• Dayna Tohidi

Less talk, more action

A year has passed since the murder of George Floyd. Now, Plaster investigates if the fashion industry has delivered on the promises it made regarding diversity

"Show us the receipts!" © Graphic by Ekaterina Gordeeva

George Floyd’s death and the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement started a domino-like reaction from significant players in the fashion industry. Alexander McQueen and Gucci made donations to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Campaign Zero, while Jacquemus and Marc Jacobs shared links to educational resources. Some brands went one step further and made permanent commitments; ASAI declared that a percentage of all future sales would go towards BLM organisations, and Ganni promised to commission more Black creatives to create work for its platforms. The industry has steadily increased its representation of Black models on runways and in magazines, but how much progress has been made over the last year that can’t be captured in a picture and validated by likes? Plaster takes a close look at what brands, businesses, educational institutions and industry players have already done and finds out what needs to happen next.

Are brands on track to fulfil their pledges?

Alexander McQueen and Gucci are both backed by Kering, but it is Gucci that has been more vocal about its commitment to rectify racial injustices. In 2019, the Italian brand promised to turn its blackface incident into a major learning curve, and it has. That same year, it launched Gucci Changemakers, which is a global social impact programme that includes a scholarship scheme for high school, undergraduate and community college students within North America enduring financial hardship. Titled “Gucci Changemakers Scholars,” it provides students with mentorship and leadership opportunities at Gucci America and within the fashion industry. Although there is much work to be done, the brand is investing in the creative future of students.

In its post on June 2, Alexander McQueen pledged to “develop initiatives and internal programmes to foster respect, equality and fairness.” While the brand hasn’t followed up publicly since posting its statement, an anonymous employee told me that it launched a Diversity and Inclusion Committee to see how it could improve both recruitment and training. Their lips were sealed over internal activities, but they assure me that they are happening. As a private company, this is their right.

"Last June, there was a lot of virtue signalling and what I call the ‘BAME game.’ The sudden surge in white sympathy and guilt was shocking and also quite scary”

LVMH, which owns a majority stake of Marc Jacobs, didn’t post a statement supporting the BLM movement. Although in an internal email sent to employees in June last year and seen by WWD, the group announced its plans to combat unconscious bias and help their brands – including Louis Vuitton and Loewe – to meet their highest standards in promoting equality. That might sound promising, but the statistics suggest otherwise. In 2016, there were 28 people across LVMH’s board of directors and executive committee; none were Black, and, unsurprisingly, only two were women. Five years later, there are still no Black employees in their executive committee. The group’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, Corey Smith, is a Black man, evidencing that perhaps LVMH only offers Black professionals a seat at the table when they have lived experience of a problem it needs to address. To give some context, a report by the Women in Journalism organisation – titled “A week in British news: how diverse are the UK’s newsrooms?” – suggests that the British media is guilty of this too. Based on the research of one week of prime-time news in mid-July last year, the report concluded that zero Black reporters featured on the front page of newspapers. Out of all the Black expert guests’ appearances that week, more than half were directly related to race, specifically colonialism and Black Lives Matter.

Models – Aaliyah, Imani, Blesnya and Elibeidy – wear the HOT WOK top in this limited edition poster, intended to raise money for charity. © ASAI

When ASAI published its Instagram statement against systemic racism on May 31, it unveiled a new brand acronym: Actively Stand Against Racism. The only item for sale on the website at the time of writing is a limited-edition poster featuring four models of colour. All profits will be donated to ASAI’s chosen charities: Association of Queer Ethnic Minorities, Black Minds Matter, Doctors without Borders and Jompéame. The fact that the brand is donating profits to support various social causes suggests that its philanthropic contributions are sincere and holistic. However, it would have been better if the poster represented Asian and White ethnic minority groups too.

"Last June, there was a lot of virtue signalling and what I call the ‘BAME game.’ The sudden surge in white sympathy and guilt was shocking and also quite scary,” says Kacion Mayers, who is a freelance journalist. Ayo Oju, in his first year of the BA fashion journalism course at Central Saint Martins (also runs The Fashion Archive media platform), agrees. "I always question intentions because, if racism has been a problem for so long, why did it take so much outrage at one particular time for the fashion industry to finally address it?" he asks rhetorically.

Are fashion’s lobbying bodies working hard enough?

The British Fashion Council (BFC) got some stick for recruiting three non-executive directors from minority ethnic backgrounds in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Although that might have appeared tokenistic, it established a Diversity and Inclusion Steering Group last September to focus on providing better engagement, access, and opportunities for all underrepresented groups within the fashion industry. “We have specifically got an education sub-group to address the root of these issues within primary and secondary education,” says the BFC’s head of government relations and education, Judith Rosser-Davies. Committee member, Berni Yates, specialising in diversity within education at Central Saint Martins (CSM), is doing research for a new BFC initiative with the college’s BA fashion communication associate lecturer, Dal Chodha. “We can’t say much about it at this stage, but we are looking at how to support young people into the Arts and if that should be through university or an alternative route,” says Yates.

The Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) also released a statement in response to the BLM movement. In it, the CFDA announced that it would launch a mentorship programme to help Black students and graduates find work within established fashion companies and an in-house employment programme to position Black talent across all sectors of the business. But Kerby Jean-Raymond, designer of Pyer Moss and CFDA board member, wasn’t convinced. He criticised the CFDA for failing to address police brutality in what it told the NY Times was a “watered-down, bubblegum-ass statement.”

What is holding the fashion industry back from achieving diversity?

Tokenism, coincidence or both? On June 15 last year, the now-defunct LOVE magazine announced on Instagram that the fashion journalist and LOVE contributor, Pierre A. M’Pelé, would be joining its team full-time as senior editor. The caption included this quote from the editor-in-chief, Katie Grand: “The addition of Pierre to the team is an important and essential move forward for LOVE.” By this point, M’Pelé had written for LOVE for two years, covering the international collections in 2018. However, to some, the timing of the announcement and Grand’s comment about his appointment being an “essential move” might have appeared tokenistic. “When I was there, the majority of the team was white. I would say this was due to a lack of awareness of diversity as opposed to racism,” an anonymous source who worked at the magazine in 2019 tells Plaster. Now, M’Pelé is the senior editor of Grand’s latest venture, PERFECT magazine.

Think before you publish What goes in print stays in print, and fashion magazines can’t afford to make any more errors. In August 2019, WHO magazine incorrectly used an image of the African-Australian model, Flavia Lazurus, in a feature about the South Sudanese-Australian model, Adut Akech Bior. The mistake was made worse by the fact that the image ran alongside the section of the interview where Akech opened up about her experiences of racism. “It goes to show that people are very ignorant and narrow minded that they think every Black girl or African person looks the same,” the model said in an Instagram post about the incident. WHO magazine issued a direct and public apology, but it unsurprisingly passed the blame onto the modelling agency that set up the interview.

More recently, a miscommunication led to WWD’s executive editor, Booth Moore, receiving backlash on her 2021 Golden Globes fashion review. In the article, published on February 28, she wrote: “there were precious few designers of colour represented on the virtual red carpet. And that’s something the talent could control.” Although the journalist didn’t directly suggest that the onus was on Black actors and actresses, her words hit a nerve. Black celebrity stylists, Jason Bolden and Law Roach, who dressed Cynthia Erivo in Valentino and Tiffany Haddish in Alberta Ferretti, respectively, interpreted Moore’s piece as a personal attack. “What [Booth] is implying is that the brunt of diversity and inclusion should be on our backs,” said Law in an Instagram live with Bolden in early March. In defence of his decision to dress Erivo in Valentino, the stylist pointed to the gatekeepers and barriers that historically prevented Black talent from being dressed by the same fashion houses as their white counterparts. This is an issue that Beyoncé addressed in her acceptance speech for the 2016 CFDA Fashion Icon award. As high-end labels refused to dress Destiny’s Child when the girl group was rising to fame in the early 90s, Beyoncé's mother and uncle designed and made all of their costumes by hand.

"Yes, Black fashion journalists can write about the latest Black designer or photographer, but that’s not all we can do”

Don’t call me BAME The BLM movement heightened the controversy over using the acronym BAME, so much so that the UK government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommended in March that public bodies and companies be banned from using it. “I find the term problematic because it just lumps a bunch of folk together who face very unique struggles, ” says Mayers. Mentoring organisations aren’t ignorant to the divide over the term and are careful to use culturally sensitive language in their communications. As a solution to the fashion industry’s poor recruitment and retention of diverse professional talent, the Fashion Minority Report launched the first cohort of its Fashioning Emerging Professionals mentoring programme in March. Designed for people aged between 18 and 27-years-old from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, successful applicants receive mentoring from an industry professional and have the opportunity to apply for a selection of paid internship roles with partner brands upon completion of the 16-week programme. “What typically happens is there's so much conversation, but we don't see any instrumental change. However, I think we have had really great interaction and progression in the fashion industry,” founder and fashion designer, Daniel Peters, tells Plaster.

So, how can the fashion industry move forward?

Acknowledge race, but see beyond it too There’s a mutual feeling, not only among Black creatives but also Muslims, that they want to be known for their talent first and their identity second. In the past, Mayers has felt pigeonholed because of his race. "Yes, Black fashion journalists can write about the latest Black designer or photographer, but that’s not all we can do,” he says. Black models don’t want to be tokenised either. Simbiat Ladipo, who modelled for MA fashion students while studying BA product design at CSM, felt that her skin colour gave her a bitter-sweet advantage over other models at university. “I always got more work than my friends, but some students never re-booked me after fittings because they just wanted to see what their clothes would look like against a black skin tone,” she recalls with frustration. Too many times to keep count, Ladipo was scouted by students in the university’s canteen who complimented her “unique look.” “There’s no way to know for certain, but I suspected that their perception of my uniqueness came from me being Black.”

Model, Simbiat Ladipo, photographed on the runway of Central Saint Martins' Fall 2018 ready-to-wear fashion show. © Marcus Tondo/Indigital.tv

Improve the education system To achieve an authentically diverse and inclusive fashion industry, Art and Design universities need to invest more resources and money to support students from underprivileged backgrounds. Known as widening participation in higher education, every university has a budget for outreach, and most spend it on bursaries and scholarships. At the University of the Arts London (UAL), the money is used to fund its Insights programme, which provides the youth of colour studying at partner schools and colleges with pre-university advice, summer schools and creative activities at one of UAL’s colleges. One of the advantages of participating in the programme is that you are guaranteed an interview if you apply to study at UAL. The Fashion Minority Alliance (FMA) – a non-profit organisation that aims to promote and secure the advancement of minorities in the fashion and beauty industries – also runs a school outreach programme. “We hope that it will lead to an increase in people of all backgrounds who want to explore a career in the fashion industry,” explains the FMA’s co-founder, Barbara Kennedy-Brown. “It is necessary to educate parents and indeed the educators at the secondary level that there are some brilliant opportunities.”

Diversifying university staff and student bodies is the first step, and creating an inclusive learning environment is the next. “I often get former Insights students knocking on my office window to say that they feel uncomfortable in the building,” says Yates, who is CSM’s outreach practitioner. The college’s associate dean of learning, teaching and enhancement – Silke Lange – is also aware of this issue. “If you aren’t from a privileged background, you are going to feel intimidated by the building,” she thinks. Formerly a warehouse, the college’s building is owned by a landlord, which means that it doesn’t have total freedom over the look and feel of the space. However, in the same way that a house becomes a home when you make it yours, Lange believes that the university should co-design the interior space with students so that they feel a sense of belonging. Although – as Pascal Matthias, the co-founder of the Fashion Academics Creating Equality (FACE) group, says, “there needs to be an acknowledgement and acceptance of how an overall increase of culture can both benefit staff, students and pedagogical learning.”

“I always got more work than my friends, but some students never re-booked me after fittings because they just wanted to see what their clothes would look like against a black skin tone”

Decolonising the curriculum has been the topic of many conversations between staff and students in the last year. “This is about preventing lecturers and tutors from projecting a single, Western perspective onto students,” explains Hywel Davies, who is CSM’s programme director for fashion. From the library’s book selection to the course curriculums, the aim is to consider students' different cultures and backgrounds and encourage them to draw on their unique experiences. However, it’s important to recognise that storytelling cultures can’t be captured by books, which is why all university libraries should establish oral history collections. Aswan Magumbe, a second-year BA fashion journalism student at CSM, believes that these collections are “necessary to overcome cultural barriers – and as fashion students, it's more important than ever that we actively seek to do so.”

None of the issues discussed are new, but it’s clear that the fashion industry has taken a more urgent, practical and holistic approach to eradicate racial inequality since the murder of George Floyd. Only time will tell whether actions speak louder than words – but for now – there’s hope.