Last year, as Black Lives Matter brought a global reckoning, the fashion world was one of the most outspoken industries vowing to change. But they did not necessarily tell us how said change would happen, so has it? In the months since Black Lives Matter protests rippled across the world and black squares riddled our timelines, there has been a lot of lip service, but very little action.
On social media, many brands and personalities in fashion were quick to align themselves with #BlackLivesMatter, but many of us saw straight through these performances. Editor-in-chief of The Cut Lindsay Peoples Wagner (formerly of Teen Vogue) said it best to CNN: “I think what we’re seeing is people like myself who are tired of people and brands not walking the talk. It’s very easy for people to tap into a moment and say they care about an issue, but people have been doing that for years without making real systemic changes, and that’s what’s being demanded of brands now.”
For an industry that thrives on exclusion, fashion is unsurprisingly unrelenting of its systemic racist ways. A New York Times report spotlights an industry that is quick to talk and slow to change. At the height of Black Lives Matter, between declarations of solidarity and public commitments to equity, fashion brands, media companies, and retailers pledged they would look at their own lack of diversity. They vowed to become more transparent, they said they’d better Black representation, and make this space more inclusive overall.
In 2021, we see that many of these establishments have fallen short of last year’s promises. Focusing on 64 brands, 15 major department stores, and online sellers, and 5 leading publishers, NYT found that while the fashion world claims it’s very committed to progress, not much is changing. The numbers still aren’t what they should be. Of the 69 designers and creative directors spotlighted, only four are Black. And this number just shrank by one when LVMH and Rihanna shuttered her Fenty fashion house. Now there is no Black woman at the head of a major Parisian luxury brand.
Meanwhile, the fashion media landscape isn’t much better, but magazine covers tell a different story. As NYT notes, five out of nine American Vogue covers since September have featured Black models, three of them shot by Black photographers; As have four out of six Elle UK covers, and three out of six Vogue UK covers; And InStyle used Black models and Black photographers for four out of six issues. Yes, these images matter, but the world they depict is very different from reality. Token representation on the cover of these magazines usually doesn’t permeate behind the scenes, and any move towards diversity often doesn’t result in permanent positions. Two of the nine magazines the NYT looked at had black editors-in-chief while Black editors and writers across media are still underrepresented in staff roles (at the time of writing, I am still the only Black staff writer at Highsnobiety).
“What we’ve seen is fashion’s version of affirmative action. And I don’t think anyone asked for that. That’s the issue: The industry puts a Band-Aid on what’s actually happened, as it’s happening. Look at the runway: So designers decide to use more Black models: Great — that’s great for visibility on the runway”, Antoine Gregory founder of Black Fashion Fair told NYT.: What does the team behind the scenes look like? When you have magazines that all of a sudden want to put Black designers on the cover, who’s styling it? Who’s shooting it? What’s the team involved?”
So what does a tangible commitment to diversity even look like? Unfortunately, the onus is still on Black people in fashion to champion diversity. Last June, Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond and Virgil Abloh were amongst the Council of Fashion Designers of America members to craft a list of reasonable, actionable demands that the CFDA and its associated companies could be held accountable for. The plan detailed a pressing need for a pipeline for Black talent, and for that pipeline to give way for leadership positions. Instead, the CFDA chose to ignore these requests, and released what Jean-Raymond called a “fucking watered-down, bubblegum-ass statement that didn’t address the issues.”
The truth of the matter is, while intentions are there, many of these corporations have been slow to change the workforce given the current state of the industry. Yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic, where most employee bases have been forced to shrink. But until we’re out of this crisis, how do we ensure that these promises aren’t put in a box and stowed away? In the absence of a single unifying watchdog or set of goals, a number of initiatives have been created to spur further change. For example, last month the CFDA — riffing off Jean-Raymond and Abloh’s suggestions — launched an initiative to connect fashion companies and organizations with Black industry professionals seeking jobs, freelance opportunities, and paid internships.
While the fashion world seems ready to acknowledge its shortcomings and promises to make a difference, actionable changes are still on the road ahead. This isn’t the first time Black people have complained about the fashion industry, but hopefully, the system is ready to evolve.