May 2021 marks the sad anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. This event sparked protests around the world against police violence and systemic racism that is plaguing our societies. More than ever, black people had the urge to shout "Black lives matter".
You have probably noticed that “racialized” models have been featured a lot lately on advertising campaigns and magazine covers. There's no need to make a list, all brands have done it, from luxury to fast fashion. Unfortunately, it is George Floyd’s murder that made this awareness possible. Yet, the systemic racism that was exposed in 2020 has been rampant for centuries in education, health, housing, hiring, and of course also into the fashion world. Does this craze mark the beginning of a profound change? Or is it "woke washing", a marketing plan set up to calm tensions and drown out the issue of systemic racism?
Does inclusion and diversity go beyond the cover?
Can you name three black models? (besides Naomi Campbell of course). Three Asian models? Still? A Middle Eastern model? The lack of consideration for non-white people in the fashion industry is glaring and has been going on for a long time, even though many trends and ideas have come from the black community. The history of fashion is littered with collections and visuals inspired by the Global South. The death of George Floyd has therefore highlighted the non-inclusion and lack of diversity in the fashion world. During the summer of 2020, all luxury or fast fashion brands have integrated models of colour into their advertising campaigns. It took social media and the world to be outraged for the fashion industry to become aware of this issue. The first reaction would be to say “finally” but will this change be profound or will it remain on the cover of magazines? Structural racism killed George Floyd. It was there before he died and it is still there today. Being a person of colour is not a trend or a prop. It is a constant struggle.
Using non-white models to polish their images is not new for brands. Very recently, fast fashion brands have used this process to make consumers forget that their practices were and are harmful to the environment and human rights. This practice is called "wokewashing". Woke washing is "the act of a company communicating widely about an awakening of its conscience (ecological, racial inclusiveness, social justice, etc.). This term is pejorative because it reflects a marketing strategy, rather than a deep conviction accompanied by tangible acts of transformation of its practices.
The lack of diversity is often a problem at the organizational level. "No effort is made to make senior positions and decision-making accessible to non-white people. The French fashion designer, Jaquemus has been criticized for its lack of diversity and inclusiveness within its structures. Many advertising campaigns or magazine covers with racist content could have been avoided if a person of colour had been present during the campaign decision making process. The German Elle had entitled an issue "Back to Black". H&M had a little black boy posing in a sweatshirt with the words "Coolest monkey in the jungle". Today, it is social media that challenges the brands and makes consumers aware of these issues. The instagram Diet_Prada lists the scandals and does not hesitate to question the brands directly. Consumers are more and more sensitive to this.
The choice of diversity should not mask the real issue which is the suppression of systemic racism.
Why representation matters
Role models are necessary for identity construction. Growing up in a society that emphasizes only one type of physique can have negative effects on self-esteem. A non-white child must be able to identify and imagine a place for himself within society. The Lexicon of Racism, Labelle (2006) categorizes the notion of diversity as an anti-racism and anti-discrimination measure, alongside admiring instruments such as employment equity or affirmative action. Through her Instagram Diversity Rules, Janice Deul, a fashion activist from the Netherlands, tries to act on this lack of representation. Through her opinion pieces, books, workshops, media appearances and numerous events, she also calls on the fashion industry to be truly inclusive by working with professionals of colour. From journalist to stylist, photographer, ... "Fashion should represent and serve everyone. For me, it is a perfect tool to make the world, more beautiful, better and more inclusive."
"For decades we have seen black looks or styles being plagiarised, then suddenly they are considered fashionable," Janice explains. "This phenomenon is called cultural appropriation and is defined as the appropriation of the creative or artistic practices of a group or culture and is generally used to describe appropriation by a dominant culture towards a marginalised culture. This is often accompanied by a lack of recognition of those with privileges and stereotyping of the marginalised culture."
Janice has been speaking out about cultural appropriation for years. "It's a difficult subject, but we definitely need to talk about it. I am co-curator of the "Voices of fashion" exhibition at Centraal Museum Utrecht, which clearly shows that the black community inspires the fashion world. However, this contribution is often not recognised."
"The same thing happened when Kim Kardashian had herself photographed with raised braids in a style we have seen since time immemorial on black people worldwide. These particular braids are considered "ghetto" or unprofessional on a black person, but not when worn by white people. This is just one example. Cultural appropriation seems to be an essential feature of fashion. Big brands are guilty of it all the time. For example, Gucci came under fire for its Sikh-inspired turbans worn by white models, and then for its jumpers that give the impression of Blackface with thick red lips.
The goal is not to fall into exorcism or tokenism, which refers to the fact of choosing a non-white person in order to be able to boast of being inclusive. Fashion should be inclusive of everyone regardless of "race", gender, age, or size. Fashion is also a political tool. Fashion defines what is beautiful. According to Janice, what is on the cover of a magazine is on the cover of movie posters, on TV and in children's stories, etc. We are all activists. We should all be advocating for more diversity and inclusion in the fashion world that should reflect our society.
"The DNA of the industry needs to change and the decision-makers should think about it differently". Brands that do not have employees of colour should challenge themselves. Society is diverse and brands need to reflect that richness. Inclusion must be at the heart of brands at all levels. Janice Deul is about to release a guide for the fashion world, but in the meantime, brands should challenge their white privilege, humbly communicate about systemic racism, and ensure that all of society is represented in the company, in stores, and in advertising campaigns. By simply opening the door for everyone.