These days, when brands fail to acknowledge, respect, and represent different groups and cultures it can cause detrimental “viral outrage”. And rightly so. Customers are no longer passive consumers. We are demanding a more honest representation of society that looks beyond westernised beauty standards. We are asking for diversity. Our new dialogue between brand managers has amplified feedback on a worldwide platform which is impossible to ignore. We are democratising fashion. We are demanding diversity AND inclusion.
Indeed, this has initiated a more diverse market, industry practice, and regimes of representation. Many runways now include a range of sizes, ages, identities, and ethnicities, evident in Christian Sirano’s most recent catwalk. Nevertheless, the industry has not fully understood what we are demanding. Unfortunately, ‘diversity’ has now become white noise in business; a corporate buzzword, thrown around head offices, seldom being truly heard and understood. Diversity’s visibility has increased, but what about its authenticity and sustainability? Perhaps if brands consciously rooted their discussion within these two arenas, we might be having a very different conversation altogether.
The difference between diversity and inclusion
In a 2019 report, the Council of Fashion Designers of America criticised the industry for its inability to achieve or identify the need for inclusion. Freelance editor and stylist Mary Anderson explained in a recent interview that brands need to understand that diversity goes beyond representing “one light-skinned Black model with a 25-inch weave and 22-inch waist” in a catwalk. It also means recognising that models are just one small piece of the fashion industry. Inclusion is key and encompasses active participation of marginalised groups.
“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”
Let’s consider the rise of modest wear. This is a fashion line that respects the influence of culture and/or religion upon one’s dress that may be contrasting to popular styles. Nike’s recent launch of full coverage swimsuits and hijabs exhibits this. Here, we witness a brand going beyond simply putting diverse models into advertisements and instead inclusively designing products and services for the widest possible audience; sincerely including them as part of the fashion community.
Equal participation behind the scenes
The CFDA also identified the industry’s lack of diverse workforces. Brands must be aware of the tokenism associated with ‘diverse’ adverts and new designs that are not sustained. Ultimately, these decisions come from those in power.
“If diversity is the thread, then inclusion is the needle”
According to Erica Lovett, the manager of Inclusion and Community at Condé Nast, fashion is “a systemic issue tied to the homogeneity of industry leadership”. This means that for fashion to become authentically diverse, there must be sustained inclusion of marginalised groups from behind the scenes; such as dispelling mono-cultured recruitment practices at the most senior level amongst CEOs, executives and directors.
The industry needs to become anti-exclusionary by creating better opportunities and access for those repeatedly underrepresented. Covid-19 has evidenced that employers can continue working life whilst protecting the well-being of staff and promoting accessibility and inclusion. For example, some companies have adapted to allow flexible working from home without compromising profit; an inclusive practice that disabled people have requested for years but have often been denied.
The power of education
“If the fashion industry is to become truly inclusive, the revolution must begin in the classrooms of our creative institutions”
If exclusion remains endemic, then it is important to look beyond the fashion industry to understand why. At most design schools, they do not teach students to cater for bodies outside the thin, white and non-disabled framework. It seems that students must instead focus on inclusion projects independently, leading to issues surrounding insufficient support. Ultimately, graduates enter the industry not thoroughly trained to think or design for a diverse range of consumers.
Corporate leaders must recognise their position of power and influence upon such graduates when entering the industry. This means prioritising corporate investment into Diversity & Inclusion departments, who can advise and train staff. Current employees are empowered to think and act more mindfully when taught to acknowledge their unconscious bias and actively challenge it.
Asked to dance
Leaders must recognise the attached importance of authenticity, sustainability, and inclusion when talking about diversity. If not, its significance is lessened to a last minute, half-hearted invite.
Nevertheless, there is hope as it is evident that things can improve. By providing a platform for today’s most urgent social and cultural conversations, fashion is creating an opportunity to challenge the industry’s unconscious bias and truly lead the way with diversity and inclusion. It just starts with honest education, thorough training, and deeper understanding.