June 24, 2024


Normal is boring

The fashion industry says it stands against racism. Critics aren’t buying it

Since May 26, headlines have been dominated by the killing of George Floyd and the international protests it has ignited. Thousands have taken to the streets around the world to denounce police brutality and anti-blackness, while online, thousands more have posted en masse in support of #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) and called for an end to systemic racism.

On social media, many fashion brands were quick to align themselves with protesters, posting black squares to Instagram on #BlackoutTuesday, and sharing lengthy captions denouncing racism, discrimination and violence. But not everyone was buying it.

“Plain and simple, I don’t think there is the intention behind it to make long-lasting, sustainable change,” Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner said in an email to CNN. “Everyone can hop onto the BLM movement right now on social media, but what are you doing in your home, in your corporate office, with your connections, with the power you have?”

Charges of hypocrisy have plagued brands since the onset of the protests. On social media, commenters questioned whether the luxury brand Salvatore Ferragamo, who declined to comment for this story, could be an ally in the fight against racism when actor Tommy Dorfman accused them of discriminating against trans models and models of color in a recent campaign; or whether LA label Reformation could truly support #BlackLivesMatter when people claiming to be former employees were accusing the brand of workplace racism in the comments (founder Yael Aflalo has apologized and resigned from her post as chief executive officer); or whether Anthropologie could genuinely claim “Our hearts, with yours, are breaking at current events,” as they did in a since-deleted Instagram post, when they’ve been accused of racial profiling their customers — allegations that the brand has denied.
This is to say nothing of the backlash against fashion publications. Earlier this month, a CNN investigation unearthed numerous allegations of racism and workplace toxicity at Refinery29. In response to these accusations, editor-in-chief and co-founder Christene Barberich — who resigned on June 8 — said in a statement, “My goal has always been to help close the representation gap and I believe that is reflected across the pages of Refinery29.”
Meanwhile, Anna Wintour was briefly rumored to be stepping down from her vaunted post at Vogue, as former staffers and talent shared their own experiences with racism at the magazine.

Wintour, whose official title names her as artistic director and editor-in-chief of Vogue US and global content advisor, sent an internal email to her staff on June 5. In the memo, seen by CNN, she acknowledged and took “full responsibility” for the racism that flourished under her watch: “I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant,” she wrote.

Additionally, a spokesperson for Condé Nast, Vogue’s publisher, said in a statement, “Condé Nast is focused on creating meaningful, sustainable change and continues to implement an inclusive hiring process to ensure that a diverse range of candidates is considered for all open positions.”

Everyone can hop onto the BLM movement right now on social media, but what are you doing in your home, in your corporate office, with your connections, with the power you have?

Lindsay Peoples Wagner

Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsey Peoples Wagner

Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsey Peoples Wagner Credit: Kyleen James / The Society Management

It was French luxury brand Celine’s Instagram response — a black square with a caption reading, “Celine stands against all forms of discrimination, oppression and racism. Tomorrow’s world will not exist without equality for all #BlackLivesMatter” — that caused Hollywood stylist Jason Bolden, whose celebrity clients include Taraji P. Henson, Ava DuVernay and Serena Williams, to pause his scrolling. In a pointed comment that was later picked up by industry watchdog account Diet Prada, Bolden accused the brand, who declined to comment for this story, of not dressing Black celebrities for the red carpet unless they were working with White stylists.

“My focus has not been on fashion; my focus has been on lives being lost and the injustice (facing) Black people,” Bolden said in a phone interview. “But in that particular moment when I saw that go across my feed, it just sparked my rage. It just felt like a joke to me. It didn’t feel authentic.”

As a stylist, Bolden said he’s often felt marginalized by high fashion brands. He recalls struggling to find a designer to dress Henson for the 2017 Academy Awards, where her film “Hidden Figures” was nominated for three awards, including Best Picture. “These are the exact same brands that I would see dressing talent who no one had ever heard of, and they were all White girls,” said Bolden.

“And in those moments, what else are you supposed to lean into? (Henson) has everything they could possibly want. She has the press that goes along with (the Oscar nominations), she has the major coverage, she’s presenting, she’s won a Golden Globe… she’s in critically acclaimed movies. And yet they said no.”

But in that particular moment when I saw that go across my feed, it just sparked my rage. It just felt like a joke to me. It didn’t feel authentic.

Jason Bolden

Stylist Jason Bolden

Stylist Jason Bolden

“I think what we’re seeing is people like myself who are tired of people and brands not walking the talk,” said Peoples Wagner. “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.”

This isn’t the first time the fashion industry has stumbled when it comes to addressing issues of race. Cultural appropriation, high-profile racist gaffes and the lack of runway diversity are perennial tal
king points, leading to a recent wave of diversity and inclusion hires. Peoples Wagner is one of few Black editors at the helm of a major fashion magazine (along with British Vogue’s Edward Enninful, and Harper’s Bazaar’s newly appointed editor, Samira Nasr, who will officially begin next month), and there are only two Black designers at the helm of European fashion houses.
“I don’t know if any White person is even able to relate to the emotional turmoil that is being Black and trying to have a business here and trying to survive (in this industry)… I don’t know if there’s any sector in fashion where Black people can say we have the same resources, we’re equal, we’re treated the same,” said model Adesuwa Aighewi, one of the most high-profile Black models working today.

Having walked the runway and fronted campaigns for some of the world’s most renowned luxury brands and appeared on the April 2020 cover of Vogue, Aighewi said she sees her “entire career” as part of the industry’s recent — if still limited — efforts to increase model diversity in magazines and on the runway after years of criticism. “Literally everything that I’ve done has been as the face of my race and as a diversity token. I shot the cover of American Vogue in December, and yet I don’t see any of the companies that so proudly paraded me around having meaningful dialogue about Black Lives Matter.”

Danielle Prescod, style director for BET.com, wasn’t surprised to see brands suddenly speaking up against racism in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. “(With) something that was moving as quickly as this movement was through social media, it would have been so glaring if people didn’t say anything,” she said.

Literally everything that I’ve done has been as the face of my race and as a diversity token.

Adesuwa Aighewi

Model Adesuwa Aighewi

Model Adesuwa Aighewi Credit: Kyleen James/The Society Management

However, she couldn’t help but question the motivation when brands that had previously remained silent on issues of race, or hadn’t previously prioritized inclusion and diversity, chose this moment to speak up.

“It does come across as disingenuous when a brand says something like ‘We stand with the Black community.’ It’s like, when have you ever stood with the Black community?” she said. “You have had the same opportunities to defend Black lives, to defend Black beauty, to employ Black people from the onset of your business. So for you this week to decide that you do (care about Black lives) is all too convenient. It ends up looking like a marketing opportunity rather than something that they truly care about.”

Indeed, now more than ever, aligning one’s brand with popular causes can make for good strategy. According to the 2020 State of Fashion Report, compiled by management consulting giant McKinsey & Company and trade publication the Business of Fashion, almost two-thirds of consumers identify as “‘belief-driven buyers’ who will choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.” Because of this, the report predicted that more companies will “elevate diversity and inclusion as a higher priority.”

At a time when 74% of Americans support the protests, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, siding with protestors — even in a superficial way — means siding with popular opinion.

“If you look at how brands rally around causes, it’s usually popular causes and the causes of the majority, because what you’re trying to do is align your brand with customer values. So you now have a customer who judges your brand not as an entity, but as a person or personality,” said Martin Raymond, co-founder of trend-forecasting consultancy The Future Laboratory.

“Traditionally, it was useful for brands to sit on the fence but, increasingly, if you sit on the fence, you risk getting splinters on your bottom. You end up not really understanding the pendulum of history and where it’s swinging, and where you need to be when that pendulum passes over you.”

However, by aligning themselves with a cause, brands open themselves up to increased consumer scrutiny and criticism, which can be problematic when their pledges contradict their practices. Raymond points to the ongoing conversations around fashion brands’ sustainability efforts, which have often been panned as “greenwashing”: “If I examined your infrastructure, your logistics chain or your sourcing — particularly in fashion — I would find quite strange things sitting there that would be readily available for criticism and for challenge.”

However, Bethann Hardison, a former model, turned modeling agent and diversity advocate, is less cynical. “When people offer their solidarity, I don’t tend to question it… I don’t have time for that. We have a movement to keep moving,” she said.

“These big companies, a lot of them are very good people and they do care to do the right thing, but they’re used to being who they’ve been. Now, this is an opportunity for people to wake up and look and notice that something different is happening around them and happening to them.”

For brands who, historically, haven’t had to think critically about race and social justice — or address the issues of racism in their own teams — a learning curve is to be expected. “Some people are being challenged for the first time to talk about race openly.”

When people offer their solidarity, I don’t tend to question it… I don’t have time for that. We have a movement to keep moving

Bethann Hardison

Model Bethann Hardison

Model Bethann Hardison Credit: Jacopo M. Raule/Getty Images for Gucci

Some brands have been better at establishing solidarity than others. Bolden has praised Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli for his multicultural casting and for making South Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech the de facto face of the brand. Similarly, Prescod commends plus-size luxury e-retailer 11 Honoré for its commitment to using diverse models on their platform and on Instagram. (“You won’t go two scrolls without seeing a Black face,” Prescod observed.)

Hardison points to Gucci as an example of a brand making promising steps to address the lack of representation in fashion. In 2019, the Italian brand, which had faced backlash for insensitive designs and co-opting th
e designs of Black designer Dapper Dan, launched their Changemakers Impact Fund. Last October, the fund launched a $1.5 million diversity scholarship program to “to ensure a new era of diverse and exceptional young people will gain opportunities and experiences across the fashion industry.” And, on June 3, the company announced it would be donating to the NAACP, Campaign Zero (a non-profit that works to end police brutality) and Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp. Gucci also paused US operations on June 4 “for employees to have a day of mourning, honor the lives lost, and recommit ourselves to being part of the solution.”
But truly entrenching anti-racist values into one’s business requires dramatic change at the top, where decision-making power lies. In its 2019 report on inclusion and diversity in the industry, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) stated that focusing on visibility — such as diversity on the runway or on magazine covers — is not enough: “The industry must recognize and prioritize efforts to support greater diversity on the business side: the financiers, the chief executives, the heads of fashion houses, the senior level magazine editors, and business leaders,” wrote Erica Lovett, the director of inclusion and diversity at publisher Condé Nast. “Until fashion leaders across all categories become more diverse, we will continue to only progress at the surface level.”
Research suggests that diverse hiring is more than just a matter of good optics: it’s good business. A 2018 McKinsey study found that companies with high levels of ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have “industry-leading profitability.”

“People have been saying for years the steps that need to be taken: create a pipeline for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) talent, make sure that pipeline gives way for leadership positions so you don’t just have a ton of BIPOC assistants and freelancers, etc.,” Peoples Wagner said. “Inclusivity isn’t as hard as people make it seem. It just has to be a committed, company-wide decision, and not a choice unilaterally.”

Hardison views this moment as “a first step” in a larger fight for change and predicts that today’s unrest will lead to “ample changes” in the future. (She’s not the only one: in a recent interview, civil rights activist and scholar Angela Davis said, “This particular historical conjecture holds possibilities for change that we’ve never before experienced in this country.”)

Aighewi is similarly optimistic but acknowledges that genuine change won’t come easily. “People need to actually do the work: get uncomfortable, have these conversations, admit that the system is not correct,” she said.

“These companies have been around long enough. This is not the first time Black people have complained about the fashion industry; this isn’t the first revolution. Something’s got to give.”