninful took the reigns as editor-in-chief of British Vogue in 2017, he became the first black man in the publication’s history to hold the top editor title. Prior to his official start date, a staff photo of British Vogue showed a predominantly white staff with very little diversity. Enninful quickly worked to rectify this and incorporated more black voices. In fact, his first cover featured British-Ghanaian model Adwoa Aboah. Enninful also brought in notable black fashion industry figures as contributing editors, including legendary supermodel Naomi Campbell and famed make-up artist Pat McGrath.

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Other fashion publishing houses have also begun diversifying their top editor ranks. Recently, Harper’s Bazaar named Samira Nasr the first black editor-in-chief in the history of the publication. In 2018, Teen Vogue named Lindsay Peoples Wagner as their top editor, following in the footsteps of Elaine Welteroth, who had previously gained notoriety in the same role and as a champion for black female empowerment and diversity.

On the flipside, Teen Vogue’s parent company Condé Nast has recently come under fire for issues of lacking racial diversity and insensitivity at other publications. Adam Rapoport, the former editor-in-chief of food magazine Bon Appétit, recently resigned over a racist brownface photo. This resignation was followed by reports of a pervasive culture of racism at the company, with many staffers saying Rapoport led a “toxic” culture at the company. Elsewhere at Condé Nast, legendary Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour admitted that Vogue hadn’t done enough to support black staff and creatives over the years and offered to hear employee feedback on how to improve company culture. At Vice Media-owned Refinery29, founder and global editor-in-chief Christine Barberich also resigned over claims of a toxic work environment and racism. The company has yet to name a new top editor.

Dolce & Gabbana have had their share of controversies over the years. In its most recent and notable scandal, the brand posted promo videos in the days leading up to their big fashion show in Shanghai that began with a video including voiceovers using inappropriate comments. Although Dolce & Gabbana quickly removed the videos from their social media channels, there was a call to boycott the brand. Just hours before they were set to present their runway show, screenshots of a chat between Stefano Gabbana and an Instagram user, where he called China a “country of [five poop emojis],” were leaked. Gabbana said its Instagram account was hacked, but the damage was already done, and models and brand ambassadors began pulling out of show and their contracts, leading to the cancellation of the event. It also cost the company 1/3 of their business in China.

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The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) found itself in hot water earlier this year over their graduate student fashion showcase where one of the graduates dressed models in oversized plastic ears and lips and bushy glue-on eyebrows. Many people thought this looked like racist caricatures of blacks and this led to a conversation over how much faculty oversight should take place over students work to ensure for cultural and racial sensitivity.

Cultural awareness needs to begin at the top. New councils on diversity appear to be the answer for companies trying to enact structural change from the top down. Prada and Gucci have assembled diversity councils after they were met with controversy over selling racially insensitive, blackface-style products.

Ralph Lauren has been on the forefront of diversity for almost two decades . The company has had diversity initiatives since 2003 with councils in place to monitor product design, target and hire diverse talent, and ensure employee satisfaction.

Designer Ralph Lauren is also known for helping to elevate the careers of supermodels Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford by casting them in his ad campaigns in the 1990s. Casting two of the biggest rising stars in modeling at the time might have seemed like a no-brainer; however, using models of color in the 1990s as the face of brands was considered revolutionary.

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In the wake of protests over social injustices experienced by African Americans, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), has created a series of initiatives to improve diversity in the fashion industry. An in-house employment program was created to place black talent in all sectors of the fashion industry and make racial balance among companies’ a key component. The CFDA has also created a mentorship and internship program to place students and recent graduates with established fashion companies.

The initiatives weren’t met without backlash., Two-hundred and fifty black fashion professionals created a petition to denounce the CFDA’s anti-racism efforts and said the organization needed to do more to hold the fashion industry accountable. The petition, called “The Kelly Initiative,” named after famed African American designer Patrick Kelly, has been a catalyst prompting black fashion creatives to formulate an annual index of 50 Black fashion professionals who will be given access to colleague networking and will sign a pledge of commitment to creating equitable spaces for Black talent within their future professional endeavors.

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Fashion still has a long way to go in terms of their diversity efforts; however, strides are being made, though its seems sometimes at a snail’s pace. As fashion companies look to future hires, staffing can be expected to better reflect diverse populations in the US.

—Kristopher Fraser

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