June 24, 2021

Why is racism still in fashion?

7 min read

The violent death of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis has sparked sustained global protests. The fashion industry has also reacted and is shaking. Fashion companies such as Benetton, Zara, H&M, Nike, Guess, and Adidas and also designers such as Victoria Beckham, Marc Jacobs, Donatella Versace and Renzo Rosso (to name just a few), have expressed their solidarity with the #BlackLiveMatters movement on Instagram.

To be honest, I have a problem with expressions of sympathy and solidarity from companies, especially on social media. For me, they always have a stale aftertaste and the question of whether it is a matter of sincere participation in what is happening, a serious and ongoing debate, or just a marketing-driven action according to the principle: “Better to drop off a post today than to face the shitstorm of tomorrow” remains in the room.

The case of George Floyd has reignited the discussion about racism in the world. This is good, urgently needed but also sad. Sad, because it always takes a concrete event to make us realize that the Eurocentric reality in which white people live is a reality in which many others are exposed to constant racism. The fashion world is no exception. George Floyd’s death also reveals the structurally deep-seated racism in the fashion industry.

Fashion has been using black culture and aesthetics for decades, drawing creative input from it and making billions in sales–but has not yet felt the need to ask itself why BPoC are so underrepresented in key positions in the fashion industry. Virgil Abloh (Louis Vuitton), Olivier Rousteing (Balmain) and Ozwald Boateng (Givenchy 2003-2007) are the exception–they are one of the few black designers who have made it to the top of French traditional houses.

What else? How many BPoC editors-in-chief of famous western fashion glossy magazines do you know? Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, was only the second black editor-in-chief on a broad front in the entire history (111 years!) of Condé Nast in 2017. The appointment of Elaine Welteroth as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue US followed shortly afterwards. And now there is Samira Nasr as the new editor-in-chief at Harper’s Bazaar US. But that’s a mere three. Why is it important that black or dark-skinned people sit in these positions? Because BPoCs let THEIR impressions and experiences flow into editorial content and thus have a “different” narrative of fashion, aesthetics and beauty ideals for readers and consumers.

Although there is an increase in the number of black and dark-skinned models on magazine covers and catwalks, they are still generally under-represented, as the fashion platform Fashion Spot, which has been publishing its seasonal diversity report since 2015, also notes. The representation of the supposedly “other” is important, however, so that it is no longer perceived as “exotic” and “foreign” in public perception, but as an equal part of society.

In its November 2019 issue, German Elle titled “Back to Black” and thus not only declared black back as a fashion color, but also presented a few black newcomer models. Too bad that nobody at Elle had the idea that being black is not a trend and that a white model on the cover with the title “Back to Black” seems out of place. A BPoC in the editorial office might have helped.

Racist depictions in fashion happen all the time. If you type the keywords “racism” and “fashion” into Google, you’ll have scores of reading material…. 

Anna Wintour’s apology to her staff last week for “not finding enough ways to uplift or give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators” comes across half-heartedly and too late. This begs the question of why she did not find ways to do this, or the simple conclusion that she was simply not interested in the concerns of black employees and editorial content that could reflect cultural diversity.  It is further said that one “made mistakes and published pictures or stories that were hurtful or intolerant” and that “it cannot be easy to be a black employee at Vogue.” Racism at its best.

Adidas Originals also released a statement on Instagram last week saying: “First, we need to give credit where it is long overdue: Adidas’ success would be nothing without black athletes, black artists, black employees and black consumers. Period.  […] For most of you this message is too little, too late. We have celebrated athletes and artists in the black community and used their image to define us culturally as a brand, but we missed the message by reflecting such small representations within our walls.”

As an immediate measure, the company has agreed that 30% of all open positions will be filled with black and Latinx talent and 50% of all new positions will be filled with different talent (including all different categories, gender, sexual orientation, disability, veterans). Adidas’ public apology was preceded by an open letter from Julia Bond, assistant designer at Adidas USA, to the company’s top management, which was published last week. In her letter, Bond outlined systematic racism problems within the corporate culture. Since then, several other staff members have also spoken out.

While it pleased some, this campaign hardly satisfied several others. Again, there is a fine line between sincere and hypocritical sympathy. Especially in companies that suddenly admit their failures on the issue of racism and inequality and vow to improve, but at the same time do not even pay living wages to textile workers in the countries where they produce.

After US clothing chain Anthropologie wanted to show its solidarity with the Black Live Matters Movement in early June by posting a black profile picture on Instagram and the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday, it probably didn’t expect to see numerous comments gathering under the post accusing the company of unfairly treating black customers in the store. Anthropologie rejected the allegations of racial profiling practices or the use of code words for customers of a particular race or ethnicity among sellers. In another post, the brand praised improvement: “Here at Anthropologie, with our fellow URBN brands at our side, we support and stand with the Black community. We’ve been listening, learning, and reflecting on how we can improve diversity and combat racism. We’re committed to doing better–to being better–and it starts right now [….] We will commit ourselves to fostering inviting environments that are welcoming to and respectful of all individuals, customers and employees.”  Incidentally, the statement does not apply to the suppliers and seamstresses who work for Urban Outfitters and thus also for Anthropologie. As a result of the corona crisis, the US company has so far not committed itself to pay in full for the completed orders and production (more about this here.)

In a contribution for The Guardian.com, Kalkidan Legesse, owner of the Sancho’s Fair Fashion Store in Devon, UK, writes: “Brands have created a production model that keeps garment workers poor and working in unsafe conditions to maximise their own profits. [….] The economic exploitation that fast fashion is reliant upon is a legacy of colonialism. From the 1500s until the middle of the 20th century, European imperialism was a way to create extractive states and oppress non-white people. Of the 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are women of color.”

Anna Wintour, Adidas, Anthropologie (and we just got to the letter A …) are examples of how individual racism and institutional racism are deeply rooted in the fashion industry at all levels. Whether it is the underrepresentation of BPoCs at management level in fashion companies, in (fashion) publishing houses, as designers, as models on magazine covers or the exploitation of BPoCs in low-wage countries such as Bangladesh or Vietnam. Racism in fashion is reflected in the superiority and influence of a dominant white majority society across an entire industry. Not news for most of us, but quietly accepted. And that’s how the system works.

Can the racist events in the USA and the resulting protests really lead to a rethink in the fashion industry? Probably not. It remains to be seen whether the eager actionism of many designers and brands really follows action or is just lip service. And even if it were, just being the quota BPoC in a company that is outwardly cosmopolitan and tolerant, but inwardly does not deal constructively with the issue of racism at all, does not sound really satisfying.

So what does it take? A serious, honest and open debate on the issue of racism in the private and public sphere (in the media, social networks, in companies, etc.) and not only about but WITH PoCs–and not only in the fashion industry. It would at least be a start and could provide for more sensitivity and understanding towards certain linguistic terms, topics and ways of thinking and behavior. Perhaps Prada would have noticed in time that the $550 key ring with black skin and thick red lips does not look like a funny monkey, but rather like a stereotypical, racist caricature of a 19th century black person. Perhaps H&M would have noticed two years ago that the depiction of a black little boy wearing a sweater with the inscription “Coolest monkey in the jungle” serves deep-seated racist clichés.

Anyone who thinks that these are just little trivialities that can be overlooked has not understood anything. White people should be aware of their privileges. Yes, even in 2020 it makes a difference whether you are white or a BPoC. From “She has been standing here so long that she is blackly annoyed,” to “but you speak German well,” to “Fuck you n*****,” I am glad that I have been confronted with relatively little open racism in my life so far. Nevertheless, every single word sits deep in my memory and remains. Just because you are not aware of your racist thinking and racist actions does not mean that they have no effect. Also and especially in the fashion industry.

Juliette Tafreschi, fashion editor, SPORTSWEAR INTERNATIONAL

Juliette Tafreschi, fashion editor, SPORTSWEAR INTERNATIONAL


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