Fashion Has A Black People Problem

“Let me be clear: the established, mainstream fashion design community does not have a diversity problem, it has a ‘Black people problem.’”

This sentiment, shared in Kibwe Chase-Marshall’s op-ed for Business of Fashion, is an apt place to start when addressing the recent events surrounding Mira Duma, Ulyana Sergeenko and the larger race issue in fashion.

From the aforementioned’s ’N****s in Paris’ incident to copycat influencers in blackface, through to Wycon Cosmetics using the N word to name a nail polish, all the way up to the divisive debacles by mega brands Pepsi, H&M and Amazon, the privileged ignorance that allows racial ‘faux pas’, slurs, missteps, discrimination, misrepresentation and other problematic behaviors to continue is nothing new. Unfortunately what has also been established as the status quo is the response or lack thereof from the industry at large. Somewhat surprising given the perceived modern day refresh of championing ideals of diversity and equality through social media, products and marketing. The collective response to these incidents continues to be a better barometer of where the industry stands on the race issue, than the incidents themselves. 

In the case of Mira Duma and Ulyana Sergeenko, their respective public responses were lacklustre and tone deaf at best. Particularly Ulyana’s; citing age old rhetoric, in line with the parody sketch-esque sentiment of ‘I’m not a racist, my dentist is black’, and ending on the unapologetic and entitled note of ‘please can we stop it here?’ all while throwing her BFF under the bus. The most telling portion of her non-apology was the admission that she and her friends use the N word as part of their ‘cool’ vernacular, the audacity of which is both callous and frightful. Essentially her overall omission of a real apology reads as her justifying her actions, rendering the entire point void of any actual meaning – which leads me to believe that she’s really responding to the act of getting caught over the act itself. What she fails to reconcile is that the private use of this word is no better than using it publicly. Her use of it personally desensitizes this and other sensitive language, with insidious effects on how she sees people, culture and meaningful solutions. More importantly, what she fails to grasp is that it is simply not her right to use that word. Period.

Vogue UK team in its last year under Alexandra Schulman

What is more problematic and tone deaf is not only the industry’s silence in the face of these occurrences, but the voices of support – with influential industry figures commenting with soothing and congratulatory emojis on both Mira and Ulyana’s apology posts and some even sharing supportive posts of their own. One has to wonder, what will it take for the industry to stand up for us? Very shortly after the #MeToo movement spiralled into fashion with accusations against photographers Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and (again) Terry Richardson, the industry spoke out, and loudly. With many brands and media giants vowing to cease working with all of the accused. Much dialogue was launched and continues today about what can be done to stamp out sexual misconduct, providing those affected with much needed platforms to share their stories and industry luminaries rallying around supportive strategies and calls for internal and legal policy protection. Anna Wintour herself, went as far as releasing a timely public statement in response to the claims against her long time friends, in which she introduced new ‘Codes of Conduct’ to be implemented globally throughout Conde Nast, effective immediately. Both a moral and business decision mapped against a very serious and awfully pervasive issue, why is so little being done about the very serious and awfully pervasive issues surrounding race? From a business standpoint, black spending power both in the US and globally is formidable and economically speaking we know that much has been researched and reported regarding why equal representation is great for business across the board. On a moral note, it’s just the right thing to do, especially for an industry that promotes the tenets upon which it exists to be: creativity, inclusion, diversity and equality. Speaking of which, where is the wrath of Business of Fashion’s #TiedTogether campaign, which launched very shortly after Brexit, the inaugural women’s march, Trump’s Muslim ban and the rise of western right-wing opposition. The initiative, including fashion heavy weights participants like Tommy Hilfiger, Diane von Furstenberg, Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim, Thakoon Panichgul and countless fashion influencers, was conceived in support of “human unity and inclusiveness amidst growing uncertainty and a dangerous political narrative peddling division on both sides of the Atlantic,” Using the bandana (an item pushed further into the popular sartorial lexicon by black culture) as the symbol for the initiative, Imran Amed, founder and Editor-In-Chief of Business of Fashion states, “Wear a white bandana as a sign to the world that you believe in the common bonds of humankind — regardless of race, sexuality, gender or religion.” I’m particularly interested in their stance on the dangerous narrative peddling division within their industry. 

H&M advertising

On the corporate side, after racially deplorable flare-ups, these companies often put in place seemingly token gestures that do little to erode the calcified infrastructure that upholds decades of systemic discrimination. The most recent example: after H&M depicted a young black boy in a hoodie that read “coolest monkey in the jungle”, blatantly highlighting the lack of non-white employees in decision making roles – they hired a “diversity leader”. A role with the moral and civic responsibilities akin to that of what should be industry standard within HR, marketing and all other departments.

Granted that some steps have been taken towards a vision of a more inclusive and representative industry. However, almost all efforts have been public facing and often thinly veiled with sincerity. Adding a small increase of black models down an already racially anaemic catwalk or painting the sweet picture of equality and unity via influencer ad campaigns a la Gap, does very little to shift or even address the internal power dynamic of the racial disparity amongst our industry’s gatekeepers.

Elaine Welteroth by Anna Ottum for WWD

Elaine Welteroth, former Teen Vogue Editor-In-Chief, acutely noted, “Dear white allies in fashion: WHERE YOU AT on this issue?” Editor Danielle Prescod also spoke out about the number of private direct messages of support and outrage she was receiving from white friends, colleagues and followers, yet, these very people stay silent in any public forum. I personally was astounded to think how many times on MLK day, a few days prior to the Mira/Ulyana incident, I saw his quote “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” circling around the same community that remain just that – silent. The salient point of contention is that white allies in the industry need to speak out and show up. The work cannot be done by people of color alone. As much as we use our collective voice and available resources, the industry, by design, has so few people of color or black people in senior decision making roles, that it is incumbent on those who are to take swift and significant action. We all need a seat at the table.

At what point will these instances go beyond being touted as ‘teachable moments’ and instead be used to spearhead meaningful and practical solutions, powerful enough to positively shift the deep rooted race issue in fashion? The strength of the fashion industry lies not in what it says they care about but how they act upon those issues.