How Luxury Fashion's Inclusivity Problem Has A Ripple Effect On Sustainability
Fresh off the plane from The 2019 Sustainable Fashion Forum, I am both inspired and overwhelmed. I'm inspired by the series of thoughtfully curated panels and equally inspired by the people I met throughout the conference. Important conversations were had and friends were made. This was not a seminar on how to style burlap 10 different ways or the benefits of patchouli oil. We touched everything from sustainability, ethics, gender-equality, diversity and inclusion.
I'm overwhelmed because I have no idea how we are going to get to a place where these issues matter to everyone. Fashion is a global issue. If you think that fashion is petty, or that you shouldn't have to pay more than $7 for a t-shirt, you're wrong. I understand that not everyone cares deeply about what they put on in the morning, but we cannot ignore that the fashion industry is a mirror to where we are as a society. What we care about, who we choose to ignore, what we prioritize and the things we think, but dare not say out loud. It is a direct representation of the fact that many of us still have our heads stuck in the sand when it comes to serious, global issues.
In the last 6 months, Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana have been involved in scandals rooted in racism.
An offensive promotional campaign featuring an Asian woman trying to eat Italian food with chopsticks followed by blatantly racist comments from Stefano Gabbana (who later claimed his Instagram was hacked) may seem like the worst of it, but I believe it's simply the most transparent.
Just weeks later, Prada adorned their Soho window with trinkets that referenced a blackface character. It didn't take long for the company to get called out on social media, pull the merchandise and issue an apology, but that's hardly consolation for the fact that multiple teams of people didn't think that it would be problematic in the first place.
The latest blackface scandal involves Gucci, which is particularly surprising because you would think a company who collaborates with Dapper Dan would have taken a few notes on inclusivity. Not even a week into Black History Month, Gucci released a turtleneck/balaclava hybrid where the neck could be pulled over the lower half of your face to reveal large, red lips over the black knit. Social media lit up once again, with one Twitter user labelling it "haute couture blackface for millennials" and many others calling for a boycott of the brand.
We cannot ignore that the fashion industry is a mirror to where we are as a society.
Both Prada and Gucci have since launched initiatives to achieve diversity and inclusion, focusing their efforts on education, scholarships and hiring diverse talent to “close the inclusion gap in the fashion industry” and "to achieve a much higher level of global cultural awareness.” For some, it's too little too late (and that's how I felt about Dolce when they came for gay parenting in 2015), but I'm hopeful that their accountability will inspire other brands to follow suit and that eventually, things will change.
I realize that I'm focusing on luxury, and I know that most people can't afford to spend that kind of money on clothes, but luxury sets trends and fast fashion follows. If luxury brands are just now thinking about inclusion and diversity, how can we expect an iota of ethics from fast fashion companies? When a brand is so out of touch with their customer that entire marketing, production and design teams are oblivious to something like blackface, how can we count on them to care about the women and children making their clothes thousands of miles away in sweatshops? How can we expect them to take responsibility for the impact they're having on the environment when global warming is not something tangible? How do call out "woke culture" when #consciousclothing has become a marketing gimmick and feminist t-shirts are made by people trapped in modern slavery?
It's impossible to be invested in fashion and not draw direct comparisons to the current political climate. Can we expect a fashion house to know right from wrong when the news feels like a 24hour cycle of fear-mongering and xenophobia? I think we can. We can because the fashion industry, much like politics, is based on a voting system. Every time you spend money on a brand, you vote for that brand and everything they stand for.
As a person of privilege, I can't put the onus on a minority and pretend that none of this is my problem. I need to invest in brands who are truly inclusive and call out brands who are failing. It's not enough to double tap Naomi Campbell's Vogue spread on Instagram and collect woke points. True change will come when we start to hold everyone in the fashion industry accountable and push so hard that they have no choice but to listen. If I can walk into Gucci, ask for the manager and speak to them about how their decision to ban fur caused me to return as a customer, I should be able to apply that same courage to defending and supporting fellow mankind. People who look like me have the (practically) undivided attention of these brands, so I have a responsibility to speak up and advocate for those who are being left out.
When I started this journey I knew that I didn't want to be yet another privileged, thin white woman with a blog, but I was also very aware that I had to be authentic and that I recognize that I am in fact, all of those things. I wasn't sure how someone who looked like me could help create space for more diversity online, so I started reaching out to people whose main focus was inclusivity. What I heard from every single person was to use my voice as leverage and have uncomfortable conversations, so that is what I plan on doing. Social media makes it easy to pigeonhole people. If you're into fashion, you can't be an activist. If you're vegan, you probably don't care about fashion. If you're an activist, you need to pick a cause and stay in your lane. I committed to this blog because I'm an animal activist who loves fashion and I wanted to show people that you don't need to sacrifice your style in order to make ethical choices. That was supposed to be "my lane", but if taking up space in someone else's lane is what is required to push the issue of inclusivity and diversity in the fashion industry, then you can find me there as well.
I'm not an expert on inclusion, diversity and race. These are complicated, sensitive topics that I have tried to navigate, but I know that I have a lot to learn. In order to stay as informed as possible, I follow the following people on social media and make sure to listen to everything they have to say. Please feel free to share with me anyone you think I should be listening to.*
Aditi Mayer - Aditi Mayer is the creative behind ADIMAY, a sustainable fashion blog exploring the ties between style, sustainability, and social justice for over 4 years. @aditimayer
Aja Barber - Aja Barber's expertise is in race, intersectional feminism and fashion (focusing mostly on sustainable fashion). She is extremely active on her Instagram stories and always seems willing to engage in thoughtful conversation. I also learn a lot from reading her comments section, it definitely gets heated down there. @ajabarber
Shaun King - Shaun King helps us see how racism is not dead and forgotten, but merely a mutating virus. He is one of the most followed activists in the world and I personally rely on him to learn about the (tragic) stories of people who would never make mainstream news. @shaunking
*excerpts taken from the biographies on individual websites.
I can't put the onus on a minority and pretend that none of this is my problem.