Can ‘accountability culture’ help the fashion industry recover from its lack of diversity?

A black and white photo of a team on a fashion shoot

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

In 2018, Virgil Abloh was installed as Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton, Tyler Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot Vogue’s September issue, and it was the year we saw an unprecedented number of Black women fronting September issues. Although it looked like things were moving in the right direction, many still question why, in 2020, we are still having to celebrate ‘firsts’. But our attention averted elsewhere. Amid the global pandemic, we witnessed the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade, resulting in one of the biggest racial reckonings of our time.

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.
A woman wearing a pink headdress
A woman in a large red dress in a studio
The Black In Fashion Council, founded by Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and publicist Sandrine Charles, has brought together more than 400 Black executives, editors, stylists, models and retailers, and aims to work with brands to secure and promote the advancement of Black people in the fashion industry. It launched in August with 38 brands, including Condé Nast and Glossier. ‘For me, it was always the very apparent lack of diversity that I saw when I was coming up in the industry,’ Charles told Soho House last month. ‘Being the only Black person in a department or at a company was just what we knew to expect.’

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.’
Two men sat down looking at the camera in colourful shirts
While the US appears to have more visible Black faces at top level, the UK is lagging behind. There needs to be more Black employees with seats at the table to implement changes higher up, including inputting feedback for marketing campaigns, designs and fashion shows. Until they represent the diverse melting pot that is our diverse society, the same brands and media organisations will continue to make the same mistakes. 

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.
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