Is fashion finally addressing its diversity problem?

Underrepresentation, tokenism and overt racism have been recurring themes in the fashion industry for some time, so how have recent months impacted brands’ attitudes to issues of diversity?
Fashion Week Summer 2021
Chanel’s Spring/ Summer 2021 show as part of Paris Fashion Week in October

The fashion industry has long been called out for cultural appropriation, racist advertising, and its blatant lack of diversity across campaigns, catwalks and behind the lens. But could the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened social awareness of racial discrimination and underrepresentation, following the US police killing of George Floyd in May, be fashion’s final wake-up call for inclusivity? Perhaps.

Over the years, there have been prominent examples of racially insensitive, or sometimes outright offensive, themes and imagery in fashion, filtering all the way through to final collections. In 2018, H&M’s campaign showcasing a Black boy wearing its ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ jumper caused controversy, while Gucci was forced to apologise last year for releasing a balaclava design that resembled blackface.

“There needs to be a want to be educated on why inclusivity works, why inequity is wrong, how it affects business, how it affects employees, how it affects the industry, as well as processes that come with real consequences,” says Chloé Pierre, founder of wellness platform thy.self.

Challenging European standards of beauty

For decades, European standards of beauty – think light eyes, fair skin, and straight hair – have heavily influenced the images fashion brands use to promote their products. From magazine spreads to billboards, the face of fashion has a history of being exclusively white with no room for diversity in front of the camera or behind the scenes. As a result, women of colour are rarely represented on the catwalk or in fashion campaigns, often reproducing racist ideologies in plain sight.

“The lack of diversity in fashion, most certainly across my generation, has led to women and young girls perceiving their bodies, their beauty, their features and subsequently their identities as not being worthy. And in some cases, sadly wondering what is ‘wrong’ with them when as they are constantly being fed images in the media and their everyday lives that promote unrealistic standards of beauty,” Pierre explains.

In 2013, models Naomi Campbell and Iman, along with fashion activist Bethann Hardison, formed the Diversity Coalition to name and shame designers guilty of only casting white models. The iconic trio wrote an open letter to some of the most esteemed fashion houses, including Chanel, Saint Laurent and Roberto Cavalli, addressing the exclusion of models of colour as “an act of racism”, with a demand for change.

While the campaign secured some media attention at the time, it failed to build momentum and was soon forgotten; a prime example of fashion’s finest ignoring the need for inclusivity and silencing Black voices.

“The discrimination and unfair treatment of Black models has always existed and in the past Black models were used as a token,” says Angel Sinclair, founder of Models of Diversity, a charity that campaigns for inclusivity and diversity in fashion. “If Black models do get through casting stage, they then have to deal with make-up artists and stylists who aren’t trained to work with black hair or darker skin tones.”

Representing racial diversity in fashion

This lack of racial diversity in fashion has real costs too, with many reputable brands taking a hit for missing the mark. From brand boycotts to product recalls, fashion companies can no longer afford to make missteps that offend and alienate audiences during these unprecedented times. Chanel, Gucci and H&M have in recent years introduced corporate initiatives to increase inclusivity and hiring of candidates from Black and ethnic minority groups.

“The fashion industry needs to embrace people that don’t fit the ‘eurocentric vibe’ and understand times have changed, our behaviour as consumers has changed, and that impacts what we put money and effort into,” says Dina Basharahil, global talent director at Modest Visions. “There needs to be more opportunities created for people from BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] backgrounds to enter the industry as designers, photographers, stylists and creatives directors.”

In November 2019, Burberry’s Christmas campaign, by creative director Italian designer Riccardo Tisci, broke barriers with its most racially diverse cast to date, featuring British-Somali hijabi model Ikram Abdi Omar. Praised for embracing inclusivity, this was a moment of redemption for the luxury British brand just months after it was forced to apologise for sending a model down the catwalk wearing a hooded noose, which many thought evoked imagery of racist lynchings, while also being insensitive to the issue of suicide.

With its Christmas campaign, not only did Burberry showcase their commitment to racial diversity, but the brand also acknowledged the need for fashion lines that cater to all, including Muslim women who choose to dress modestly.

But Burberry is not the first fashion brand to tap into the modest market, estimated to be worth $270 billion in 2018 and $361 billion by 2023, according to the Global Islamic Economy report. Cue the Nike Pro Hijab, the world’s first lightweight and breathable sports hijab made for Muslim women in 2017. 

Meanwhile, Dolce Gabbana, Zara, COS and Mango are among the long list of retailers that have profited from manufacturing modest collections just in time for Ramadan.

“Brands that benefit financially from making modest clothing must use Muslim women in their campaigns to promote their pieces,” says Basharahil.

Black-owned fashion brands & beyond 

Singer-businesswoman Rihanna’s Fenty empire is the ultimate prototype for diversity in fashion. Her history-making partnership with luxury fashion giant LVMH is shaking up the industry and paving the way for the next generation of young Black designers.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has bred a new space for up-and-coming Black designers and has encouraged publications and more prominent brands to be increasingly inclusive,” says MaryAnn Msengi, Black British designer and founder of Farai London.

But will this lead to lasting change? “We will need more time to see if real change is coming for Black designers and creatives,” says Msengi. Whatever happens next in fashion, one thing is certain: the world will be watching every single move.