Beyond Black Squares: Fashion’s Diversity Experts on How the Industry Can Avoid Tone-Deaf Missteps

When fashion finally gets diversity right, the presence of people of color in roles from the runway to the boardroom will be commonplace enough that the racial justice conversations reaching a boiling point in 2020 may be rendered obsolete.

But in the interim, a newly ramped-up force of diversity, equity and inclusion officers is here, armed to hold fashion to account and ensure a now-unsustainable exclusionary ethos doesn’t prevail — and doesn’t contribute to products, campaigns or shows that are offensive because they don’t appropriately consider or reflect other cultures, all cultures.

While diversity and cultural appropriation aren’t twin issues, a lack of the former could contribute to errors with the latter. Fashion has seen this evidenced in missteps at Marc Jacobs and the dreadlocked white models at his spring 2017 women’s ready-to-wear show, at Gucci with its so-dubbed blackface sweater and at Prada with its Pradamalia monkey, which bore a resemblance to a 19th-century blackface character.

Whether an issue of race or culture, having more faces and voices represented across fashion, from concept to consumer, will help companies skirt the kinds of insensitivities that can contribute to cultural appropriation. At the very least, it helps companies understand whether — and why — they should avoid certain things altogether, and, if they’re going to draw on other cultures in some fashion, greater diversity across the company could help them understand how to do it with consideration and due credit.

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Monique Lhuillier RTW Spring 2021

So where exactly has fashion gone wrong with all of this?

“I think the notion that fashion was exclusive is exactly where we went wrong, where we thought only a certain type of person could model on a runway or be shown in ads or be on certain types of teams,” Bahja Johnson, head of customer belonging at Gap Inc., told WWD. “There was this facade that fashion was homogeneous in nature, that there was one standard of beauty and fashion.”

Now, however, the industry appears to be coming to terms with the work that needs to be done in areas such as inclusion and cultural collaboration for the benefit of more balanced and representative businesses.

“What do we think that this industry can do better now? Well, the one thing that they’re doing better already is they’re listening,” Bethann Hardison, an activist and former model who has spent much of the last decade advocating for fashion’s antiracism, said. “The industry is doing better because a lot of things happened. What happened mostly was the loss of Mr. [George] Floyd’s life, and at the given point between rioting, marching and demonstrations, the movement really got embraced. And that movement of social injustice, racial injustice spilled over into our industry of fashion and it seemed that it really sort of turned a switch on. It gave people who didn’t say anything ever an opportunity to speak up…I think we all have a responsibility.”

For the next installment of our Suggestion Box series, WWD tapped three top diversity leaders to understand where and how fashion can make forward strides when it comes to inclusion. Here is what they had to say.


Bethann Hardison, executive adviser of global equity and culture engagement at Gucci

Overall impression: The good news and the bad news about what’s happening right now, we’re all learning a lot. Things have to happen and then we have to learn from it…I think that it’s an interesting time and you have to be thoughtful because we have this culture — I don’t know if it will still remain — cancel culture, when people just go and say, “All right, that’s it, we’re not going to buy them for a while, we’re putting them on pause,” whatever the case may be based on they should have more Blacks. Well, you can have Black people working in your company and the company could still make a mistake you know. Not everybody has the same eye. I would have never noticed necessarily the [Gucci] balaclava sweater. I mean, straight up I say that out loud, I’ve said it many times, I’m not afraid to say that because in truth everybody’s eye is different.

I just think everything is timing. You get the right people to come along and you get the right situations, everything’s timing…but also the encouragement is there, too, no doubt. The encouragement that this is the moment. Don’t miss the moment to show that you are compassionate, that you’re conscious, that you’re not asleep at the wheel. This is a moment — this is a black and white moment. It’s how you manage it. Don’t be Thomas Jefferson about it. Be very thoughtful.

Highlights: This last decade or so, you had to sort of be really aggressive in your language without calling [industry people] racist but educating them to what it is. So now I think everybody is onto what they can do better. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of fallback and when there is some fallback we don’t need them. We will have made enough inroads, I think, to improve more than not.

Room for improvement: You know, you mentioned this thing about the mistakes that a company may have made…some of that is all suggestive, like what Prada did that little [golliwog; referring to the brand’s Pradamalia monkey] is something that’s considered very offensive in the country of England to the point that a lot of British people wouldn’t even say the word…[golliwog] is something you just wouldn’t mention. But unbeknownst to her, little Italian creative woman in Italy, she thinks it’s cute, she puts it on a bag. Ignorance, complete ignorance. Who would have thought — she probably thought, “Oh, what the hell have I done?” That to me is a little obvious. Going to Riccardo Tisci’s rope accessory, that was a rope accessory. A little young girl, she’s in there…she’s not going to say anything because she doesn’t want to lose the possibility of her job maybe, she’s a model. But this is just an accessory. There are people who never even think of it the way other people do. But someone saw it and suggested it was a hangman’s noose. Well, you know with the Internet, if you say it, it’s so…

In 2018, Prada pulled its Pradamalia charms from circulation after a Facebook user posted photos of the figurines on display in Prada’s Soho, NYC store, calling them racist for their resemblance to blackface imagery. Courtesy Photo

When it gets down to the Gucci balaclava sweater, that was so suggestive to me because…there are people I know who still don’t see that sweater as a blackface, but many people did. You can only go by how people react and, in that case, they saw it as a sweater that was suggesting blackface. Now I saw the sweater two months before (I wasn’t working with Gucci at the time) and I saw it on Rihanna and it was in orange and turquoise and I said, “What a silly sweater.” Bright orange and turquoise, wasn’t it a silly sweater? Black and red, I didn’t see it any different. I can sort of see how you saw it that way, but I don’t see it that way. It didn’t matter…

Now you have to be very thoughtful about what you do, how you do it because you have to realize no matter what you think — and surely the creator doesn’t think that because most of them don’t even know the history of Black America or the history of America. They’re way over there in a little country called Italy. No matter how oppressed, they may have their own oppression going on, they don’t know our history so a blackface, most of them never even heard of. But that’s just the way it is.

Suggestions: I think one thing that’s really great, one of the ideas I was happy to suggest to the CFDA and I loved that they jumped right on it for one of their initiatives, is a directory. It’s very important that companies know enough people of color to be able to even think to bring into their environment…A lot of things is referral, every job practically. Suddenly your boss will turn to you and say, “Do you know anyone?” If you know a job is becoming available…suggest to your boss someone you know of color and also to start to help to integrate that company…And please don’t hire someone because they’re Black. Hire someone because they’re good and Black because I don’t want us having that reputation of failing…If you care to really make a difference in your company, as long as they’re good as you — they don’t have to be better than you — but as long as they’re good as you or some other person you would hire, that would give us the opportunity to be better once we get to your company. I think there are a lot of ways that companies can really be conscious.

Hopefully it makes everyone feel better knowing that there’s more people than themselves in the room, that there are other eyes that are of color, there are other eyes that are different than theirs. They’re not just creative eyes, they have to check everything, make sure this doesn’t offend — that’s deep.

I’m so into making things a better place on a big level that I look forward to one day being able to wrap a white girl’s head in a turban and being able to have a Black guy wear a yarmulke and at some given point I want to be able to have Native Indian braids with a headdress. I just want to mix it up and I want us all to get along.

But I tell you one thing, it isn’t good enough to have an advisory board of just people who are some activists or some advocates or some creative people sitting on some big company’s advisory board. There needs to be people who are in the company as well because it’s much better in that way. I think it has a little bit more impact when there’s people walking around the building who look like you. People who could feel now that they can engage and not be shy. Black people we’ve been taught for so long to mind our business, toe a line, be careful, be thoughtful, but now we’ve been given the opportunity to sort of, not accuse, but feel the confidence to fit in properly. I think it’s a really important time to really just recognize the limitations we’ve all had.

Annie Wu, chief diversity officer at H&M Group

Overall impression: It’s about awareness, knowledge and taking responsibility. In the development process of a new product or campaigns, this means that the teams need to do their research about a product, a print or a graphic and apply a perceptive and responsive mind-set. We work with clear policies and procedures to make sure that our products and campaigns meet the expectations and reflect the diversity of our customers all over the world.

Highlights: We as a group are committed to roll out mandatory training for all our employees and to strengthen the internal policies and routines. Furthermore, we have set specific targets for improved representation; we will increase diversity in our management teams and board and create internal and external advisory councils to support our thinking on inclusion and diversity. To accelerate the transition of the industry as a whole, we see a key in engaging in strong collaborations, such as the TENT partnership for refugees, which is a coalition of more than 100 companies targeting the support for refugees around the world. Another example is the Women Worker Progression Programme, which by collaborating with the IFC and Better Work Gender Equality and Returns initiative aims to create career progression opportunities for female sewing workers in Bangladesh.

Room for improvement: We are living and operating in an ever-changing world and we can’t allow ourselves to settle with old policies and routines but instead constantly push ourselves to become more inclusive and do better today than we did yesterday. Inclusion and diversity shouldn’t be something a company or brand does separately, it needs to be an integral part on every level of the business. This starts with an inclusive and diverse workplace which reflects, welcomes, and celebrates the diversity of the world we live in and which encourages everyone to continue to speak out against injustice, intolerance or hate – inside our own organization as well as throughout our supply chain and the communities we are part of.

Suggestions: We need to listen. As a brand and as an industry we need to continuously listen to the feedback of our customers and colleagues and be willing to gather external opinions and knowledge. We continuously consult and engage with topic experts, gender equality and women’s rights organizations as well as human rights organizations such as U.N. Women, U.N. Foundation, TENT partnership for refugees, PLAN International, ILO, OHCHR, UNFPA and UNHCR. This kind of exchange is crucial for innovative advice, dynamic perspectives and understanding.

This extraordinary year has affected all of us, our life circumstances and the world we live in. At the same time, it has once more emphasized the importance of raising the right questions and taking a stand to change the status quo for the better. This year might be a starting point for many new transitions and initiatives, but this is definitely an issue to stay. As a company, we recognize that we are not yet where we want to be and that there is a lot of work to do in this area. And we have set clear ambitions and taken actions, to contribute to advance inclusion and diversity beyond our organization — through marketing, campaigns and through initiatives both locally and globally.

Bahja Johnson, head of customer belonging at Gap Inc.

Overall impression: Hands down, it’s the notion of creating for all with all. We think about the commitments that we launched in June and the commitments are to create for all with all…You cannot launch anything, do anything that our customer sees without knowing that throughout the pipeline their considerations have been looked at, thought at, scrutinized, discussed, because the world as we know it looks different and the requirement from everybody who engages with our brands is that they see themselves. So, I think when you go to where we are now as an industry you can’t put on a fashion show knowing that millions of people around the world are going to see it — especially in the digital space — without having different types of people in that room from inception, thinking about every aspect. One of the most prevalent examples I think we’ve seen recently in the past few months is the notion of when you have these messages around what it means to stand for something, whether it’s justice for Breonna Taylor, justice for Jacob Blake. Those posts aren’t just posts that are mindlessly put out, they’re posts that have iterations of them and conversations that have gone into what it means to post and what is the message that we want to get across, what is our thesis statement. And I can confidently say that for us, while we might not always agree internally, the fact that pause is happening shows that there is progress.

Highlights: As everything that’s happened with Black Lives Matter, we really wanted to amplify the existing work of the team in order to really dive deep into three strategic pillars. So Employee Belonging is what Maria [Febre] leads, and that really is all of our workplace and workforce inclusion, so everything that really happens with our employees and within our headquarters and field. And there’s also a Community Belonging pillar led, now I can officially say, by Keisha Golding who was formerly part of our Gap Inc. talent acquisition team, and that work is really about how we position ourselves in the community to be a force for change, a force for good, so not just what happens in our four walls but how are we showing up as a true community leader and advocate in the space with an inclusion filter. And then my role as Customer Belonging is really all about our brands, it’s about our products and our experiences, so how do we make sure that from that first sketch all the way to in-store and online, our work is really right for everyone.

Our team really is going from a team of three to a team of 20 and that just shows again the investment in going deep in these pillars but also top down, our leaders saying that if we’re going to get this right and really build on the work that we started, we have to do so with rigor and with headcount. It’s a business imperative.

The joy of my work is that it is really just a build on the work that we had started almost three years ago now with the Color Proud Council and really saying if we’re going to bring diversity to the bottom line of the business we have to both change the stories themselves and change the storytellers, as Elaine Welteroth [former editor in chief of Teen Vogue] always says, and really ingrain the work of thinking with a more inclusive filter into how we do what we do.

Room for improvement: I think the notion that fashion was exclusive is exactly where we went wrong. Where we thought only a certain type of person could model on a runway or be shown in ads or be on certain types of teams. There was this facade that fashion was homogeneous in nature, that there was one standard of beauty and fashion. If I could combine the two industries together, I think that in the same way that we’re now talking about changing the makeup of the teams and how we engage from the beginning, we did not have to do that previously as an industry because that was OK. Not only was it OK, the business results showed that it worked. I think that’s something that we all have to think about as a corporate retailer is that we are in service to our customers but we do also have stakeholders who want to see us continue to make money as organizations and the feedback loop was positive previously for our entire industry. The industry made money and even though the trends changed over seasons, the customer did not that we’re making products for, and I think the beauty of where we are right now is that customers are voting with their values more than ever and they are unapologetic in saying if I don’t see myself on your runway, in your advertisements, on your teams, because I want to peel back the layers and see who’s there, too — I am not spending money with you. I think the beauty of having those conversations now, making them commonplace, is that it requires all of us to take a double-click as to how we are staffing our teams, the standard of beauty that we’re putting out. How do we myth-bust a bit as to what it means to be beautiful and be the standard customer because the minute you do that — and sometimes you need a little data behind it, but we’ve got it — around the spending power of minority groups, how plus-size men and women want to dress, the opportunity in adaptive clothing, there’s so much out there that shows that the standard of beauty has shifted and there’s money to be spent by people who commonplace just want to look and feel good in their clothes.

Suggestions: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. I think one of the things about our industry that is so brilliant is that we are fast, we change on the drop of a dime. The trends change, the way we do things changes, you can crank out a product quickly now with all this speed and innovation we have in our industry. It’s what keeps me in it, is that it’s always changing. But with this work, we cannot rush to solutions for problems that have been around for centuries. And the beauty of how our company has really tried to double-click on this notion is we have to build the muscle around what it means to be authentic in this work. We’ve had a springboard, we’ve had a starting point, but if we’re really going to push past the things that have been taboo before, like saying people of color when you really mean Black, say Black. That takes work, that takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. Having transparent conversations as a Black employee with my white leaders about my experience, that takes time and it takes comfort. Having leaders who have never had to have anti-racist conversations before, that takes time and you’re going to be a little bit uncomfortable. But I think the beauty in not rushing to a solution is that you really get to unpack a lot of the work because the work starts at the individual level. And when you switch your narrative, shift your consciousness, then you start to recognize the things that make getting to a fashion show or putting out an ad or merchandising new clothes, all of that stuff will come easier to you with this new inclusive filter because you’ve done the work internally to shift the process and recognize what needs to be done…

I can’t wait until we have a runway of plus-size models and we don’t call them plus-size, models of different abilities, and it just becomes commonplace. The same way that we look at a Kendall Jenner or a Heidi Klum or a Cindy Crawford back in the day and that was our standard and nobody said anything about that. I can’t wait until our runways have that amount of diversity and nobody bats an eyelash. Lizzo always talks about when people always say, “Wow, it’s so wonderful that you think you’re so beautiful” or “Wow, you’re so confident.” She’s like, “I’m fine, why wouldn’t I be confident?” And I love her notion because she’s trying to dispel the idea that just because you are bigger does not mean you are not beautiful. It doesn’t mean you can’t be sexy. It doesn’t mean you can’t be confident. And I think fashion’s charge as we go forward is debunking the myth that beauty comes in one standard because the minute you do that then the conversations you make for who’s beautiful or who the right type of customer is completely expands, which is exactly where I think we all are.

I don’t want there to be business case for diversity in fashion. The case is here because we’ve been here and now we just have to make sure that we amplify it.

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