Working with Tom Ford of Gucci in the early 2000s was one of the priceless experiences of my life. Being a part of the $1.5 trillion fashion industry was an everyday challenge and full of lessons- good and bad; big and small.
I was one of the very few ethnic minorities in our office. Designers were predominantly White- very few of color. Marketing team were also mostly White. Models were almost always White. Because I was one of the very few Asian in my team, many people somehow “assumed” that I would excel in math and all the analysis related to money and budget management. Against their stereotypical judgement of me, the alternative fact was that I really sucked at numbers from day 1.
The fashion industry comprises of a conglomerate network of skills- designers, buyers, marketer, fashion magazine editors, models, photographers, make-up artists, and etc. It has always boasted itself as a haven for minorities of all kinds. It celebrates and honors talent and originality. Its collections and ideas are meant to pull together different perspectives, colors and materials to convey diversity- because that is art and art is “supposed to” and is able to breed the grounds for radical difference.
But does it really?
The bare naked truth is that racism in fashion exists.
Whiteness confers privilege; discrimination exists outside of intentionality; and it hopes for colorblind (Carbado, 2011). When you start dissecting the industry, like any other industries, it plays under the rubric of the racial landscape of White supremacy- implicitly and explicitly. One of the not-so-new take away of the fashion industry is that it reflects our society- its cultures and values. It may be just like a sponge- that soaks up the virtues, lenses, colors, and perspectives of what’s happening in our world. So when we see racial imbalance in the fashion and its media, we might have to think twice about what we are seeing behind all the bling-bling glamour. We are seeing smaller portrait of reality.
Sadly, fashion people of color still struggle in 2017 to be accepted by the fashion mainstream. Fashion remains an industry that’s largely the reserve for the privileged classes. Every season, it reveals its blind spots and the ironies surfaces- that it lacks its own ethnic variety. It may not “really” celebrate diversity as they proclaim. The institutional disregard for fashion people of color remains and is stained grossly in the fashion industry fabric. Despite the massive criticism each season, the industry willfully ignores these shortcomings, and still alienates various racial/ethnic groups.
For London and Milan Fashion Week, White designers and models was undoubtedly the mainstay. With the effort to acknowledge diversity, 46 of the designers of 150 official Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) were sponsored brand shows at the recent New York Fashion Week were of color. On the NYFW runway, an approximate 78.69% were White, 7.67% Black, 9.75% Asian, and 2.12% were Latina. Although some ethnic minority models have grown in numbers over the past decade, racial/ethnic minorities are still too often relegated to token status. For instance, Black models rarely appear on the cover of mainstream fashion magazines- industries’ concern of not selling as well or not “following the money”.
These numbers hardly represent the U.S. demographic- neither does it represent the whole world. So what may be the real problem behind it?
At its core, there are various complex systemic issues that hold fashion people of color back from being fully embraced by the fashion industry at large. Fashion media editors note that there is a severe lack of prominent people of color at the heart of publications- those who make final editorial decisions; the ones who really have the power to influence and socially impact. To critically see the ironies in the fashion industry, we turn to racism in the current society as the major factor that hinders equal opportunities.
There may be various reasons intertwined with racism and discrimination that leads to countless inequalities in the fashion industry. For many people of color, challenges may arise from the economic barriers and educational disparities to enter the high-wrought industry. Disparities in the socioeconomic status within and across families, schools, and communities imposes budget cuts and resources to arts programs in public schools. Then there comes a chain action that lessens teachers or mentors to help make ground for possibilities and opportunities for students to discover their talent or adequately prepare and apply for future schools/careers. Although most of fashion schools offer financial aid, the horrific domino effect had already begun in elementary school.
With limited amount and depth of resource, what if people of color never actually get to come upon their potentials? What other options are there to encourage those who have the potential to succeed in the industry? Under these circumstances, will they perceive this industry with a viable future, or not even devote any effort in making their career pathways towards it?
Trickling down from the imbalance and injustice embedded on every level in our society, fashion people of color— designers, professors, editors, retailers, financiers and communications executives — face several factors, such as socioeconomic realities, educational hurdles, the globalization of the industry and fashion’s own core sense of itself as an industry made up of outsiders. Fashion people of color are also the victims of the socially constructed race- their identities viewed not only from a social context but also to a social interaction (Carbado and Harris, 2008) that blocks so many possibilities in the industry. Even if the fashion people of color do not intend to manage their racial identity in this way, the racial meanings the mainstream ascribed to them in the industry may only offer continuous hurdles. Accumulating from the societal impact, and due to the lack of resource, prejudice, and discrimination from the starting point, even designers of color who work in the field, may not get respect — partially because they don’t always have or not provided with the things that people have and need. They are less likely to have access to finance and relational support that are significant to run a business.
Reflection and Action
So are there no figureheads to look up to? I think not. There are plenty of successful predecessor in the industry to show and deliver powerful guidelines and inspirations.
As Paulo Freire (2000) signifies the moments of reflection and action about ethnic studies, safe spaces, colorblindness, retrenchment politics, and institutional cultures, it is equally significant to deploy the ideas and frames in the fashion industry. Despite the racial stratification, changes can start from within- to bring the issues to surface and seek change, and incite action. Disclosing stories and engaging conversations with those who seek in this field may stir changes from within- slowly, yet strategically removing societal obstacles.
Forerunners may contribute in aiming to create visibility for the future fashion people of color- providing possibilities and room for diversity and authenticity. Without these actions in families, schools, communities, and professional fields, there would only be racial accumulation- which may be economic, cultural, and ideological- structures life changes, and the inter-generational transfers of racial compensation (Carbado, 2011). Without different goals and mindset in the industry proactively attending to foundational questions and problems of “facts” and “truths”, it would only support the contemporary economies of the racial hierarchy (Carbado, 2011)- failing to correct the unjust racial allocations in the fashion industry and in other fields as well.
The runway is for everyone and anyone.
If there is a reason for everything, there must be reason for all the hues in our palettes. May fashion celebrate true inclusion.
Carbado, D. W. (2011). Critical What What? Connecticut Law Review, 43(5).
Carbado, D. W., & Harris, C. I. (2008). The new racial preferences. California Law Review, 96(5), 1139-1214.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Neblett, E. W., Philip, C. L., Cogburn, C. D., & Sellers, R. M. (2006). African american adolescents’ discrimination experiences and academic achievement: Racial socialization as a cultural compensatory and protective factor. Journal of Black Psychology, 32(2), 199-218.
Ogbu, J. U. (1994). Racial stratification and education in the United States: Why inequality persists. Teachers College Record.