Inclusion Illusion: Is Diversity Just Another Trend?

October 28, 2019

by Jenna Flanagan

“I think a lot of times people are scared to talk about diversity in a real way and I think people like to talk about it as in being woke just on the surface and it’s fun and it’s cute.” – Lindsay Peoples Wagner

On the surface a lot of industries can look like they have fully embraced diversity. There’s hardly a college pamphlet, nightly newscast, a corporate campaign or magazine newsstand that doesn’t include some representation of the various cultures and complexions of the world.

Considering not too long ago, all of those things were almost exclusively white, it’s refreshing, it’s hopeful, it’s inspiring that more people are being included. But, is it all window dressing?

Fashion magazine covers and ad campaigns are some of the most visible examples of diversity in the industry, but they have also been accused of egregious acts of racism when campaigns embrace variations of blackface under the guise of an innocent mistake or PC flouting fortitude. When public outcry would grow, a frequent question was, how many people okayed this before it was published?

Lindsay Peoples Wagner, current editor in chief of Teen Vogue was still with New York Magazine’s The Cut when we spoke, and didn’t mince words when it came to fashion’s failings behind the camera.

“I think when it gets down to it, it’s hard for a lot of brands to actually talk about it because you have to look at yourself as well and to say, ‘Ok, like how could we make changes? What do we need to do better? What do I need to do better in the content that I write or you know the people that are higher or whatever?’ So I think, I mean, it’s always a sensitive subject, but it’s one that needs to be had.”

According to a recent study by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA, fashion’s issue isn’t so much diversity, it’s inclusion. A recent study on Diversity and Inclusion in the American Fashion Industry defined diversity simply as “the measure of difference.” Citing a study by McKinsey and Company, it claims that organizations with a high level of racial and ethnic diversity in their senior management ranks were 33 to 35% more likely to be high performing than their peers. The CFDA report then defined inclusion as, “a climate in which diverse individuals come together to form a collective whole, enabling and empowering individuals to make contributions consistent with their beliefs and backgrounds.” It then went on to say that doing the right thing and being business minded do not, I repeat, do not have to be mutually exclusive.

“Even at female driven companies you’ll see a lot of white faces, in the last few years there has been more of an acknowledgment that that’s not okay. And so more effort is needed to hire a more diverse staff so that the product that the outcome of the product is you know, more relevant.”

That’s Business of Fashion Chief Correspondent Lauren Sherman. You may remember her from the previous episode about giving women a greater voice in how we’re depicted and designed for in fashion. But, as my conversation continued with Lauren, we discussed fashion’s diversity problem going far beyond the male versus female ratio.

“I know one woman, who is an editor at the magazine, who said the editor came to her once and said she had a team, she was a director of a section. She had a team and the managing editor said ‘you’re hiring too many Asian people,’ because they were. Her team was five people, and I think three of them were Asian. And this wasn’t that long ago, this was five years ago. So there’s just, it’s deeply systemic.”

The irony, she says, is this is an example of the fear that too many people of color is a bad thing. The fashion industry as a whole constantly appropriates the very cultures it struggles to hire and employ in positions of influence and power.

“And you know sometimes when they do hire for diversity, people question the reason. If you look at someone like Virgil Abloh, who’s the creative director of Louis Vuitton, you know he is a creative force. But then there are also critics who say that he was hired because the luxury brands really want to drive the quote unquote streetwear wave. And it may not be for the right reasons.

I think that you can sense the presence and really see the influences of people of color everywhere in fashion, but we’re not the people making decisions. We’re not the people that are at the top traditionally.”

Teen Vogue Editor in Chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, says someone like Virgil Abloh, who was Kanye West’s creative director and had his own brand called Off-White, is part of a new trend to incorporate African American influencers into high-end luxury brands.

Another example is Gucci’s partnership with Harlem’s hip-hop fashion legend, designer Dapper Dan.

For those of you who don’t know, in the 1980s, Dapper Dan’s Boutique was the go to for hip-hop stars looking to incorporate symbols of affluence into their style. Dapper Dan created “knock-ups” legally: counterfeit pieces. He incorporated logos from luxury brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi into his own unique creations. His looks were seen on the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Bobby Brown, Jam Master Jay and boxing champs Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather.

Once the European design houses found out about Dapper Dan’s entrepreneurial endeavors they took legal action and had his boutique shut down.

But, in 2017, after officially redesigning a well known jacket by Dapper Dan, social media demanded proper credit be given and Gucci decided to partner with their former Harlem adversary. Lauren Sherman, chief correspondent for Business of Fashion says moves like Gucci’s partnership with Dapper Dan and Louis Vuitton is part of an effort to re-establish themselves as a hip and trendy brand.

“These companies are obsessed with hooking millennials. So that may mean someone who doesn’t have money right now, but that most consumers of luxury goods are between 35 and 55. That age is creeping up because of the fact that the recession really held back the group of consumers who are like 30 to 40 right now because they, you know, a lot of them didn’t have jobs out of school, they haven’t bought homes. But the luxury consumer tends to be someone who is making a lot of money already, has bought a home and is not retired yet. So I’d say now it’s probably 40 to 60, but they want to attract the younger consumers so that by the time they are that age and have the income they’re already loyal.”

However, the millennial these luxury brands are after aren’t the often maligned American millennial. There’s an entirely different market they are selling African-American inspired luxury street wear to.

“It’s really Asia and China. China in particular and young Chinese upwardly mobile middle class that are driving a lot of this. So for them Virgil is a superstar.”

So, if selling African American culture is helping European luxury brands reinvent themselves, then one might hope that would help more people of color work and rise within the ranks of the business. Lindsay Peoples Wagner Teen Vogue Editor and former writer for New York Magazine’s The Cut says problem number one is that the fashion industry isn’t welcoming to those who don’t come from means.

“Most jobs in fashion don’t pay you any money and so even if it, I mean magazine designer, PR any of those jobs, you’re not going to get paid well. And from the get-go that’s one of the things that I’m really trying to work on because it really just cuts the number in half of who is able to even get their foot in the door. I mean if you’re not funded by someone very wealthy, you’re not really able to put your all into these jobs as much as other people.”

Even her own experience starting out, when Lindsay moved from Wisconsin to New York to become a fashion writer, it required her to work back-to-back jobs waiting tables, changing mannequins at a DNKY store and interning for Teen Vogue. To compare her experience to other black people working in the business she wrote and published a ground-breaking piece for New York Magazine’s The Cut titled, “What It’s Really Like to Be Black and Work in Fashion.

“I think it’s an emotional journey and a roller coaster for a lot of people, and my interviews were really emotional. A lot of people are really upset. I honestly felt a lot of people’s trauma because I think that you go into it just wanting to be respected as an individual, but as a creative, and you don’t end up, not everyone ends up, with that experience.

I saw a lot of people who at least got to a certain level that a lot of times when you get to that level a lot of people feel really scared. They’re like, ‘oh I got promoted to the senior position.’ You know you get the quote unquote seat at the table and you’re scared because you finally got this seat and you don’t want to get the seat taken away. And so you don’t shake the table and you don’t use that platform to actually make changes that you may want to make and you don’t speak up.”

In an effort to try and begin to address the problem, Gucci announced a new global program and scholarship fund called Gucci Changemakers to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the company. The scholarship fund will invest five million dollars into community-based programs specifically helping communities of color across the country. And, its board of advisors will include none other than Dapper Dan, among others. It will also give $20 thousand grants to fashion students and give Gucci employees four paid days off to do volunteer work.

Initiatives like these are just the beginning. According to the CFDA report on Inclusion and Diversity in the American Fashion Industry, real inclusion is difficult to measure. Quoting Erica Lovett, manager of inclusion and community for media giant Conde Nast, “the current state of inclusion and diversity in fashion is focused on visibility. It’s the race and ethnicity that we see on the runways, magazines and in overall brand coverage. But visibility alone is not the solution to advancing diversity and inclusion in fashion. The industry must recognize and prioritize efforts to support greater diversity on the business side, financiers, chief executives, heads of fashion houses, magazine senior editors and business leaders. There is a lack of opportunity and access for people of underrepresented backgrounds in the fashion industry. It’s a systemic issue tied to the homogeneity of industry leadership. Until fashion leaders across all categories become more diverse, we will continue to only progress at the surface level.”

Lindsay Peoples Wagner, says full representation should no longer be just an idea, but a necessary change whose time has more than come.

“I think that you can sense the presence and really see the influences of people of color everywhere in fashion but we’re not the people making decisions. We’re not the people that are at the top traditionally. … I think a lot of people continuously just think, ‘hey we’ve hired one black person, we’re fine.’ And I think people just need to wake up and realize things need to change.”

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