The fashion industry has often been referred to as “frivolous,” “superficial,” and described with other derogatory adjectives expressing a sense of superiority and exclusion.
It is a fast environment, where lots of decisions need to be made. Billions of dollars are at stake, thousands of workers rely on fashion as its source of income, and trillions of garments are produced across the world to be sold in all kinds of stores for all kinds of consumers.
It is harder than it sounds to work in fashion. How do you design clothes for a consumer who is described with demographics and psychographics on paper, but you don’t know them in person? How do you develop a marketing strategy for a country you’ve never visited? How do you make this happen with multiple collections yearly and hundreds of designs to be made?
In the process of brainstorming, gathering images for inspiration, sketching, prototyping, developing products, advertising, and distributing them, biases might creep in. These biases might distort a message, create confusion, and send a wrong message to the consumers and the audience. What we must do, is identify these biases. See how they look like, how they may creep in, and most importantly, how we can recognize them.
Good Taste - Bad Taste
A good reflection to consider is to ask ourselves what is good taste and bad taste, how do we define them, and why? In many cases, we describe a consumer’s clothing choice as “bad taste” just because it’s a different style from ours. Or we might perceive a color combination that represents a certain culture differently from the people of this culture because our background is different. However, the way we speak about these color combinations and interpret them in the creative process must be respectful and mindful of the rest of the team members and the clients who will be purchasing the clothes.
To refer to a certain garment, embellishment, or piece that represents a certain culture and call it “bad taste” is impolite. Maybe the aesthetics of the garment won’t resonate with your clothing preferences, but that could be communicated with respectful expressions that don’t diminish the pieces.
There is a difference between “ugly” and “bad taste”. While we use “ugly” as a term to talk about aesthetics, bad taste is often shaped by social stigmas and is more related to our personal patterns of choice.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we should stop using “taste” in our vocabulary. There are certain things that communicate bad taste, such as tacky and provocative dresses in a funeral or eating with your mouth open. The insight here is to reflect on our perception of taste, and if there are any biases, we must identify them within ourselves.
In the United States, 59.6% of fashion designers are white, 15.2% are Latinx, and 13.2% are Asian. In 2021, women earned 91% of what men earned. (Zippia). The professional opportunities for emerging fashion designers are often conditioned by their economic status. For instance, the number of unpaid internships in fashion is still quite significant. And it is a professional opportunity that only folks who can afford to work without receiving an income may take. To make things even worse, many times, these unpaid internships far from being a source of income become an expense since students need to take loans to pay for transportation, supplies, and utilities that the job requires. (Fashionista)
Low pay (or no pay) professional opportunities are hindering fashion’s path towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. Since only privileged people may pursue these professional opportunities, fashion companies are some sort of elite club where low-income talents may not join. And as long as this continues, fashion won’t be able to diversify its talent to grow and celebrate the wide spectrum of cultures and backgrounds that want to express themselves through fashion.
Aesthetic The importance of fitting the aesthetic of a brand — from how one looks to what one wears to one’s lived experiences.
The Privilege of Location
New York has been historically the capital of fashion in the United States. Emblematic fashion companies like DKNY, Coach, and Tory Burch built their empires in this city and received international visibility. And although fashion in New York represents a huge asset to their economy, it puts the rest of the country at a disadvantage, centralizing fashion in one place while ignoring or diminishing the talent from the other parts of the country.
This is not just a problem of the United States; several countries have their own “fashion capital” that centralize the country’s fashion interests in one single place. The good news is that we all, as consumers, have the power to support local businesses and local designers who may not be based on a “fashion capital” but are talented and are doing their best to start a career in fashion.
Look for these local designers at farmers’ markets, small boutiques, or by doing a quick Google search of “fashion designers based on X City.”
The blurry line between inspiration and plagiarism is often hard to define. Globalization caused a beautiful exchange of products, brands, messages, and cultures from one country to another. Businesses are becoming more diverse, and that is absolutely incredible. The problem whatsoever is when companies attempt to celebrate this diversity and miss the mark on respect and empathy towards a certain group.
It can be very tough to understand what cultural appropriation is; however, the power of the consumer’s voice is important and louder than ever, so it must be taken seriously.
In 2019, Kim Kardashian attempted to trademark “Kimono” as the name of her shapewear line, which was a very offensive move for Japanese folks, as Kimonos are a traditional garment with over 400 years of history.
Fashion Designer, Wes Gordon, who is currently the creative director of Carolina Herrera, was accused of plagiarism and cultural appropriation after utilizing traditional designs and embroideries that belong to Indigenous Communities in Mexico.
Balenciaga and Black Culture
The fashion house Balenciaga was accused of cultural appropriation by introducing a pair of sweatpants with boxers sewn in. This style was popularized by black people and hip-hop musicians in the ’90s. Marquita Gammage, an associate professor of African Studies at California State University, told CNN: “Sagging attire has been consequential for African Americans, yet companies like Balenciaga seek to capitalize off of blacks and black cultural styles while failing to challenge systematic racism that criminalizes blacks and black clothing trends.” (BBC). Even after the backlash and the clear unconformity of many customers who spoke out on social media, the fashion house didn’t remove the piece from their online store.
Understanding the history and context of our clothes is more important than ever as the wish for more and bigger profits in fashion companies is prevalent and often quite ambitious. Our clothes represent who we are and where we come from, so designers and fashion companies must respect everyone’s clothes because, in many ways, they represent who we are. So if we don’t respect clothes, we are not respecting ourselves.
One Voice on Behalf of Millions
When we pick our clothes, we look for garments that represent who we are. Maybe it’s the color that resonates with us, maybe there’s a silly graphic that makes us smile, and we want to wear. All these design choices are thoughtfully planned by a design team to make smart choices… most of the time. When one person is in charge of design choices and doesn’t look for feedback, there is a possibility that this message will reflect the designer’s perspectives, and unconscious bias will creep in.
These kinds of mistakes may come across as sexist, racist, homophobe, or a derogatory message of some sort. Here’s an example:
The sexist messages on these designs were perceived by many consumers as sexist, derogatory, and suggesting hurtful stereotypes towards girls. Maybe this reaction was unintentional; maybe the design team believed in these stereotypes but didn’t think they would cause a negative reaction. This is why a diverse team that represents different backgrounds is necessary when making design choices and developing products forward. The diversity of ideas and understanding of different backgrounds is crucial to avoid biases showing up in fashion.
Now, the idea of a diverse team is often put into practice just “at the tip of the iceberg.” For example, an advertisement with people from different sizes, races, and genders, or when you walk into a store and a beautiful combination of cultures is reflected in the associates’ team. This is diversity on the surface, but the true change comes when this diversity is reflected in the leadership team. Important decisions are made by this team, and significant cultural changes can happen within the company.
Fashion Versus Biases
Born Leaders United is a fashion brand based in Iowa City that gained a lot of attention in 2018 with a black hoodie printed with a graphic that reads: “Humanize My Hoodie.” The goal of the item is to confront the biases that many people have around black people, with black hoodies being threatening. The movement raised attention in the fall of 2017 when Professor Jason Sole from Hamline University announced he would teach his criminal justice classes wearing a black hoodie all semester.
This was a relevant exercise for students who were able to identify biases they didn’t know they have. Many times, we absorb stereotypes and divisive ideas from movies, tv shows, and mass media as they portray a person from a certain background in a very specific way. But the students were able to recognize their biases until they saw their black professor wearing a black hoodie.
A person from any background may have unconscious biases. The conversations we have about race, gender, age, and background shape our perceptions which will then influence our decisions and actions.
From a consumer standpoint, it’s crucial to speak out when we recognize biases from companies. We have a voice that can be shown on social media, emails, and letters when we see a product, a marketing strategy, a policy, or any action or message whatsoever that shows a clear case of bias.
We also have the consumer power of deciding where we decide to shop. And we can support businesses aiming for a fashion industry that is inclusive, diverse, and fair, rather than one with divisive, racist, and gender unequal ideas endorsed by body shame, privilege, and unfairness.
The path is challenging, there are still moments of pushback and oppression, but we can all collaborate to make progress by making smarter consumer choices, raising our voice, sharing our values, and wearing spectacular clothes that reflect how we want the fashion industry to be.