Faced with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the fashion industry pledged to change. So where do things stand a year down the line? A new British study sadly reveals that "discrimination pervades in the fashion industry."
As the basis for this research , the Fashion Roundtable think tank and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fashion and Textiles interviewed more than 330 British people working in the fashion industry. More than two thirds of them declare having experienced or witnessed discrimination within the sector. Most such incidents are related to physical appearance (73.4%), followed by ethnicity (49.2%) and age (48.6%).
While this discrimination manifests itself in a variety of ways, many minority respondents report not having the same professional opportunities as some of their colleagues. "Bosses have told me that I should be working harder as I am British Chinese, we do not need as much as anyone else, as we do not ask for
more. The stereotype of being hardworking, works against us as being nerdy, uncreative and unsociable, so we do not tend to get leadership roles as we are seen as not having people skills," said one respondent.
The phenomenon appears to be particularly pronounced among Black respondents. Many report having worked in hostile work environments, where they experienced inappropriate comments about their physical appearance or were insulted. Some manifestations of racism, however, are more pernicious, as one fashion lecturer says: "In terms of witnessing structural racism -- I knew it was because of my color. It's the silent racism. So silent. Can I just say, the people who were holding me back were my colleagues whom I got on with. You just suck it up, to get angry would just go against you."
Untapped commercial opportunities
According to the study, the industry's lack of diversity is also visible in runway shows, magazines and clothing stores. Nearly nine out of ten respondents do not feel represented in advertising campaigns, fashion shoots and on the catwalk. And yet, more than 90% of participants said they would support a brand financially if it was known to be inclusive.
The report authors highlight two booming markets that industry players could embrace to better meet consumer demands for diversity: unisex or gender fluid fashion, and so-called modest fashion. While more and more brands now offer gender-neutral clothing, relatively few have entered the niche of modest fashion. However, more than 85% of Muslim women interviewed do not recognize themselves in mass market collections.
The industry would be wise to remedy this, as the modest fashion market is expected to reach $360 billion by 2023. But fashion needs to change the way it operates in order to get there, and include more diverse professionals among its ranks. "The [modest fashion] market is huge and there is so much room for
creativity, but it is so hard to raise it in meetings or touch on anti-Islamic rhetoric for fear of coming across as a terrorist sympathizer. It's that basic," notes one designer.
Many participants in the study (83%) believe that the British government has a role to play in this change of mentality, and the government should demand strong commitments to greater inclusivity from the fashion industry. It's an opinion shared by the journalist Lottie Jackson, who regularly works with the Fashion Roundtable think tank.
"Creativity and policymaking are viewed as distinctly separate spheres. They are, ostensibly, seen to be antagonistic forces. After all, why would a free-spirited, creative mind want to be constrained by the rigmarole of legislation?" she states. "It's for this reason, we've rarely stopped to consider the immense value that a collaborative, joined-up approach could bring to each separate domain -- building a link between policymakers and an industry which represents £35bn of UK GDP."