Janice Deul is an Afro-Dutch activist, curator and journalist, advocating diversity & inclusion in media, arts and - mainly - fashion. She does so by writing, speaking on panels, giving workshops & lectures and via her platform Diversity Rules, founded in 2014. She co-curated an exhibition on Black couture, beauty & styles: '' Voices of fashion”, on show in the Centraal Museum Utrecht until August 15.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Concerning my background, I was born in Rotterdam to Surinamese parents and you may know that Surinam was colonized by the Netherlands. So, they came to the Netherlands in 1958. My mother came first to find out whether life was good and my father came later. We are 6 children and we moved to Alphen aan den Rijn, a town near The Hague. We were the only black family. In school, for scouting, sports we were the only black children but it was not a problem. It made me feel special. We were liked and loved. My parents told us that we could do and become anything we wanted as long as we were willing to work for it. I grew up with stars in my eyes and very good self-esteem. I studied Dutch linguistics and literature at Leiden University, where I joined a student club then a sorority and I was again the only or first black girl. Whether it was in magazine publishing where I started working or at university. Being the only black girl has been the story of my life. It did not bother me though.

How did your fight for diversity and inclusion in the fashion world begin?

Diversity and inclusion is not a new issue. It was discussed in the media in the ’80s. I did not want to be ‘bothered’ by a topic like this, because it wasn’t an issue for me at that time. I thought that if you worked hard you could achieve anything you wanted. This idea is still reasoning among white people or successful black people, especially when you address the issue of exclusion. When I was copy editor for lifestyle and fashion magazines it didn’t occur to me that society, and the system works in favor of some and against others. I didn’t really realize it until 8 years ago when I met a young black girl who wanted to become a model. She was gorgeous so I told her to try model agencies. She said that she tried to enroll in all kinds of model agencies but they all said to her: « You are great but we already have one », meaning one black model. I was devastated to hear this. It was a wake-up call for me and later on the model told me that she was surprised by my reaction, she said to me: « how come you don’t know this ». But like I said before, I never had those experiences. I was naïve.

Suddenly, I realized that I had to do something about this. At that moment, I had been working for years and years in the fashion industry. I had noticed that black models were rare on covers, I asked why and let it go. Then years later, I asked again and it was the same answer: « we want black models but we can’t find them » or « black models don’t sell ». It opened my eyes and I was later able to participate in a TED Talk on the power of fashion and this story was in it. It started my fashion activism. I started to talk about beauty inequality, and representation in the media and everywhere. Fashion is not an isolated topic.

Fast forward to 7 years later, the Black Lives Matter (BLM ) movement was created. It’s a wake-up call for white people. Journalists in fashion are willing to cooperate with people of color. It was a « quest » for black people. It was a peculiar time in which I, after 7 years of activism, for the first time was interviewed in a well-known fashion magazine, Elle Netherlands. I said to the interviewer « It’s really great that you are interviewing me right now but it’s also striking to see that George Floyd had to die for you to contact me. Where were you five years ago?». The media were eager to report personal racism experiences, they were focused on personal drama or individual pain. I hated that because in my point of view we should focus on the system as a whole. Those personal stories are a distraction. They reduce one to a woman who got discriminated against for her nose or her hair. I want to paint the bigger picture. Apart from that: I am an expert on this matter, my personal experiences are not relevant

"use the power of fashion, of beauty, of culture and art to make society more inclusive"

Now we need to go further, we need black models but also black journalists, black stylists, black photographers etc. We also need to stop stereotyping black models because we often see the same kind of women. This is the big challenge, for now, we have to work towards an inclusive cultural landscape. I want to spread this message: « use the power of fashion, of beauty, of culture and art to make society more inclusive ». I address the issue in talk shows, on the radio, or television, in op-ed articles. For example, I was the first person in the Netherlands to write about cultural appropriation. I also wrote a book about black hair with a blogger.

Now, I’m writing a book that aims to be a handbook for inclusive fashion and creatives. I am committed to promote inclusion and diversity that’s why I also co-curated this wonderful fashion exhibition entitled Voices of Fashion at the Centraal Museum, an art museum in the Netherlands. This exhibition celebrates black fashion, couture, beauty, and styles, but also addresses Eurocentrism in the fashion and art system.

Can you tell us more about your new book?

It’s a handbook for inclusion in the fashion industry. How can we be more inclusive while working in fashion, wearing fashion, designing fashion, marketing fashion, and teaching about fashion. It’s a hell of a job. I am writing this book with media researcher Charlotte Dwyer. The book will be published in September of this year.

Also, can you talk about your platform Diversity Rules?

It started in 2014 on Facebook and later on Instagram. I use it as an inspirational tool. I just want to show how fashion should be done and should look. At that time we, the Netherlands, were way behind. Black cover models were scarcely seen. I share images of beauty that are not responding to cliché images of being thin, young and white. It’s not only about black women but it is the main part of the activism. Black women are at the bottom of every hierarchy in our occidental society. Worldwide we are less protected, respected, and supported. Historically our beauty is not celebrated at all, since we are far from the ideal of beauty due to our skin color, hair, etc. So focusing on black women, on size, age, and disabilities is important for me. I want to see all the differences of this world being celebrated. Beauty criteria are outdated. I also share articles about many topics. I write and speak out on colorism, black hair, the influence of colonialism and slavery in fashion, the natural hair movement and on the fashion industry that needs a total recall.

Black women are far away from beauty standards set in the Global North. Therefore, we grew up with less self-esteem. Can you tell us why good representation is important?

I grew up feeling like I could be the Queen of the Netherlands or whatever. All little children in this world, especially black girls need to grow up with the idea that they can be and do anything. When you don’t see yourself being reflected in all the fields of society you think: « maybe I can’t be who I want to be ». Your choices are limited by your surroundings, images in fashion and what you see on TV. Let’s say that the black character is the villain or that the black girl is a prostitute or a junkie then you ask yourself « why can’t I be the queen or the princess? ». Fashion dictates what we consider beautiful and who we consider being beautiful. If Vogue puts a model with green hair, a blue nose, and three legs on its cover and says « this is the new beauty » then everyone will be inclined to say « oh this beautiful », especially if they do it over and over again. That’s why fashion is important. The idea of beauty is reproduced in commercials, films, and television. If in fairy tales the princess is always blond with blue eyes you won’t feel empowered as a black girl.

Nowadays we have a lot of black models in campaigns. How can we detect woke washing?

It’s also called tokenism. A black person (usually the same type of black woman) is being used for marketing purposes. Blackness is often used as a tool, to sell and to show how street, modern, woke you are. But thank god for social media and activists, consumers are more aware of things, they know when it’s a publicity stunt. Consumers are calling brands out on social media. I am an activist but we should all be activists and react when something is wrong. We have to ask them « why do you choose a black model on your cover but there are no black people working for your company ». I hope the industry and society as a whole will get past this and see diversity and inclusion as a given, as a super power also. The diversity that you see in a city must be reflected in every magazine.

"We must make sure that sustainability and diversity go hand in hand"

At COSH! we work towards more sustainability in the fashion industry. Do you explore this topic in your articles?

Sustainable fashion is a big thing now and it is one of my focus points. I really love vintage. During the BLM movement, we saw that due to the Covid-19 the fashion industry got a wake-up call. They realized that they can’t work like this any further. They need to change the way they produce with fewer collections and shows. A lot of parties in the industry (think thanks, schools, designers…) came together. I hope that the BLM movement will affect the fashion industry concerning diversity and inclusion like Covid-19 influenced the garment industry to become more sustainable. Unfortunately, we don’t see designers calling for more diversity in the industry on the same scale. I introduced this topic at university by giving lectures. Now I am addressing the topic of sustainable fashion with diversity and inclusion. I also talk about zero waste in relation to energy and the safeguarding of the planet. Whenever I am at a sustainable fashion conference or event, I look for people of colour. Where are they? How come they are a few? We must make sure that sustainability and diversity go hand in hand because we want to include and represent everyone.

When I go deep on the issue of sustainability, I see a clear link to colonialism, the exploitation of the global South in favor of the global North (resources and workers). Does your exhibition touch on these topics too?

It surely does. Our exhibition is a celebration of black fashion and black music but it’s also an eye-opener for people who don’t realize that the system of fashion is rooted in a colonialism system and this colonial past is still influencing the way we look at people in fashion industry. Black beauty and designers are not praised in the industry. For example, black designers are usually not considered « designers » or « couturiers ». Black fashion is not seen as fashion. It is seen as a look or a trend. Black people create fashion, we are and breathe fashion. We set the trends but we don’t get credit for it.

The exhibition shows all the beauty of black fashion and it encourages you to go further. Black designers are not in museums even though they have been doing down breaking work. This exhibition is fixing that.

Visit the exhibition "Voices of fashion"