Winds Of Change

Does Fashion Have A Race Problem?

Hint: The answer is yes.

Does Fashion Have A Race Problem?
Marni found themselves in the middle of a social media backlash after a disastrous campaign.Image: Marni

Fashion has always long been a world associated with aspiration. For years, the industry has peddled the ultimate vision of luxury and class, and with that, specific ideas of how exactly that should look like — usually thin, with mostly white or Euro-centric ideals. And when minorities of other cultures or ethnicities are included, they end up being used as tokens or caricatures of their community.

But this toxic narrative isn’t new.

Year after year, we see the same ideals being pushed in advertising campaigns and mainstream publications. It’s an issue that’s internal just as much as it is external. Just take a look at some of the lack of minorities in positions of power.

It took Harper’s Bazaar US a whopping 153 years before hiring its first black editor-in-chief Samira Nasr. And up until 2017 when Edward Enninful took over, Vogue UK had an all-white staff under former editor-in-chief Alexandra Schulman and went 14 years with only six non-white covers.

But what happens when people are tired of the status quo? They take to the streets (or rather, the internet) to voice their collective global rage. Social media has its shortcomings, but for what it’s worth, it has helped to give the marginalised a voice. And what they’re saying is that they aren’t willing to give their perpetrators any more power, or at the very least, continue to profit off of them.

The racial debate within the fashion industry and its lack of diversity has only intensified after the George Floyd riots and the Black Lives Matter protests. And if we’re judging by the amount of solidarity posts that went up during that time, it seems like there are major players that are dedicated to the cause. But will this promote real change beyond an Instagram tile? And with the change promised, will this be a true commitment to diversity? Or just performative wokeness without any real understanding of their actions?

True Diversity vs. Tokenism

When it comes to the sensitive subject of race and cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation, it takes more than just good intentions to ensure a campaign goes smoothly. While brands are keen to diversify, many do so without fully understanding the nuances behind their decisions due to the lack of minorities in positions of power.

In short, how can a team be fully equipped to consult on matters of race if they themselves have no idea what issues or experiences a marginalised community face?

This then creates tokenism. Defined as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of equality”, tokenism is rife in the industry, with many brands guilty of casting that one non-white model to fulfill a quota.

Joan Smalls has continually spoken about the industry’s attitude towards her as “the token black girl”, a sentiment expressed by former model Grace Jones as well on why she left the States when Beverly Johnson, US Vogue‘s first black cover model entered the scene. 

In Jones’ memoirs, she wrote “I knew that as long as she was in place she would get everything. One Black model was all they needed and I would pick up the crumbs. Beverly was the token Black model. They didn’t need two tokens.”

Jody Furlong, founder of The Eye Casting, who has cast models for brands such as Adidas and Uniqlo, has heard countless excuses over the course of his career in regards to excluding models of colour in runway lineups and ad campaigns. 

He mentions one particularly uncomfortable casting description, citing that the model “should be Chinese. Preferably half Chinese. Must have almond eyes, must not have slitty eyes to avoid looking untrustworthy.” 

Then, there’s also Marni’s disastrous SS20 accessories campaign as a cautionary tale. While the Italian luxury brand took the effort to hire Afro-Brazilian photographer Edgar Azevedo to shoot their digital campaign that featured a full cast of Black models, those efforts were to put to waste when the final images were juxtaposed with stereotypically ethnic looking accessories as well as offensive captions like “Jungle Mood”, “Tribal Amulet” and “Barefoot In The Jungle” that pandered to colonial archetypes and reinforced racist language.

Needless to say, the brand received strong criticism from the public and both the brand and its creative director Francesco Risso were forced to issue apologies.

Ironically, the project was supposed to be part of an initiative started by Marni that would be dedicated to highlighting new Black creative talents. But it was later revealed in an interview with MJournal that not only was Azevedo unaware of the collection name and had no creative control over the final outcome, he was only paid Brazilian R$6,000 (SGD$1,517) to support himself and a team of eight.

While Marni did offer further compensation after the backlash, he only received an extra Brazilian R$10,000 (SGD$2,528) — the same cost of the tickets Marni would’ve had to purchase to send their own production crew to Brazil. This action of reparation to Azevedo was pandering at best.

Accepting Real Accountability

While acknowledging there is a problem is the first step to recovery, it is perennial that solid action takes place after this. Therein lies the difference between a true ally as opposed to performative allyship due to public pressure.

Just think of the countless brands that quickly cobbled together trending keywords within an Instagram post during the Black Lives Matter protest, only to be torn apart by marginalised employees, racially profiled customers and an irritated audience who were just tired of brands profiting off a social justice movement.

Even brands with progressive, feminist branding such as Man Repeller, Glossier, Refinery29 and Reformation weren’t spared as their dirty laundry got aired.

Commitment to diversity isn’t a one-time thing only either — it’s a lifelong journey that needs to constantly be affirmed in your brand messaging, something Dior had to learn when it came to their latest fashion film.

The luxury house had put out a film featuring their AW20 haute couture collection, but it wasn’t the amazing cinematography and fashion direction that captured people’s attention — it was the lack of any talents of colour.

This was an unusual choice given that the house’s creative direction under Maria Grazia Chiuri has always been much more diverse than this. In her last show, models of colour made up over 30% of the runway lineup, and she’s been known to work with female creatives of colour such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Grace Wales Bonner.

Dior released a statement shortly citing that “diversity and inclusion are core values that are dear to Maria Grazia Chiuri” and that “the castings for the Dior shows and advertising campaigns fully reflect the inclusive plurality that lies at the heart of the House’s creative process.”

They also revealed that this specific film was shot by filmmaker Matteo Garrone, and that he was given full creative control to explore his chosen theme of Greek mythology.

While Garrone might not have purposefully set out to exclude any models of colour, failing to include them seemed counterintuitive to Dior’s Black Lives Matter movement pledge to be “allies in the fight against racism”.

Fashion’s Racial Reckoning

But change is coming, it’s just that the industry is split on how it should occur.

In June, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) highlighted initiatives that vowed to help identify and mentor Black talent within the industry. Pyer Moss and CFDA board member Kerby Jean-Raymond was less than impressed with the statement, calling it a “watered-down, bubblegum-ass statement that didn’t address the issues.”

This was followed up by a public letter sent to the CFDA from the Kelly Initiative (named after Patrick Kelly, the first Black designer to become a member of Paris’s fashion consortium), a coalition of 250 Black fashion professionals committed to fighting systemic racism within the industry.

Aurora James, founder and creative director of Brother Vellies sought for a way for the industry to put their money where their mouth is. She announced the Fifteen Percent Pledge, a call-to-action for retailers to devote 15 percent of their shelf space to products made by black-owned companies. Since launching the Fifteen Percent Pledge, James has received pledged support from Sephora, Rent The Runway, and Yelp.

In a similar vein, Joan Smalls has also founded Donate My Wage, an online platform inviting people to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by donating a portion of their salaries to associated organisations. 

And then there’s Black Owned Everything, a platform created by formidable stylist Zerina Akers (FYI she’s responsible for some of Beyoncé’s most iconic looks) to promote the work of Black-owned businesses in fashion, beauty, and beyond.

The CFDA is also working with the Black in Fashion Council, another organization created by Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor of Teen Vogue and Sandrine Charles, a public relations consultant.

But with so many factions emerging as a response to the CFDA’s vague initiatives, could this strategy prove to be divisive? Or will there be strength in numbers?

Well, according to designer Victor Glemaud, who started In The Black, a group for fellow Black creatives, the more the merrier. “Black people aren’t a monolith, we all don’t have the same point of view and outlook and direction. The fact that [the Kelly Initiative founders] are coming at it a different way, why not? It’s making people uncomfortable, and in the times we’re in, that’s fine. The change they’re trying to affect matters, and now’s the time to figure this out. I’m very hopeful.”

And Prabal Gurung, a Nepalese designer and CFDA board member agrees. “Revolutions always begin fragmented. “Then, when united, the real change happens and history gets made.”

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