"We've already got a Black girl."
There is no denying that racism lies within every crack of our country -- it's been deep rooted in the foundations of every institution, industry and system since that mf Christopher Columbus unsolicitedly set foot in America. However, thanks to the ongoing efforts from activists, protestors and fed up people, the reality is that change is real. And, with enough support, change will happen. The generations before ours have been first hand witnesses to the kind of impact protesting can have. Whether it be the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Anti-Vietnam War Protests that lasted nine years and ultimately pressured Nixon to pull troops out of Vietnam, or more recently, 2008’s Occupy Wall Street that initiated a rebirth to public protesting in the U.S., it’s undeniable that movements have historically influenced and driven change. If you have so much as passed by a news-filled TV screen once within the last couple weeks, you would know that change is being demanded once again. Without justice, there will be no peace.
Although the world sees fashion as glamorous and luxurious, it's an industry that's completely polluted with human rights issues. Brands seem to overlook the problems that lie right beneath their noses. The next time you watch a fashion show, take note of the amount of diversity you see in the models, and think about whether they’re practicing tokenism. The Black community struggles on a daily basis for fair treatment in the fashion and beauty industry. Luckily, the Black Lives Matter Movement has been helpful in exposing bigots in charge of the brands that make clothes consumers wear every day. Corporations are being forced to put their money where their mouths are, and contribute to the fight for racial justice. Brands that stay silent or refrain from taking action will no longer go unnoticed by standing idly on the sidelines of a fight we need to unite for.
An article by The Fashion Law opens with the fashion industry’s alleged rationalization for a lack of diversity in model choice. Common excuses like, “we’ve already got a black girl,” “it’s not our creative vision,” and “our customer isn’t ready yet,” expose the distorted reality lying behind the curtains of some of your favorite brands. Luckily, social media has created a platform that allows brands to directly connect with their audiences, allowing for more of a two sided discussion. Within the last few years, consumers and audiences have gained a platform and are more willing to speak up when a brand posts something or acts in a way that may seem discriminatory or unjust. They can even be “cancelled” for their behavior—meaning they’ll be boycotted and exposed online—resulting in a loss of credibility and support. Though brands should be held accountable for wrongdoings before they even reach the public and get torn apart by the press (that is a whole issue in and of itself), there’s comfort in knowing that social media allows people to hold brands accountable rather than let them off the hook.
Accepting responsibility is one thing, but actually making change is another in itself. The more brands become aware of the consequences they create, the more pressure they will feel to change. In an article written about white-washed runways, The Fashion Law argues that, “From all-white catwalks, to makeup artists not coming prepared to work with black models, to cultural symbols being ripped off and sold to the masses, we’re more aware than ever of how our complacent behavior offends and excludes others." If brands are held accountable for their appropriative actions and lack of diversity, we might start to see some hope for the changes the fashion industry so desperately needs.
We could go on a million tangents about internal injustices within individual corporations, but in widening the scope, we find that the entire industry as a whole lacks cultural competence. This ignorance starts at one of the very first stages in the process: design and trends. Cultural appropriation occurs in the initial design stages of a collection, before models even walk the catwalks. Designers, stylists and creative directors steal cultural symbols created by and for a certain culture or community, and proceed to capitalize on said symbol. Some common counter arguments include that “it’s art,” or “it’s not appropriation, it’s appreciation,” but this ignores the fact that members of a dominant culture cherry-pick an aspect of a minority culture, disregard the original significance, and utilize it as a trend. These trends are then used on white models, and a half-assed attempt of masking appropriation is made by calling them “tribal” or “exotic.” Naomi Mdudu, a Black fashion editor, affirms that “a big brand will take a print and the colors of a culture and not credit them. So, your brand is more ready to embrace and profit off a culture than your customer is ready to see that face represented.”
Beverly Johnson changed the fashion world in August of 1974 when she became the first Black model pictured on the cover of Vogue. Breaking this barrier opened the door to hundreds of other cover shoots, but due to her race, she was limited to significantly lower compensation. In her statement published to The Washington Post last week, she commented on the industry's slow effort to include other Black people in aspects of the fashion and beauty industry. Johnson adds that she was constantly reprimanded for simply requesting Black photographers, makeup artists and hairstylists for photo shoots. In fact, the entire black community is barely compensated or recognized for their enormous contribution to the fashion industry. She explains how brands fail at retaining and promoting Black professionals in the workforce and how many of them will not invest in Black designers. Brands are willing to “pirate blackness for profit while excluding Black people and preventing them from monetizing their talents.”
Twenty-two year old model Anok Yai went viral after a “jarring” Instagram post by a prominent fashion editor. The French editor shared a picture of the two of them captioned, “Anok is not a Black woman, she is my friend.” Yai responded by writing an essay published to The Oprah Magazine where she addresses the post and her experience with racism in the fashion industry. Yai believes part of the problem lies within education, because industry professionals rely on Black models to teach them how to work with their hair and complexions. This lack of education is then blamed on the Black community, when it should be the bare minimum standard to educate yourself on how to work with every race.
“Educate yourself and come prepared. It’s your job. The world is changing right before our very eyes, and we won’t be tolerant of intolerance any longer.” -Anok Yai
There are many deep rooted problems within the fashion industry in America, but discrimination is the least acceptable. Currently, The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which is considered fashion’s most influential trade organization, consists of around 500 invite-only members. Less than 4% are Black. In order to nurture and cultivate an inclusive industry, diversity is crucial. By creating and maintaining barriers for the Black community, the fashion industry will continue to be run by intolerant people.
In the past, change has been slow, but luckily the Black Lives Matter movement is starting to make waves. In an article by Fast Company, three Black designers share their thoughts on how to make the fashion industry more all-embracing. Aurora James, a member of the CFDA, has created a movement called the Fifteen Percent Pledge to initiate change herself. Because Black people make up 15% of our population, she is requesting large retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to black-owned businesses. If all of the retailers were to obey these guidelines, she estimates it would turn over $14.5 billion to black communities. “Supporting the Black community should be more than just words, brands should be allocating 15% of their purchase power to black businesses. That just seems like the bare minimum; it’s a quota that they should already have.”
Tracy Reese, who was head of the Women's Portfolio for Perry Ellis and member of the CFDA, clarifies the Black community’s simple demand for respect. “We’re not asking for an extra piece of the pie—we’re just asking for equality and equity, we have to hold brands accountable for publishing their progress and asking them where they are three months, six months, nine months from now.”
So how can the average consumer contribute to change? The first step is to stop giving your money to the wrong brands, and start shopping at the right ones. Twenty-two year old designer Anifa Mvuemba urges her peers to use the tools technology has given us to bypass the system. She created her own direct-to-consumer online clothing brand, Hanifa, and uses outlets like social media to advertise. The clothing is designed for “Women Without Limits” with designs that contour to the body and fit a wide range of body types. This May, she debuted her most recent collection in the world’s first virtual 3D fashion show that premiered live on her brand’s Instagram.
According to an article posted to The Guardian, people of color represented 47% of models at New York’s most recent fashion week. Even though it may seem like things are headed in the right direction, this is still only the beginning. One way you can help bring equality to the fashion industry is by joining the #PayUp movement, which is urging large corporations to pay the production costs for clothes they committed to buying. Factory workers overseas depend on this money, and due to COVID-19, they need it now more than ever. This lack of adequate compensation is yet another example of many acts of discrimination within the industry. Use your voice to fight by supporting and donating to movements like The Fashion Revolution and Fair Wear Foundation.
We urge you to support black-owned businesses, even if it means just signing up to their newsletters. We also urge you to do research on the conditions under which the clothes you’re buying were made, and to keep track of your favorite brand’s behavior towards race and the Black community. Buy only from ethical brands that are transparent about their business practices. Change takes time and persistence, so let’s stand up as creators and consumers of fashion to fight as one unified power. There has never been a riper opportunity for righting the wrongs that still exist in the fashion industry today.
“Plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize.” -Killer Mike