Let’s Talk About It: Diversity in Fashion

Conversation is part of the solution

10.28.15
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During fashion week, there is no way to assess how a garment moves on the body without noticing that white models are doing most of the moving. For one month, twice a year, the disproportionate representation of our global reality is on display atop endless runways. It’s certainly easier to see the lack of diversity here than it is within the industry as a whole — it’s in your face. This doesn’t mean it’s any easier to talk about.

No one wants to hear a white woman “pretend” to get this struggle. But as Robin Givhan, fashion editor of The Washington Post, said to me during an interview, “You don’t have to know how it feels in order to recognize when something is inappropriate.” That’s our responsibility as humans.

“I think sometimes there’s fear of getting it wrong or not being politically correct,” Givhan said in response to the fashion industry’s resistance to acknowledge wrongdoing. “Those are all absolutely legitimate fears. But the conversation won’t get anywhere if people aren’t willing to live with those fears and speak up.”

Fashion activist and former model Bethann Hardison has been speaking up for years. She founded the Diversity Coalition/Balance Diversity to eliminate racism during casting and get more women of color on the runway and in editorials. She recalled a time when designers “just weren’t seeing black people.”

The Fashion Spot collected data from 373 shows and 9,926 model appearances across the Spring 2016 runways of New York, London, Paris and Milan. They reported that “77.6 percent of the time models were white.” It’s a slight improvement from the 80 percent they reported for Fall 2015, and 83 percent from the previous spring.

Hardison remains undeterred in her mission to get the industry to change. “I am a very patient revolutionary,” she told me. “I believe in education. That change comes about with dialogue.”

Derek Lam’s inspiration for his Spring 16 collection was civil rights activist and musician Nina Simone. “The relevance of fashion is always changing,” he wrote via email. “Sometimes the emphasis is more on the frivolity, as an escape, like 1950’s fashion was a response to war time deprivation. And sometimes it is more in tune with social change, like the 1920s and 1970s.” Like right now.

Diversifying his runway was important to Lam. In comparison to prior seasons, his Spring 16 show demonstrated real change. “Fashion shows can be robotic,” he said, equating them to when a clock chimes and “the little wooden figures come out the clock door in a circular pattern again and again. Kind of monotonous and ridiculous.”

Rosie Assoulin, a designer who prioritizes diversity in her presentations, said something similar: “It’s about not having a static beauty ideal. It’s not about representing this idea of one. I want to celebrate the individual as opposed to ‘a type.'”

Says Lam of his Spring 16 model casting process, “I think a big credit should go to the model agencies who really dug deep and made the effort to present diversity.”

Aurora James, creative director of Brother Vellies — a brand that employs artisans in Africa, experienced the opposite. She had such a hard time getting agencies to send her models of color for her Spring presentation that she found and cast unsigned women herself.

“I was pissed,” she said. “I was like, how is this going to make all the people I work with feel? I want them to feel reflected and included.”

That word, “inclusion,” may be the most important talking point in this conversation. Inclusion can mean the difference between celebration and appropriation, as James pointed out. “Black culture is often the inspiration,” said fashion editor Shiona Turini, “but black people aren’t part of the conversation. When we’re included, we’re able to help make a more well-rounded product — runway show, beauty story, hair tutorial, editorial.”

Here’s where “talking about it” doesn’t cut it and action has to be taken: Magazines, websites, designers, agencies, photographers, stylists all have to diversify their employees. Yes: Man Repeller does, too. Models represent one fraction of the fashion world. “Don’t just look at the runway,” said Turini. “Look around at who is sitting next to you at fashion week.”

Keija Minor, editor in chief of Brides, is the first black woman to hold the title of editor in chief at Condé Nast. Eva Chen, former editor in chief of Lucky, was the first Asian American woman at Condé Nast to hold the title. But these two are outliers. Diversity is lacking across the entire industry.

Shiona Turini recounted numerous instances of being the only black woman at various magazine staff meetings. So too did Rajni Jacques, a creative director and editor at large.

“Our generation grew up to be PC,” Jacques said. “It created this tension when speaking about race, or why you’re influenced by a person of color. I’ve worked at magazines long enough to know when the topic of race does come up, it’s as if everyone is talking but no one’s really saying anything. What do they mean by ‘urban’? It could mean a lot of things. I want to get them to say ‘black,’ because if you can’t speak about diversity, how the hell are you going to execute it?”

“Urban” or “hip hop” or “safari chic” — it’s here that we get into the topic of trends: trending subcultures, trending models who represent the moment’s “look.” It’s important to consider diversity as the norm while being wary to not celebrate race as novelty.

When diversity is limited, it means the range of faces within diversity is further limited, which means only a tiny representation of a rich culture or ethnicity is showcased in the images that dictate society’s already narrow perception of “beautiful.”

“People are driven by what they know,” Robin Givhan reminded me. “Ideas of beauty are driven by what they know. That’s the prime argument for being concerned about diversity in the broader sense — not just who walks down the runway.” It’s why we need to remain mindful of the world around us.

“What is fashion if not an industry founded on the fundamental idea that things come and go,” said Givhan on trending beauty ideals. “I can think of a dozen models who were ‘it girls’ for two seasons, now they’re barely on the runway. I don’t think that’s solely about race. It’s about a short attention span.” Bethann Hardison had a similar sentiment, though both women agreed that problems arise is when the industry moves away from prioritizing diversity. “That’s not a trend,” Givhan said. “That’s ignoring a whole customer base.”

Keija Minor said that in order for there to be a change in the industry, there needs to be a change in mindset. “As more people stop looking at increasing diversity in their editorial content and staff as the ‘right’ or ‘cool’ thing to do and start realizing that it’s the business-savvy thing to do, we’ll see meaningful change. 44.2 percent of millennials identify as part of a minority race or ethnic group. To not be more inclusive is leaving audience share on the table. As Shonda Rhimes said, ‘being more inclusive in media is not about diversifying, it’s about normalizing to accurately reflect the world we live in.’”

To normalize, we have to keep having these conversations. I think we forget the very real power of words to incite action. As Sophie Theallet — a white designer whose Spring 16 show featured 60 percent diversity, not to mention a plus size model — wrote to me over e-mail, “Change never comes from the top; but from within.”

Shiona Turni asked why I was writing this story. She didn’t ask it to challenge my intentions but rather to help us both focus in on what she would say, and what I would write.

So I quoted Bethann Hardison: “If you’re not color conscious, something’s wrong. You have to keep it real and not be afraid to say things.”

Afraid? I’m terrified. But I do hope I’ve kept it real.

Runway images via Vogue Runway; collage by Krista Anna Lewis

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