Can ‘accountability culture’ help the fashion industry recover from its lack of diversity?
Writer Jessica Morgan on how initiatives, including members Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles’ Black In Fashion Council, are changing the industry for good
By Jessica Morgan Images by Tyler Mitchell Wednesday 21 October, 2020 Long read
The Black Lives Matter movement has led worldwide protests, calling for an end to America’s persistent police brutality, worldwide systemic racism, and racial inequality. Black people have said enough is enough, this can no longer be ignored.
This strong message has made its way into fashion, an industry famous for its race problem, from the lack of diversity on runways and behind the scenes at shows and shoots, to multiple mistakes over cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity. This was evident with Prada’s trinkets that resembled racist caricatures, Dolce and Gabbana’s anti-Asian video campaign and, of course, Gucci’s blackface controversy last year. While each scandal has followed the same pattern – social media outrage, mainstream media coverage followed by hallow apologies and promises to ‘do better’ – the recent Black Lives Matter protests have been a real catalyst for change.
In June, social media was awash with posts showing images of black squares, tagged with #BlackoutTuesday, in a gesture of solidarity with protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Versace, Saint Laurent and Gucci were just some of the big names that piggybacked onto the trend, pledging solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the hope of gaining credibility after previous racial controversies. However, eyebrows were raised.
Over the years, I’ve watched from afar the growing diversity issues within the fashion industry, from being one of the only Black interns at a luxury e-retailer in London and one of a handful of Black faces at shows, to being the only Black woman on an editorial team in a global company. While I’ve realised that I’ve been in the grips of the industry’s power structures for years, I’ve never felt more optimistic about the real conversations happening behind the scenes today.
Peoples Wagner and Charles want the group to move beyond ‘cancel culture’ to ‘accountability culture’ where brands are forced to take responsibility for their shortcomings and mistakes. And they must also ensure that Black people at every level – from junior to executive – feel seen, as well as create diverse workforces that reflect what the world looks like today. It comes after Peoples Wagner lifted the lid on the fashion industry’s deep-rooted racism in a groundbreaking article for the New York Magazine’s The Cut called ‘Everywhere And Nowhere: What It’s Really Like To Be Black And Work In Fashion’ in 2018. Two years on, she feels not much has changed, but ‘we want to allow people to rise to the occasion of changing.’
As well as changing mindsets behind the scenes, there are other coalitions aiming to change attitudes at retail level. Aurora James, the founder of sustainable accessories label Brother Vellies, launched the 15 Percent Pledge, which challenges businesses to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. Six retailers – Vogue US, Rent The Runway, Sephora, West Elm, Med Men and Yelp – are so far the only ones signed up. James, who set up the campaign after feeling unconvinced by the industry’s Black Lives Matter statements, wanted to emphasise the lack of representation for Black-owned businesses in America. ‘So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power,’ she wrote on Instagram in June. ‘So many of your stores are set up in Black communities. So many of your sponsored posts are seen on Black feeds. This is the least you can do for us. We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space.’
However, the British Fashion Council has addressed its shortcomings, adding that ‘as an organisation it is not as diverse as it should be’ and that ‘although we had done some work, we had not done enough,’ said CEO Caroline Rush in a statement earlier this year. It led to the coalition of Black professionals banding together to voice their longstanding frustrations with the British Fashion Council and to further their own plans to diversify the industry. This included implementing inclusive hiring policies, diversifying corporate teams, and the addition of specific roles.
While the British Fashion Council has appointed three new BAME directors – June Sarpong from the BBC, Jamie Gill from Roksanda and Scott Morrison from The Boom! – questions are still being raised as to how long this will go on for.
Will these efforts continue into 2021, during which we will have to grapple with the economic impact of the global pandemic? And will we see more prominent Black faces within the fashion and beauty industry leading teams, luxury houses and retailers, ensuring Black communities feel seen and included? Only time will tell, but hopefully the future will be more fruitful and more impactful than a simple black square on Instagram.