Fashion’s Progress on Diversity? Lightly Productive at Best, Modern-day Segregation at Worst, Say Industry Activists

Backstage at Dior Haute Couture Spring Summer 2020

They came by the dozens, the daily June promises from fashion brands to improve diversity; the black social media squares situated above pledges to listen, learn, change; the dedications to making a difference on inclusion despite little prior interest in it.

As the industry was called to task for its outmoded exclusionary nature in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, which catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement, it acted — or at least took some initial steps to make it appear that way.

Six months out, this year’s leading activists in fashion say, while noting some positive strides, that performative activism may have won out over real progress. Others say it’s too soon to tell. But brewing Black History Month efforts for February that brands may be scrambling to put in place now aren’t going to provide the get-out-of-hot-water-free ticket in 2021.

While a half year isn’t much time to overhaul a long-standing industry issue that stems from an even longer history of racism, activists’ concerns lie in the fact that initiatives to date have had little impact, and that momentum already appears to be slowing in some cases where diversity is concerned.

“I’m not going to say that the efforts that I’ve seen by companies are not of value, I just don’t know if that value has permanence without a more thoughtful policy implementation,” said Kibwe Chase-Marshall, cofounder of The Kelly Initiative, an effort rolled out over the summer dedicated to creating equitable inroads for Black fashion professionals via a four-point plan to increase industry transparency. “Policy change and policy implementation [are needed] if we want two things: if we want to actually feel palpable industry change, if we want to walk into offices, studios and in a short time note a difference in this industry, there needs to be policy change. Then, if we want that change to last indefinitely there needs to be policy implementation, because no one more so than those that work in the fashion industry know intimately how [a] trend can make things that seem so important today so irrelevant tomorrow.”

The Present and the Problems

The thing about diversity — like sustainability, social justice and labor rights — is that it can’t slip into irrelevance when it’s no longer the “It” issue; it can’t be rendered the troublesome box that has to be ticked before onlookers start shouting.

“I think the fashion industry has been somewhat responsive but the real progress will be seen in a year or so,” said Aurora James, creative director of Brother Vellies and founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, which has challenged brands to commit 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, in line with the portion of the population the community comprises. In November, the pledge revealed its biggest retailer commitment to date when Macy’s Inc. signed on, but it remains to be seen where things go from there. “Will these publications and brands still create content that speaks to a broad community? Will big businesses continue to diversify their staff and executive teams? We just can’t go back to ‘business as usual,’” she said.

While fashion has effectively kicked things off, the battle to right the business must wage on.

“The good thing is everybody is talking about it. What we’ve yet to see and what we’re waiting patiently for is the real action. I think in the first few months everybody was listening, they were muted and listening,” said Sharon Chuter, founder and chief executive officer of Uoma Beauty who created the Pull Up for Change initiative, which challenges brands to disclose their corporate diversity (though it has more often been a lack thereof).

At this point, though, listening has run its course.

“Aren’t y’all done listening? When are we going to get past the listening phase? Because at this point all we’re having is a monologue….If you don’t move into a dialogue we can’t move into action,” Chuter said.

This is where fashion and beauty alike have largely gone wrong, she explained. In the listening, too many brands were either grieving over the things they didn’t like to hear (or realize) about themselves, angered by being called out or entirely indifferent. Either way, all proved hindrances to action. As did the fashion industry’s very ethos.

Fashion, Chuter claimed, has suffered from an it’s-not-my-problem approach to issues.

“It’s a huge problem in luxury fashion. It is an industry built on complete arrogance, complete disconnection from real people because, essentially, they specialize in creating desire,” she said. “They’re not an industry that are good at listening because they’ve never had to listen to anybody. They come and they tell you how it’s going to be, they tell you what beautiful looks like, they tell you what you’re going to buy. It’s an industry that has told consumers for decades and now we’re telling them listen to your consumers and they can’t process that.”

For those brands that have made the attempt to process it and take action, many are approaching diversity as an easy fix, using chief diversity officers, diversity councils and $100 million funds for racial equity as Band-Aids.

“A lot of companies still don’t have the answer and there’s a lot of fear in having better conversations publicly so we can all figure out the answer,” Chuter said. “This is a problem that has been created over hundreds of years, there is no magic wand to actually fix it.”

But what may be the closest thing to a magic wand, according to Chase-Marshall, is exactly what Chuter has been pushing for: greater transparency around the makeup of company staff and corporate leadership. It’s the tool that could force brands to stay close to their commitments because their consumers will be armed to watch with more informed eyes.

“Right now it becomes imperative for the fashion community to assess the difference between what I call performative optics and what would be a radical transparency,” he said.

Performative optics, Chase-Marshall said, give the illusion of change, and the ad campaigns featuring more Black models which have surfaced everywhere, the ubiquitous lists of Black-owned brands to shop now and the pop-up collaborations with Black talent fall into that camp. The efforts may prove just visible enough to enable brands to evade the real work that remains to be done on diversity — which is hiring more people of color in corporate leadership roles and ensuring designers and creatives of color the same access and opportunities as anyone else.

“Those instances of optics,” he said, “just shore up that things will remain the way they are and that people that have solidified those systems of inequity won’t be taken to task because they can trot out this ad campaign or this one collab.”

Or this one partnership, as Chuter noted.

“A lot of [brands] are scrambling, especially before Black History Month because they know that the conversation is going to turn back into [diversity] so all of them are trying to sign deals with people. I know for me as a Black person the amount of retailers running [and saying], ‘Oh, we want to launch you for Black History Month.’ Oh, so that I can be your corporate tick box?” Chuter said. “Many big retailers are just rushing and launching Black-owned brands, chucking them online only, no support, nothing going into these brands — you are setting up these brands to fail. So if you’re coming in and you want to work with me, yes, being Black-owned might be what got you even more interested, but you have to be interested in what I actually do beyond being Black-owned.”

The new year, and the new diversity work, will require being transparent about what’s happening behind the optics. And so far, the tech industry may be one sector that’s getting it (at least somewhat) right.

“Where the tech industry is moving at a more efficient pace toward getting it right is via that culture of radical transparency. There are many big tech firms who disclose their company demographics annually and get taken to task for it — Facebook, Google — and they aren’t necessarily at this point yet implementing the internal recruitment initiatives to drastically change those numbers, but we in the public can hold them accountable for that because we know those numbers,” Chase-Marshall said. “If you are secretive about those numbers everyone knows something’s up. But that secretive shielding of information is the status quo in the fashion industry. We don’t know who comprises many companies and especially key companies in the U.S. who are doing outward marketing pushes to reimage as more equitable. And I think they have to be held accountable for the capital that they receive for being seen as on board with the broader cultures’ interest in equity.”

What’s needed, he said, and one among the four points the Kelly Initiative has proposed, is intervention to implement an industry-wide census — and he’s looking right at the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

“The CFDA has never thoughtfully addressed why it has not moved to implement that type of census,” Chase-Marshall said, noting two years’ worth of attempts to engage the organization. “They have brushed aside conversations by saying they don’t have the authority to force anyone to reveal that data, and that’s common knowledge, but they do have the influence to encourage brands and organizations to do so.”

The Deeper Impact

Without that level of transparency — the same kind fashion is grappling with as it works to prove the validity of its sustainability claims — brands may continue to miss the mark on the issue or cease trying to tackle it altogether.

Worse, they may end up embracing modern-day segregation without even realizing it.

As Chuter explained, in the prep for Black History Month, some brands have suggested creating sections of their stores dedicated to Black-owned brands or Black designers.

“You know you’ve just recreated an ethnic aisle, right?” Chuter charged. “You can’t do that….And we have to be careful you don’t reduce Black businesses into pity purchases and pity businesses because these are all businesses. All we’re saying is we want a fair chance.” Elaborating, she added, “What you do unintentionally is that you create consequences that are far beyond because you’ve just reduced these people, you’ve just reduced their ideas, you’ve reduced their creativity and all you’ve sold about them is that they’re Black. And that in itself is really not a commercial story.”

Bringing diversity firmly into fashion doesn’t look like focusing on white designers over here and Black designers over there.

“We’re not Black American designers. We’re American designers. We’re just designers,” said Victor Glemaud, who designs his namesake brand and who founded In the Blk, a collective committed to expanding the visibility of Black creatives in fashion. “And once you realize that and stop segregating us and putting us all together and including us in the entire industry and all the opportunities that exist in this industry, then it will always be performative and it will always be seen as performative.”

Diversity may be the leading topic of discussion now, but it isn’t buzzy, it’s not a fad, and performative efforts won’t endure unchecked in the current climate.

“Diversity is the new challenge of the future, of the next five years,” Chuter said. “Over the last 10 years it was things like sustainability, which is still a challenge, but companies had to start focusing on that [and things like the] animal rights issue. But isn’t it interesting that animal rights issues got tackled before [diversity]?”

2021 and the Future of Diversity

While the world has been ready to rid itself of 2020, 2021 has its work cut out when it comes to repairing the fashion industry and shoring it up for a more sustainable and equitable future.

“It’s not going to be an easy year in terms of the fashion industry and I hope that difficulty does not allow people to ignore and sidestep [diversity] and to say we’ll get to you at another time,” Glemaud said. “I just hope it’s not something that is forgotten, overlooked, swept under the rug, put on the back burner, whatever you want to say, because of business difficulties and whatever madness 2021 will bring.”

Whatever 2021 does bring, Chase-Marshall fears some Black fashion professionals may get left behind long term if effective action doesn’t take shape in short order.

“As fashion industries are so destabilized by the COVID-19 era, there are so many talented Black professionals who, if authentic change does not occur, will never work within their professional function again because you have generations of younger professionals who will displace them,” he said. “So this is not sort of an abstract esoteric discussion here, this is about saying in 2021, after that vaccine is on the market and people begin to return to in-person offices, who is getting rehired and who is forever put out to pasture?”

In the new year, Chuter wants to see brands that are doing it right so others can take heed, and James is hopeful brands will continue on the path of doing the necessary work. “Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be an afterthought or feel like a chore, it needs to be the standard,” she said. Lindsay Peoples-Wagner, cofounder of the Black in Fashion Council and editor in chief of Teen Vogue, thinks the industry is on the right track.

“Companies have been excited to make changes, and it’s been really refreshing to have more transparent conversations with people across the industry over the past six-plus months or so. We’ve been able to discuss, at the very granular level, what accountability and transparency mean for a brand in 2020, and how to responsibly execute on that to ensure a continuous commitment to diversity. The goal is to stop having the same conversations over and over again, and instead start to see real, informed change,” she said. “It’s up to the industry to make sure that industry efforts to support, hire, and elevate Black designers aren’t just something that happened this year, or that come up during Black History Month.”

So, as 2020 fades, what should 2021 look like when it comes to diversity?

Next year “should look like the Black community of fashion professionals becoming more discerning about what change making looks like. Because no longer can we depend on those in the industry who have benefited from the inequity to dismantle it,” Chase-Marshall said. “We really need to look at what it would take to get Black professionals consistently afforded equitable opportunity in the professional spaces that we have the right to occupy but are often barred from.”

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