The last few weeks have witnessed some of the greatest upheavals of our time for various industries. The protest against police brutality in the United States and agitation for the dignity of Black lives have grown into a much-needed global conversation on race, racism and discrimination. Starting with the police and the education sector down to science and governments, all systems have been questioned and their stance on race and racism examined.
The fashion industry has not been exempt from this scrutiny. Being a creative industry, this sector can easily be mistaken for one that thrives on inclusivity, racial diversity and the equal treatment of workers regardless of cultural differences. The reality though, is the polar opposite because the fashion industry has struggled with diversity for decades. The traditional clothing of native people have been appropriated for entire collections and white models have worn the corn-row hairstyles for African-themed runway shows many a time.
Last year, Gucci produced a sweater that evoked black face and even though it offered a swift apology for this, one wonders if the apology was only as a result of the outrage and calls to cancel the brand.
Credit: NBC News.
In 2018, Prada was called out for its sambo-inspired keychains window display and even though the brand later got these recalled from stores, the defiant statement offered by the brand’s head designer Miuccia Prada in defence of this fashion blunder was that “...people want respect now because there is talk of cultural appropriation, but this is the foundation of fashion and it has always been the basis of art.”
What ‘people’ do you imagine she referred to here as ‘wanting respect now’? And is it possible that when she referred to ‘cultural appropriation’ as the ‘foundation of fashion and art’, one might reasonably surmise that she was defending the age-long white culture of appropriating the heritage of ‘lesser’ races, labelling it art and gracing the walls of their museums with same?
I can give more examples but I imagine that by now you get my drift. Racism in the fashion industry is so rampant that it truly isn’t that surprising anymore. Every few weeks, Blacks and other level-headed people often feel goaded once again into calling out a new instance of racism from some fashion house or some other esteemed brand. The only real surprise to me is that most of these fashion brands don’t ever seem to learn from their own racist mistakes, as well as the backlash they receive.
These past few weeks, as the issue of racism and diversity gained momentum across the globe, the fashion industry has faced its fair share of intense degrees of scrutiny. This is only fitting, I think, because when it comes to the issue of truly influencing lasting change, these brands with thousands of social media followers, an impressive customer base and the connections to powers that be – political or otherwise – can hold real sway over members of the public.
As we are all witnessing a truly powerful moment for the Black community in general, Black members of the fashion industry have come forward with stories of discrimination racism and the cases of silencing the voices of minorities. Internet users have taken to social media to avidly discuss which brands support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and which other brands to boycott because they don’t. The silence of the brands under examination by itself is presumed a stance of opposition and so fashion brands have begun to pledge their unalloyed support to BLM in various ways.
Major fashion companies took to their influential social platforms to demonstrate solidarity with BLM while others stepped up by either sharing useful information or donating funds to NGOs that support anti-racism causes. Fashion Nova pledged one million dollars in donations to fight racial injustice while Gucci, Reebok and Louboutin along with other brands issued various forms of statements in support of the movement. Callouts were, and are still being made, hashtags are continually being retweeted, lists have been curated but best of all, black tiles were posted on feeds for #BlackoutTuesday and “commitments’’ to change have been made repeatedly. Typical corporate PR stuff.
But what happens after these weeks of protest? How do we get the fashion industry to actually do better going forward? How do we get these fashion brands to honor and sustain all these commitments they’ve made? The general but unwritten consensus seems to hinge on calling out and cancelling defaulting brands to ensure that they can change their ways and do better. To be fair, brand shaming has been shown to work in the past but we all know that when it comes to issues of diversity and race, the usual rules are often thrown out of the window.
Call me a pessimist but here is the truth no one wants to acknowledge: no degree of brand-shaming, boycotting, or demands for diversity can make the global fashion industry change its ways. You don’t have to take my word on this, you only need to glance at the track record of this industry as far as racial discrimination goes to understand that after this ring of protests, the fashion industry will revert to its ways as it always does. As a matter of fact, my only concern here is that most Black people are failing to realize that this outpouring of concern for BLM is only but another passing trend in the fashion sector.
It might take a few months but the ripple effects of this movement on the fashion industry will gradually wane for one simple reason: this is one industry that truly, really, does not want to change. Deep down, everyone is okay with the status quo. The occasional diversity in skin colour is good for certain runway shows or select magazine covers or in advertising campaigns but even that is closely monitored by the industry players in the fashion world. Allow me to demonstrate this with a specific example.
NEW YORK, MAY 5 2014: Thomas Campbell, Michelle Obama, Anna Wintour & Emily K. Rafferty at the Anna Wintour Costume Center Grand Opening at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Photo: Debby Wong.
In the midst of the BLM protests, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue (and the real-life Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada movie) apologised to Black people because the fashion industry and Vogue had failed to create enough space for their talents to flourish. Her apology acknowledged the fact that the magazine had too few black staff and had published images or stories that had been intolerant to Black folks.
Now Wintour’s comment was made with an air of support, which is great, until you realize that she has literally been in the best position to change the culture for decades. To put it bluntly, Anna Wintour has been the Editor of one of the influential magazines in the world for 32 years and if the absence of Black people on staff truly concerned her, why did it take the death of George Floyd and the subsequent explosion of protests in support of Black people for her to realize that there should be a change?
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The fashion veteran and legendary former editor-at-large at Vogue Andre Leon Talley who worked alongside Anna Wintour for years seems to hold similar thoughts on this because according to him, the apology is a little too late and comes from a place of White privilege.
“The statement came out of the space of white privilege,” Talley said in an interview with Sandra Bernhard on her Sirius XM show.
“I wanna say one thing, Dame Anna Wintour is a colonial broad, she’s a colonial dame. She comes from British, she’s part of an environment of colonialism.
“I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.”
Former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley and Valerie Steele discussing a new book showcasing John Galliano’s creations for the House of Dior. Photo: Eileen Costa/The Museum at FIT.
What I’m trying to tell you here is that holding the fashion brands accountable for whatever commitments they are currently making can only do so much because you cannot change that which does not want to be changed. A lasting solution is needed here and the best option might be for Black people to take advantage of this breach of the fashion gates brought about by BLM to build their brands. We have got to utilise this period because having these brands and institutions shamed into letting us live and grow is too good an opportunity to be missed.
The best way forward is for Black-owned brands to use this to leverage creating their own systems. I know it might be unfair to put the effort to fix a broken system on your shoulders, but don’t get it twisted. The harsh truth is that the people in the present system can only do so much to fix it for us Blacks; not just because they don’t share our reality but also because, most of the brands benefit from a system devoid of blacks. They simply cannot (and should not) be trusted to fix it all for Black people, diversity be damned.
Diversity will come painfully slow from the people who have built a system of exclusion, if it ever will. But if you are a White-owned brand truly desirous of helping Blacks, then take the more sustainable path to actually institutionalizing these changes in your own platform. Don’t stop at token gestures, empower Black-owned businesses and the organizations who fight for their rights. If the fashion industry is a huge party, it helps no one if all you do is issue a few more invites to Black brands.
Take actual steps towards making the party free for all to attend. People like Kanye West have been talking about the institutionalized barriers that people face when getting into fashion; help tear them down. Understand that the Black-owned businesses currently being listed for increased support have always been there. They didn’t open shop a few weeks ago, they’ve been drowning in this struggle to be seen, longer than you realize. So if you really want this inclusivity to outlast the current protests, make a conscious decision to patronize these brands (in any way you can) and throw them into the limelight.
When you show up for Blacks in this way, you empower them more than any social media hashtags or posts could ever do.
Cover image via Girlfriend Collective.