The Real Work:

Getting to the Heart of Fashion’s Black Professional Exclusion Problem

A Problematic Brand of Profit:

The digital boom (and it’s mobile echo) created seismic shifts in the focus and reach of fashion media. For decades, the industry operated via a print ad-sales model, in which Blackness often went completely ignored. Industry leaders maintained that Black cover subjects undermined newsstand sales, and in tandem diminished the sales of the products the periodicals showcased. These experts often deliberately ignored the fact that the Black community’s most dynamic figures rarely enjoyed mainstream magazine acknowledgment and that most mainstream products at best insultingly addressed Black consumers.

Comment sections, Yelp reviews, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and the now-defunct Vine would change all of that though; via these channels, Black consumers claimed their voices…and these voices could be metrically quantified. As a result, Black consumers could no longer go ignored by marketers most concerned with the bottom line. It’s no coincidence that fashion media’s pivot toward more inclusive content over the last 4 years occurred in a moment during which courting these Black consumers became a “make or break” challenge across the majority of sales driven industries. Targeted activism most certainly played a pivotal role as well, but not as singularly influential as some assume.

When Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell, and Iman’s Balance Diversity campaign initiated on the eve of NYFW in the fall of 2013, the international runways were indicative of a virtual erasure of Blackness within the fashion media dialogue. These brave women, all professionally established to degrees that rendered this “call out” well worth the risk, took a measured and valuable leap in attaching their personae to vital declaration: a deliberate and unethical marginalization of Blackness was being fostered within the modeling industry. They “named and shamed” brands that maintained runways with glaring absences of Blackness and change incrementally began. Soon, it seemed that Black models had shifted from a space of erasure to one nearing ubiquity within the mix of those cast to walk the designer collections. Not to be ignored, the uptick in their presence wasn’t isolated to the runways but notable within editorial and lucrative advertising as well. While the Balance Diversity deserves the lion share of credit for galvanizing the fashion community into change, those of us embedded within the bowels of the industry knew that a more complex set of formations had amplified the reach of their clarion call.

Prior to the brand’s indictment by Balance Diversity, Phoebe Philo hadn’t used a single Black model throughout her tenure at Celine; save for the occurrence of an occasional Asian model, the women who made their way onto her runways at the brand were primarily those with potential to serve as avatars of her own Anglo-ethnic markers. Grace Mahary, Binx Walton, and Mariana Santana broke the brand’s color line under her direction during the Spring 2014 presentation — with Ysaunny Brito, and Kai Newman following for Fall 2014 — but something dynamic would occur as a result of the brand’s Fall 2015 casting of Karly Loyce and Lineisy Montero. Karly and Lineisy appeared on Celine’s runway with their hair worn naturally, not manipulated to emulate the styling of the majority white casting. As with all of Philo’s aesthetic statements, this one spurred a trend of copycat casting that hasn’t let up to date. It was as though all of a sudden, the centuries of stigma attached to Black women’s natural hair had been eradicated as a result of the aesthetic declaration of one white woman. Some may deem that assessment hyperbolic, but what wasn’t was how quickly thereafter major change in regard to casting began to occur.

Black began “trending”, and both the trickle-d own and lateral bleed of this identity-based marketing angle grew equally as problematic as they did profitable, evidenced most palpably by the H&M’s “Coolest Monkey” debacle and less overtly via the Gucci/Dapper Dan “quick save”. In both instances, mainstream brands (lacking in influential Black design studio/upper management/executive tier presence) dabbled carelessly in the engagement of Blackness for profit; the former thoughtlessly (or deliberately?) dressed a young black boy in a hoodie emblazoned with language that invoked the rhetoric of Jim Crow, and the latter line-for-line interpreted a vintage image without initially crediting its source.

In an effort to make amends, H&M will issue apologies and Gucci will collaborate on a press-genic boutique helmed by Harlem couturier, Dan Day. The former may lose revenue for their egregious snafu, but the latter will ultimately profit from their newly procured hood-adjacency. In both instances, the true measure of these brands’ value of Black community (as opposed to Black consumers) will be whether or not their design, upper management, and executive teams remain devoid of Black professionals. Those professionals ideally would create an opportunity for more authentic, holistic, and thoughtful images of Black people to be disseminated via fashion channels, influencing the broader culture’s associations with contemporary Black community. From the vast expanses of Black history and experience, the fashion industry currently continues to mine a limitingly repetitive lexicon of Black signifiers (Hip Hop, Black Power, Harlem Renaissance), collapsing centuries of diasporic excellence into too often ill-executed, paper-thin references. Perhaps if the broader public had greater visibility of just how few Black professionals have been granted access to fashion’s exclusive spaces of corporate influence, the industry might be forced to answer some tough questions. This type of corporate transparency would have seemed like a pipe dream until recently, but other industries are actively being forced to set a very constructive precedent.

Transitions Toward Transparency:

2014 was not only a moment of reckoning on the fashion industry’s runways in regard to race, but one within the tech industry as well; that year Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple released data quantifying the racial breakdowns of their teams. It came as no surprise that in disclosing this data, these companies would have to acknowledge the clearly inequitable hiring was occurring within their walls. Black, Latino, and female professionals were statistically fairing far more poorly and than their White, Asian, South Asian, and male counterparts. At times the nuances of the data became challenging to decipher, but the larger takeaways weren’t: hiring and advancement within the field were far from granted on a meritocratic basis. The cult of “culture fit” had snowballed into “new boys networks” that were just as impenetrable as the “old boys networks” that the tech industry often critiqued so harshly.

Ellen Pao, a silicon valley investment banker with a BA from Princeton and two advanced degrees from Harvard, reached trial in 2015 with her lawsuit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins. Pao alleged that she had faced consistent workplace discrimination, thwarting her efforts for advancement into roles for which she was qualified as a result of an exclusively male-centric upper-management and executive culture within the firm. Though ultimately she did not prevail in court, she did usher in what many called “The Pao Effect”, inspiring many women (Tina Huang against Twitter, Chia Hong against Facebook, and Katie Mousouris against Microsoft among them) to step forward with their own tales of sexist corporate double standards.

Pao was not done though; in the Spring of 2016, she founded Project Include, a non-profit that states as a mission giving “everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech…[using]…data and advocacy to accelerate diversity and inclusion solutions…”. At their site, companies can access a comprehensive set of materials for dynamically working toward more diverse and inclusive teams. No these tools won’t solve an industry’s problems overnight, but they do make big industry accountable for taking steps toward building teams that more accurately reflect the consuming public.

The fashion industry has taken some of these steps but in a rather specific lane. The industry appears very committed to championing equity for women within the workplace; as one scans a photo of LVMH’s 2013 ceremonial signing of a Women’s Empowerment Principles pledge, one can’t help but note the racial homogeneity of the 26 execs in attendance. What the photo evidences is a disturbing cultural formation of a new corollary to often identified “patriarchy”: “Matriarch-Ivoire”, the community of white, female power-brokers (and those with adjacency to this space) that gate-keep access to opportunity for people of color in much in the same manner that traditionally white men have in relation to women.

It’s a little-discussed phenomenon that Hollywood is tentatively addressing as a result of #timesup’s fallout. Jessica Chastain spoke up for Olivia Spencer (earning Spencer equal pay for her appearance their co-helmed project), Frances McDormand spoke up at the Oscars for the value of the “inclusion rider” (sending all of America Googling), and most recently on May 5th when Jane Fonda spoke up to United States of Women Summit about how the dismantling of default-white supremacy is active work (sending an audience into shock, followed by thought, then applause).

But after the applause dies down, all involved must roll up their sleeves and do the hard labor of introspection, acknowledgement, and atonement. Just what would that look like for the fashion design community? Hop over to Business Of Fashion to check out my January op-ed that serves as a call-to-action, charging the CFDA with implementing #breaksilencebreakceilings, a game-changing initiative aimed at combating employment discrimination against Black fashion designers.

-Kibwe Chase-Marshall

Kibwe Chase-Marshall

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Style Enthusiast (Designer) and Cultural Curator (Writer), Trinidad->DC->NYC->Providence->LA, Brunonian, IG: byanyseamsnecessary, Tumblr: Thrillsofthechase