LONDON, United Kingdom — In 1973, when Bethann Hardison sashayed down the runway in one of fashion’s most famous showdowns during the Battle of Versailles, she was part of a moment in history that promised to mark an inflection point in the fashion world.
The catwalk battle between five upstart American designers — Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston and Stephen Burrows — and five of France’s most respected designers – Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Dior’s Marc Bohan — saw the US contingent take the prize.
The French came with elaborate sets, but an old-school mentality. The Americans came with Liza Minnelli and a diverse mix of models who gave their own character to the clothes. The Americans stole the show.
All of a sudden, the traditional European grip on high fashion was broken, making room for a looser, freer brand of American design. It was fashion tinged with the influences of the civil rights movement and Vietnam: multicultural, multi-racial and unselfconscious.
It was an era that endured through the ’70s and much of the ’80s, with designers such as John Galliano, Yves Saint Laurent and Jean-Paul Gaultier exploring so-called “ethnic” influences or “exotic” models (as they were referred to at the time), said Kimberly Jenkins, a part-time lecturer of fashion history and theory at Parsons School of Design.
Then the moment ended and everything seemed to go back to the way it was. The industry reverted to norm.
French fashion brands again came to dominate the luxury market, but now as part of corporate behemoths controlled by a small group of primarily white, primarily male executives. Trends changed, moving away from the disco-era glam of the ’70s to a more angsty and gothic interpretation of style that favoured waif-like models, often from Eastern Europe. By the late ’90s, international catwalks had become a near-monolith of racial homogeneity.
“The girl of colour started to disappear,” said Hardison, reflecting on the time after the historic show in which she walked. “We had lost what we had.”
The girl of colour started to disappear. We had lost what we had.
The former model, agency owner and industry advocate has spent more than a decade campaigning for more representation on the runway and in ad campaigns. For years, she was part of an undercurrent of advocacy, chipping away at the sanitised and polished image of fashion reflected back at consumers through glossy magazines and opulent catwalk shows.
Now, these efforts are starting to pay off. After years of complacency, the fashion industry is facing a perfect storm of political consciousness, consumer activism and social-media penetration that is putting intense pressure on brands to show they are stepping up efforts to operate more inclusively than they ever have before.
The rise of social media and a shifting cultural and political landscape has changed the game, catapulting such conversations into the mainstream. Brands serving a globalised market are scrambling to cater to an increasingly diverse and vocal consumer base. Scandals over racially and culturally insensitive designs and campaigns at powerhouses like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry and H&M have proven that this is a high-stakes game.
“The conversation that we had been having for years, people in the industry and the public started to talk about it in a big way,” said Brandice Daniel, founder and chief executive of Harlem’s Fashion Row, which promotes multicultural designers. “Ten years ago, seven years ago, it would be hard for me to give young designers hope; I would cringe internally because I knew what they would be up against… [Now], I see things getting better.”
Over the past five years, there’s been a visible, if gradual, shift within the industry. In 2017, Edward Enninful became the first black editor-in-chief of British Vogue. Last year, Tyler Mitchell shot Beyoncé for American Vogue’s September issue — the first black photographer to shoot a cover in the magazine’s history. Across the Atlantic, Virgil Abloh became the first black man to be an artistic director at an LVMH-owned brand.
Meanwhile, the proportion of ad campaigns featuring models of colour rose from 15 percent in the spring of 2015 to 35 percent in the spring of 2019, according to data compiled by The Fashion Spot. Catwalks in London, New York, Paris and Milan have seen a similar shift. Older, plus-size, transgender or non-binary models are also appearing more frequently on fashion week runways, the data show.
Designs are also changing to capitalise on a broader and more diverse consumer base. Retailers including Macy’s, Marks & Spencer and H&M have experimented with modest fashion lines or sections, eyeing the Muslim market, and other consumers who prefer to avoid the rising hemlines and plunging necklines that tend to dominate mainstream fashion. Curvy fashion has also exploded. Inclusive-sizing online retailer 11 Honoré opened New York Fashion Week in February, with the event’s first-ever fashion show featuring plus-size models in luxury designer apparel. And there’s growing awareness of the needs of consumers with mobility or health challenges: brands including Nike, Tommy Hilfiger and Target have all designed special adaptive collections and products.
However, much of the shift has been cosmetic; as much about marketing as driving real change. The industry is still struggling to adjust its way of operating and embed inclusivity in the way it works beyond the façade of its big glossy advertising campaigns.
“For me, an inclusive industry is not only an inclusive spread of models of various sizes and skin colours; it’s a C-suite that’s as diverse, [and] as inclusive, that has embraced different cultures,” said designer and advocate Céline Semaan, founder of fashion think-tank Slow Factory and non-profit conference series The Library Study Hall.
That’s a challenging conversation for an industry that has been more-or-less built on selling exclusivity. While power-brokers have been willing to bow to consumer demand for more diverse faces, there’s near-monthly evidence they haven’t been willing to cede power and bring more voices to the table where decisions are made. The chief executives and C-suites of the world’s biggest fashion companies remain majority white and male.
“What’s missing right now is an understanding that the barriers preventing inclusion are systemic, so the transformation needs to be systemic,” said Ben Barry, chair of fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Inclusion isn’t a check mark.”
While companies are certainly paying closer attention to the issue — Gucci, Chanel and Burberry have all hired diversity and inclusion officers this year — real change has proved slow and fraught.
This is not a fad; diversity and sustainability will continue to grow and be the dominant thing in the industry.
This year alone, Gucci’s efforts to market itself as one of fashion’s most “woke” brands stumbled after it released a jumper many consumers said resembled blackface; the fashion director of Vogue Brasil resigned after photos from her 50th birthday party drew criticism for evoking colonial depictions of slavery; Mexico’s government accused Carolina Herrera of cultural appropriation; and Kim Kardashian West had to change the name of her new shapewear collection after the original name, Kimono, sparked outrage in Japan and beyond. More recently, BoF and its editor-in-chief, Imran Amed, were accused by Pyer Moss creative director Kerby Jean-Raymond and other members of the fashion community of cultural appropriation and exploitation.
That’s far from an exhaustive list of misdeeds, but the far-reaching reputational damage and global impact of these issues suggests that brands are operating in a new paradigm. The pressure facing fashion companies to operate more inclusively is a reflection of broader social, political and technological shifts that are creating new opportunities and pitfalls for anyone running a global fashion enterprise.
While the criticism may not be new, the context means we may be facing an unprecedented inflection point.
“This is not a fad; diversity and sustainability will continue to grow and be the dominant thing in the industry,” said Dr Ronald Milon, chief diversity officer at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. “Those companies that get on the bandwagon and ride this wave, they’re going to survive and they’re going to do well; and those that do not, they’re going to find that they’re going to suffer.”
The Economic Imperative
It also makes business sense. According to the US Census Bureau, around 40 percent of the country’s population is non-white. And it’s expected to become more racially and ethnically diverse over the coming years. Meanwhile, established and emerging markets in Asia, Latin America and Africa are creating an additional incentive for brands to ensure they can cater to a diverse audience.
Elsewhere, the women’s plus-size market in the US alone is worth an estimated $30.7 billion, according to Coresight Research. The potential global market for adaptive clothing, which is specifically designed to take into account the needs of people with disabilities or health conditions, is estimated at nearly $290 billion. Consumers in Muslim countries spent $270 billion on clothes and apparel in 2017, according to a report by Reuters and DinarStandard. That number is expected to grow to $361 billion by 2023.
“For years fashion has been able to perpetuate one standard of beauty as the ideal and almost force that on people, but now the market wants something else,” said TV personality and diversity advocate June Sarpong. “Diversity and inclusion is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have if you want to future-proof your business.”
It’s taken a long time for brands to realise this. When Ghizlan Guenez founded e-tailer The Modist in 2017, she contacted dozens of designers for her initial edit of high-end, high-coverage clothing. They were totally oblivious.
“I don’t think I had a single conversation with a brand who said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been thinking about modesty,’” said Guenez. “The market itself existed — it had been there forever-and-a-day — except that it was completely underserved.”
The Modist registered revenue growth of 200 percent year-on-year in 2018, raised $15 million in funding and signed a global partnership with Farfetch. Other e-tailers such as Net-a-Porter and Asos now also feature “modest” edits.
The Role of Social Media
The game-changing influence of the internet goes far beyond creating new sales platforms to reach underserved markets. Social media has completely changed the fashion landscape, giving visibility and a voice to communities the fashion world has historically ignored.
CeCe Olisa has been blogging about plus-size fashion, fitness, dating and body positivity since 2008. When she started, the options for plus-size dressing were limited. Where brands did cater to larger sizes, they often stuck to dark colours and shapeless fits. The options available gave women little opportunity to celebrate their bodies and have fun with their clothes.
“It’s tough when the people designing for a plus-size woman don’t know what a plus-size woman thinks or wants,” Olisa said. “It’s the male gaze; it’s body shaming; it’s fat phobia.”
She credits social media with changing the conversation, providing a platform for plus-size women to show what they want and prove there’s a market for it. Olisa herself has more than 70,000 followers on Instagram. In 2015, she co-founded The Curvy Con, a three-day event that runs alongside New York Fashion Week each September and brings together retailers, consumers and influencers. This year, more than 1,000 people attended. Sponsors included Anthropologie, Loft, and Macy’s.
“[Companies] saw plus-size women wearing brands, making it for ourselves or shimmied into clothes that weren’t supposed to fit us, but we made it work,” said Olisa. “When brands began to see pictures of women over a size 14 dressing the same way a size 2 woman dresses, they thought, ‘Oh, they really do want what they say they want.’”
Indeed, the rise of influencers who speak to a more diverse audience than the mainstream fashion media has traditionally addressed and incentivised brands to respond to calls for greater representation. But the internet has also provided a powerful platform for critical and activist voices that are forcefully pushing the industry down the long road towards inclusivity.
Instagram accounts such as Diet Prada and Estée Laundry have become powerful arbiters of which products or designs are insensitive or just downright racist. Brands ignore the accounts’ unfiltered and unapologetic commentary at their peril. Dolce & Gabbana became a pariah in China after Diet Prada shared screenshots of racist insults Stefano Gabbana sent via direct message to someone who criticised the brand’s ad campaign for cultural insensitivity.
Activist campaigns like Fashion Revolution’s Who Made My Clothes? have mobilised hundreds of thousands of consumers to demand brands do more to protect the rights of the people along fast fashion’s vast global supply chain — often women and people of colour.
“Social media has changed the way consumers and brands interact from a monologue to a dialogue,” said Ryerson’s Barry. It “has provided an opportunity to not only share feedback, but to let those messages be amplified through millions and millions [of people]. This makes it impossible for brands to ignore.”
It’s a paradigm shift made all the more potent by the fact that it’s arisen alongside an intensification in identity politics globally. High-profile political figures such as Donald Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have tapped into a wave of divisive populism that thrives on emphasising divisions based on race, gender and sexuality.
We’ve reached a time since 2016 where the customer has suddenly become an activist.
While fashion has historically remained aloof from the dirty and messy world of politics, it has proven a particular lightning rod amidst the current culture wars. Consumers increasingly want the products they buy to reflect their values, and fashion, with its peculiar power to communicate identity and culture, has become a flash point.
“We’ve reached a time since 2016 where the customer has suddenly become an activist,” said Semaan of Slow Factory, pointing to the election of Donald Trump in the US as a key turning point. From Make America Great Again hats to We Should All Be Feminist T-shirts, “every side is using fashion to mobilise,” she said.
And while the political narrative may well shift once more, the technological and demographic changes underpinning the current conversation are not going away.
The bottom line is that inclusivity is something the fashion world can no longer ignore, but there is no quick fix or cosmetic solution to the challenges facing an industry that has operated for decades in rarefied and exclusive silos.
No doubt there are signs of mounting engagement. A chief diversity officer is fashion’s hottest accessory this season, and brands are increasingly talking about HR initiatives intended to improve inclusivity, in part through company-wide training and education. A growing number of fashion companies have committed to hiring processes designed to encourage managers to consider a greater range of candidates and are setting targets for more diversity at the leadership level. Some have recruited celebrities and academics to join high-profile diversity councils aimed at tackling both internal and external challenges within the industry.
But consumers and experts have remained healthily sceptical.
“It doesn’t help when you have designers at brands consistently making mistakes that are insensitive due to a lack of knowledge or education,” said Parsons’ Jenkins. “They want to make things right, but don’t have knowledge inside the company.”
Hardison’s stance has softened somewhat along with the re-emergence of more diverse models in the public domain. She’s not calling out brands for racism any more. Instead her focus has shifted to finding constructive ways to drive conversations and education — the only way she believes the industry will change.
“I don’t think the industry of fashion is particularly specifically racist,” Hardison said. “We don’t need to call anyone out now; we need to talk.”