The fact that there is not enough diversity in fashion is not a new statement. Every fashion week, journalists and spectators pay close attention to the models walking the runway, the guests watching the show, the cultures the show pays tribute to, and the creative minds behind these looks. But besides the runway, where else is the fashion industry?
The fashion industry is enormous. Just in 2022, fashion represented 556 billion dollars in the USA alone. There are so many jobs and work behind this huge amount of money, and a common misconception in fashion is to believe that fashion is only what happens on the fashion runway. There are fashion merchandising, marketing strategies, and campaigns to introduce collections and new products. There are sewers, patternmakers, designers, researchers, illustrators, and sample makers. Then there is the business side of the fashion company, which takes care of financing, human resources, IT, and partnerships.
The fashion world is huge because the consumer is anyone and everyone who wants clothes and wants to buy clothes.
Clothing consumers are people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. And here’s where the problem begins. Because even though fashion is a matter that involves every person of every background, the choices made by the fashion industry are made by a very selective kind of profiles that don’t necessarily reflect the wide variety of backgrounds of the clothing consumer. In other words, fashion is not diverse enough. The fashion industry has made some significant progress in addressing some of these issues in the last couple of years. But there is still a long way to go.
Because fashion, as mentioned earlier, is not just the runway and the guests you see at the fashion show. Today we’ll talk about some of the core layers of the fashion industry where there needs to be diversity in order to obtain equity in the fashion industry.
Hiring, administering budgets, identifying systems, workflows, methods of communication, and office culture are some of the decisions that, more often than not, are led by managers, supervisors, and heads of a company. These decisions can set a company up for success or failure.
In 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests raged across the country, several employees, students, and customers called out fashion companies for not doing enough for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Concepts like
The concept of white silence became very well known. This was when we realized how division and segregation don’t occur just if one person decides to be divided and segregated.
When someone is aware that there is division and segregation and that it has been there for a long time, and this person is not doing anything about it, even though they can, they become part of the problem too.
But how can a person know what division and segregation look like and feel like if they haven’t experienced it firsthand?
Suppose a fashion company hires a leadership team of fully Ivy League, white, cisgender people to lead their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. In that case, there are so many things they will not be able to recognize at first, and it may take years for them to figure out what the problems and areas of improvement are. They might never be able to identify the problems they should tackle, to begin with.
A person who has been discriminated against knows what discrimination looks and feels like. A person whose ideas are often shut down or disregarded because of the color of their skin, their background, or their gender will be able to see when those voices in the room have been silenced.
Several fashion companies make the mistake of thinking that diversity is simply hiring a diverse workforce for entry-level jobs. These employees, who often work face-to-face with the customers as sales associates, stylists, or cashiers, are very important for a coherent and functional workflow in a fashion company. But real change towards equity in fashion can only happen when the leadership team of a fashion company is diversified.
Diversity in education
Education gives us the basics to start a professional career in the field we decide to pursue. Lawyers learn the fundamentals of law and how it’s applied. Architects learn to make scaled models and everything to consider when making a building. Fashion designers learn how to do research, develop a fashion concept, illustrate it, learn how to make it, and present it to the public.
Now, let’s think about the fashion illustrations we most commonly see on websites and portfolios—skinny, elongated figures. The hips and the breasts are emphasized to make the illustrations more visually interesting. The concept of “diversity in fashion” is justified with a dark brown marker to render the skin instead of a pale beige.
When it comes to learning how to sew garments, there is another big issue. Because fashion students sign up for their classes hoping they will be able to learn how to design for plus-size people, for people who look like them, and for those who don’t want a gender attached to the clothes they are wearing. But the biggest dress forms are often size 9, and the pattern books and syllabus are structured by womenswear and menswear. Where’s the space between binary genders in fashion education, and where are the plus-size patternmaking classes that the students are hoping to have?
This diversification can only be accomplished when you diversity fashion education, including faculty, students, and staff. It is the students who bring their personal history with clothes and their culture as a source of inspiration that becomes an important asset to their fashion journey, which then helps the other classmates to learn something about a different culture or another aspect of fashion. It is the faculty who needs to be able to connect with the diverse body of students in a profound way. Listening to why the students want to make the clothes they want to make. Understand where their point of view is coming from and why this is important.
There are stories of privilege and stories of oppression. There are stories of success, and stories of loneliness, and struggles. Diversifying fashion education can help people from different backgrounds to learn from each other and connect their stories of privilege and oppression, success, and loneliness, to feel heard and produce the work they were hoping to produce when they enrolled in fashion school in the first place.
Moreover, faculty in fashion schools need to teach fashion from different points of view. The world doesn’t need a whole senior class of designers every year who is only designing for the top 1%. The clientele goes to red carpets and has public appearances due to their full-time job. We need fashion designers who can and want to create clothes for the rest of the world. Because if they are not educated on addressing the diversity of backgrounds in the fashion market, they arrive at the workforce creating clothing based on assumptions. Fashion schools need to address the importance of considering diversity when designing, and one of the very first steps to do so, is to diversify the faculty, and staff who lead these fashion programs.
Diverse creative talent
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was very offended by the fact that most men were designing clothing for women. Chanel believed that it is a woman who is able to understand the body, the thought process, the challenges and struggles, and the vision of a woman’s life behind every piece of clothing they wear, something that men would simply not be able to experience firsthand.
This is true when we talk about fashion and race, fashion and religions, fashion and genders, fashion and socioeconomics, and the list can keep going. A very well-educated fashion designer from London can do their best to produce a fashion collection for people in Colombia. The designer can do research, read about the country, and maybe even visit if time and money allow them to do so. Still, they will never experience what being Colombian is and what are the thoughts, desires, concerns, forms of lifestyle, and ways of living of someone from Colombia.
The problem with a globalized fashion market is that a fashion brand can be available to the whole world. The problem is that most brands have creative talents who represent a very small fraction of the population. This way, they are not able to fully understand their customer and make creative decisions based on assumptions that very often end up in tragic mistakes such as unconscious biases, cultural appropriations, or misgendering.
This has been a very important subject when fashion brands introduce clothing for dates such as Chinese New Year, Black History Month, American Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Pride Month, or Cinco de Mayo. There is an evident unfamiliarity with the cultures they are trying to represent, that fashion brands end up sending a misleading message about an awareness date or an entire culture.
Diversifying the creative talent of a fashion company is very important to make sure that customers are being heard. A fashion brand is not diverse if they only hire black people to walk on the runway and pose on the catalog but are not sitting at the creative table making decisions for black customers.
We need fashion designers who understand what it feels like not to find your size at the store, and when you shop it online, the clothing doesn’t look good because there is not enough education in patternmaking for plus sizes.
We need fashion designers who have tried clothing of their opposite sex assigned at birth so that they can bring their firsthand experience with the nonbinary spectrum of fashion to consumers who are looking for this clothing.
We need fashion designers who are not size 0, 6 feet, and have hundreds of dollars to spend on dresses. This is the market that many fashion educators target with their syllabi. But we need fashion designers that cand design for the rest of the world.