Diversity Is Now in Fashion – Or Is It? Observations on the Fashion Industry

A rising trend in the fashion industry

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Recently, it was reported that Fall 2021’s Fashion Month was the most racially diverse season in the fashion industry.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to us. After all, amidst movements like the Black Lives Matter Movement and the recent spike in violence against BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) communities, it’s no wonder people’s attention are now spotlighting racial injustice.

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And to this, we say: it’s about time. Minority groups have long been pushing for greater representation in the fashion industry. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CDFA) conducted a survey in February 2021 wherein they found that black employees feel like the lack of diversity in fashion companies makes them feel like they don’t belong.

How could they? All the social and economic imbalances that come attached with one’s identity and race have, for decades, seeped into the fashion industry. When people pick up magazines, it’s easy to remember seeing more white, thin models than people of color of varying sizes.

But today, things look a little different.

More socially conscious people have been voicing out in favor of inclusion. We initially saw this is models like Paloma Elsesser, Tyra Banks, and Naomi Campbell. In her Spring-Summer 2019 (SS19) runway show, designer Claudia Li opted for an all-Asian cast of models.

“For me,” Li said in an interview. “I think this collection is the right time to do it because it’s our first official runway show, and this collection is all about memories of how I grew up in New Zealand as an Asian Woman.”

Today we see more than racial diversity in fashion companies. More people of color and women are becoming business owners in the fashion line.

Take, for example, Ebony Swank, CEO of Swank a Posh. Her 100% black woman-owned fashion line focuses on putting out clothes that are comfortable and fashionable. Most of all, they’re catered to suit all body types. Swank takes particular care in ensuring that the brand partners with influencers who aren’t typically ‘supermodel material, in a sense.

“When collaborating with influencers, we do not look for a certain image,” Swank explained. “We search for all kinds of girls in different sorts of sizes. We love that, because not only is it more relatable, but it’s also real and it shows it’s okay to be who you are confidently.”

Diversity: tokenism, or a genuine response?

Make no mistake: this is all great news.

The fashion industry has finally made much-needed progress in stepping into reality. The world isn’t just made of people of one color or gender. It’s diverse, and it’s time for the fashion industry to cater to actual human beings.

And sure, we’re all grateful. But some are wary about how these recent changes could potentially be no more than lip service – and rightly so. The lingering, doubtful question still prevails: does the fashion industry remain unchanged beneath it all?

“After a year like 2020, some may have been falsely under the impression that the old guard was changing. It wasn’t. Like most other industries, fashion has suffered from the Mad Men syndrome – the idea that successful leaders look and navigate the world in one specific way,” opined Amber Nicole Alston, the founder of Hyphenate Management.

It’s not enough to just sport two or three models in the minority out on the runway. It’s not enough for a company to preach about standing with people of color and promoting feminism when the wage imbalance still exists there.

We need to address the issue of tokenism in the fashion industry. Journalist Shelby Hyde explained that when tokenism occurs, people of color are then “conditioned to be complacent out of fear”.

So we must ask ourselves: are many brands merely putting on a facade for the sake of satisfying socially aware consumers? Or are there companies that genuinely care about addressing the social and economical imbalance where minorities are concerned?

Making space onstage for a more diverse cast

Still, that doesn’t mean the fashion industry hasn’t made progress. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate all the little – and rightful – wins in what was once an archaic industry.

For instance, early in 2021, New York City became the largest city that officially recognizes LGBTQ-owned companies as minority-owned businesses.

No Sesso is a transgender-owned fashion line that was the first of its kind to be featured during 2019’s New York Fashion Week.

Its owner, Pierre Davis, said about this line: “Our pieces are made for every body and every identity, and we aspire to empower people of all colors, shapes, and identities through our service of fashion representations, music performances, and social events that push our community into new spaces in the fashion and cultural conversation.”

Ebony Swank also recognizes the need to cater to consumers of varying sizes and body shapes. Swank a Posh promotes clothes that are suitable for everyday use and comfort, but also emphasize each body type’s assets. As Swank said, “Everything about Swank a Posh is designed to meet the needs of the everyday woman, no matter what size, style, or budget.”

Swank is right in that regard. If the fashion industry boasts of using beauty to elevate one’s confidence, perhaps the industry needs to consider more ways to help consumers feel seen. To help them realize that their unique versions of beauty are exactly what they are: beautiful.

It’s time to think of more than one type of consumer.

The world is too big and too colorful for the fashion industry to ignore the children who need to pick up a fashion magazine and see themselves on the cover.