Is Representation In The Fashion Industry Activism Or A Gimmick?

By Jessica De La Cruz

When it comes to representation in fashion, in many ways, the last few years have been revolutionary. We’ve seen trans models Andreja Pejic, Lea T, Valentijn de Hingh, and Hari Nef rise through the ranks (and, in the case of Nef, into the White House wearing Gucci). Powerful fashion houses and casting agencies have been scrolling through their news feeds and looking for the next blue-haired, bushy eyebrowed, high school outcast to sweep out from obscurity and into the spotlight of the latest campaign. Marc Jacobs cast models through Instagram for two of his campaigns, as did Diesel’s artistic director Nicola Formichetti. One of the models used in Diesel’s breakthrough #DieselReboot campaign, for example, was Jillian Mercado, a 28-year-old who was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child and appeared in the ads in her wheelchair. She is now signed with IMG.

Historically, the fashion narrative has primarily existed with the same formula: If you are young, thin, white, and straight, you are represented. But the internet has enabled the rise of influencers outside the fashion industry’s traditionally narrow definition of beauty, which means differences that were once seen as weaknesses are now being turned into strengths. Social media has played a pivotal role in providing community, support, and a platform for those who may have previously been without a voice, and because of this rise of online platforms, it would appear that the new fashion business model is becoming more democratic. But is it really authentic? Or is it just another way for companies to build a buzz in order to sell more?

According to Sophie Barr, an associate lecturer at the London College of Fashion, “Fashion is often accused of being vacuous and superficial, only dealing with how things appear, so perhaps the use of non-traditional models is a way to be seen to engage in something more political and more important than hemlines and heel shapes.”

“The fashion industry and its media are historically Western phenomena. All you need to do is look at the history of painting and photography in the West to see the how ‘others’ (as in non-Europeans) have been, and still are depicted,” says Barr. “We live with the vestiges of visual representation from colonial times. Certainly this notion of whiteness as ‘normal’ and everything else as ‘other’ comes from a culture of post-colonialism.”

But the consumers that are buying luxury fashion are more diverse, and less Western, than ever before. Since 2007, the Asia-Pacific region’s share of the global luxury goods market has grown by 10 percentage points, according to a report by Bain & Company, and today, the fastest growing luxury markets in the world are the Middle East and Africa. The fashion industry, however, is still not reflecting its growing customer base. This spring, more than 78% of models cast in fashion advertisements and campaigns were white. As far as fashion shows go, during the most recent New York Fashion Week, more than 68% of models cast were white. Though still abysmal, these numbers are actually industry bests: In fall 2015, more than 84% of models in ad campaigns were white, and at New York Fashion Week the previous season, 72% of models were white.

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Backstage at OSKLEN during New York Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015 Collections (Credit: flickr/AVEDA Corporation)

The fashion marketers and branders who are building and casting campaigns for their collections often overlook demands for diversity, thinking that their clothing might not appeal to their target consumer. But chances are, when the consumer isn’t being represented in the ad campaigns in the first place, they are less likely to buy the items being sold. Race is a crucial element in shaping how we respond to advertising. Rohit Deshpandé and Douglas M. Stayman’s 1994 study, “A Tale of Two Cities: Distinctiveness Theory and Advertising Effectiveness,” suggests that minority consumers respond more favorably to advertisements targeted toward their minority status, relative to majority consumers.

This blind spot to diversity is likely due to the insular nature of the fashion cycle and media. “The fashion press has been covering only four cities,” points out Frédéric Godart, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. “For a lot of people in the world, fashion is Paris, New York, Milan, and London.” As a result, the industry has evolved to cater primarily to a Western consumer, despite the demonstrated demand from other countries.

Unfortunately, by not representing more diverse and modern clientele, the industry is not only a part of the reason why discrimination against ethnic groups, LGBTQ, disabled, and plus-sized people exist — they are actually the ones setting the standard as to which kind of people are portrayed as desirable by mainstream society. It’s damaging and irresponsible for the industry to keep perpetuating the same cisgendered white-washed standards of beauty that have been pushed on consumers for centuries.

While a growing number of brands have incorporated themselves into the larger conversation around gender identity, it is to be wondered whether or not this strategy will be carried out effectively. Gucci, for example, announced that its runway shows would no longer be segregated by gender, and Bottega Veneta announced that it will be hosting a combined men’s and women’s runway show for the Spring/Summer 2017 collection during Milan Fashion Week this fall.

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Looks from Zara’s ‘Ungendered’ clothing line, via Zara.com

Even more mainstream brands are trying to become more inclusive. Last year, in response to customer demand for non-binary, gender-fluid clothing, Selfridges launched their pop-up initiative Agender, a department inside the London-based store that aimed to create a gender-neutral shopping experience. However, the project was short lived since it was, ultimately, a pop-up. Earlier this year, Zara also released a collection of “androgynous” clothing, labeled as “ungendered.” Unfortunately, the clothing was actually just a bunch of oversized plain t-shirts and sweatpants, contributing to the stereotype that androgyny and plainness are synonymous. And rather than hiring anyone who is actually gender-non conforming, the models they used for the campaign were all white, thin, and cisgender, questioning the intentions and integrity of this multibillion dollar corporation. “When already wealthy companies stand to profit from seeming progressive without actually doing anything progressive, they leave themselves open to criticism,” writes Emma Hope Allwood in Dazed.

Except for a handful of brands who actually have an authentic business ethos — like Eckhaus Latta, which uses “real” and truly diverse models in their lookbooks and shows, celebrating people of every age, body size, and gender — believing that the fashion industry generally cares about advocacy and activism is like saying that cutting your own bangs is a good idea. It’s not, unless there’s an economic incentive.

But it would be counterproductive to say that things aren’t changing. The celebration of diversity is more apparent than ever, and it is true that there is more representation of minorities than there has ever been. Fashion has the power to glorify bodies, identities, and culture, but it is a slow process.

“The most radical thing is not necessarily to change what goes on in front of the camera and on the runway, but behind it, and in the boardrooms, offices, ateliers, and educational institutions,” says Barr. And she’s right. We as a community can make an impact on what happens within our world by being mindful of the things we endorse and the way we interact with each other. By advocating those who honor diversity and questioning or protesting those who do not, we can transform the ways in which society is presently functioning.

To be represented is to be humanized. It’s our right as people and as customers to be included in the narrative.

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