When it comes to tackling racism and promoting diversity, a sea change in the fashion industry is long overdue. Only now, it comes within the context of a much wider global movement. Since May 26, headlines have been dominated by the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, igniting global protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
The BAME community is living a painful experience, and international organisations, most of which are largely whitewashed, have been challenged to remedy their ethos by denouncing racism once and for all. Many companies, including those in the fashion industry, announced their stance via Instagram on #BlackoutTuesday.
But brands and users were quick to resume their usual content-sharing practices, sparking charges of hypocrisy and tokenism. While #BlackoutTuesday signified an attempt to amplify conversations and mindful actions, there have been numerous accusations of performative posts, as users shared black squares without deeply delving into the matter.
The fashion industry was in no way exempt, with some of the biggest fashion houses posting their black squares while at the same time omitting to declare how they would be tackling racism and representation in the longterm within their organisations.
To avoid anti-racism becoming another passing trend, white people must look back through history and acknowledge the serious lack of diversity, not just on the catwalks but within the very systems, and inner workings, of the industry. Diversity matters, and so do the lives of the employees who have borne the brunt of racial inequality.
Step forward two leaders and advocates, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Teen Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, and Sandrine Charles, Owner of Sandrine Charles Consulting, who in the past week have created The Black In Fashion Council.
The initiative was founded to secure the industry’s advancement of black individuals, both in fashion and beauty. The project has been described as a ‘collective’ effort to pioneer diversity and hold brands accountable for their lack of inclusion.
‘We envision a world in which Black people in fashion and beauty spaces can be open and honest, guaranteed equal rights, and be celebrated for our voices,’ said Charles and Peoples Wagner.
‘While we are currently working on our end, we encourage people in the industry to rise to the occasion to sustain long-term change.’
The organisation has over 400 editors, stylists, models and fashion executives and has over 35 board members now appointed, who come from all areas of the fashion industry. The company will work through a digital directory of black talents, holding meetings with corporations to diversify their work force.
Moreover, it will ask organisations to take part in a ‘Quality Index Score’, addressing the level of diversity – if the score is low, the council will recommend ways to improve it.
‘What BIFC is really all about is a collaborative collective and I think what we’re trying to do is create a streamlined path for us to see productive change in the industry,’ Peoples Wagner tells ELLE.
As Peoples Wagner says, this organisation plays a crucial role in the future of fashion: ‘There’s so much value in unity, and strength in numbers for us to come together and discuss the ways in which we all so desperately need the industry to move forward.’
The change they are advocating is one that will be long lasting: ‘We are eager to gather with our peers and establish long term productive changes,’ says Charles.
Diversity gives access to a greater range of talents, not just the talents who belong to a particular worldview or ethnicity or one particular reality. And, as studies have shown, it makes organisations more successful and more profitable.
However, actually achieving it in practice has turned out to be far more difficult than anticipated. Research suggests that, despite the genuine and ‘transparent’ will on the part of major organisations to implement productive diversity, many have failed to come up with strategies that really work.
So, what is it that needs to change from the bottom up? Firstly, we need much more accountability. Brands can’t be relied upon to police themselves.
‘Accountability should be tackled as a way to force people to see that there needs to be change but not shaming people into it,’ says Peoples Wagner. ‘There is still a major disconnect in the industry of truly understanding inclusivity and it being the lens in which you see and do everything. Accountability instead of cancelling someone allows for there to be dialogue and understanding of how to bridge that gap.’
The other thing we need is a depth of policy change. Through the BIFC, the industry will be encouraged to look more thoroughly into the problem, rather than scratching the surface: ‘By establishing accountability, it will force everyone to engage in these conversations beyond the surface level. With BIFC, we have a plan, timeline and action items that are the platform to ensure change,’ confirms Charles. And this will eventually circumvent tokenism.
In recent years, the fashion industry has been accused of being antithetical to progression, at least when it comes to proper representation.
There have been several, serious scandals in recent memory. We can probably all recall the knitwear resembling blackface, bag charms that looked like Little Black Sambo and anti-Asian remarks that sparked an outcry. It bears mentioning that many of these brands were quick and comprehensive in their response to criticism, some producing plans for serious, systemic changes to their organisations.
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However, Peoples Wagner and Charles’ coalition could produce much more sweeping, thorough reform across the industry, preventing these scandals from happening at all. ‘It’s incredibly important for black people to stand together, as racism affects us all from assistants to senior management,’ says stylist Efe Igbinadolor. ‘The fact is that everyone can be a part of this to ensure the whole industry is to be held accountable. Collective action is a basic unified standard.’
‘Now we can really speak on the discrimination and racism that bleeds through fashion. People are telling their stories, exposing brands and designers; we can’t just go back to normal,’ says fashion entrepreneur Londiwe Ncube. ‘We need The Black in Fashion Council to drive for diversity within content creators not just runway models and to get to the roots.’
‘The Black in Fashion Council gives us a sense of hope,’ says New York based photographer Cristopher Tomás Smith. ‘It shows that since we aren’t allowed a seat at the table then we’ll create a foundation of our own.’
As art director Barbara Ayozie Fu Safira agrees: ‘The only way to tackle change is to ensure new institutions are found writing the invisible social contract. It’s by rebuilding a code that will transform into language, that you realise you have created change.’
To support real change, it’s clear there’s a need for much more than just words. But how can we make sure accountability inspires real action?
‘The fashion industry in this period is like a baby and The Black In Fashion Council is definitely going to have to really do some serious hand-holding in the beginning on every level of the system from corporate down to the cutting room floor to ensure black creatives are being given spaces to thrive equally,’ says Milan-based writer and activist Louis Pisano. ‘I’m ready for full transparency and I’m 100 percent confident that those leaders on the Council will get just that and build a better industry for all of us.’
It’s unbelievable what Floyd’s death has prompted. The results so far are remarkable and encouraging, but we mustn’t get complacent. I look forward to the day when campaigning for diversity will no longer be necessary, because representation will be the norm. We still have a long way to go.
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