People of colour need to be at the table when decisions are made, says the Guardians deputy fashion editor, Priya Elan

Like pencil skirts, cinched leather jackets and florals, it has come around again. But this it isnt a trend, it is fashions tortured attitude towards racial diversity. For an industry built on intricate artistic visions and multilayered, meaningful visuals, there is a weak and shifting, stop-start attitude towards race.

Last week, Elle Germanys latest issue featured the cover line Back to black, but the cover model was white. Inside, in a feature about models of colour, it misidentified one of them, Naomi Chin Wing, as another, Janaye Furman. The Elle Germany incident comes after last months snafu involving designer Kerby Jean-Raymond and The Business of Fashion. At an event organised by the news website to celebrate a list of people shaping fashion, including the likes of Dapper Dan, Jean-Raymond, whose collections for Pyer Moss reframe black history, called out the insulting and tokenistic way the event dealt with inclusivity. Inclusivity is currently a fashion buzzword.

And after a solid year of jaw-on-the-floor moments of racial insensitivity from the top fashion houses, there has been lots of backpedalling. These galling incidents have included (deep fashion breath): Guccis blackface jumper, its Sikh-offending Indy full turban, Burberrys hoodie with strings tied like a noose, Versaces geographically offensive T-shirts, last years grossly ignorant Dolce & Gabbana ad and H&Ms coolest monkey in the jungle hoodie ad.

Although shocking, these incidents follow ingrained industry patterns, including the use of black caricatures, offensive coolie hats (in Dior and Yves Saint Laurent lines), blackface, whitewashing and styling white models with cornrows or wearing do-rags.

Ingrained industry patterns a coolie hat as part of Diors New Look, 1947. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The move to right these wrongs has included getting more models of colour to appear in shows. As the Fashion Spot noted, spring/summer 2020 the last fashion season was the most racially diverse on the catwalk: at New York fashion week 47% of all the models were of colour. (These positive numbers are an improvement on the situation in 2017, when the casting director James Scully called out Lanvin for its lack of model diversity, claiming it reportedly asked model agencies to send no women of colour to its casting. Lanvin denied the allegation.)

A few seasons of models of all different races on the catwalk has been a breath of fresh air. But there is a lingering feeling that, on a deeper, structural level, its a cosmetic quick fix. As Naomi Campbell told a Wall Street Journal conference last month: It needs to go deeper We want to see within the actual companies, in the offices, are you going to give diverse staff a seat at the table to advise and be part of the projects that you do? We need to put diversity behind the desk.

There has been at least some attempt to make a seat at the table with the hiring of several diversity officers, such as Renee Tirado at Gucci, but this has not been without issues. Chanel appointed a head of diversity and inclusion to give momentum to its existing diversity and inclusion approach. But with reliably disappointing inevitability the person appointed to that role, Fiona Pargeter, was a white woman. So far, so fashion. As Teen Vogues Tahirah Hairston tweeted of Chanels misguided decision: Who is in that room? At a guess, I would say the answer is: No one of colour.

Personally, part of the shock for me comes when you think about the number of people who had to OK products or adverts borne out of bad decision-making before they were made public. They clearly didnt see anything wrong with them an unfathomable sentiment that the model Jourdan Dunn expressed to Vogue last month. I just cant get my head around people putting something out there that is so blatantly offensive, she said. It just blows my mind. I was just thinking, Clearly you know what youre doing, and this is the route you guys want to go?

It speaks to an industry where there are too few people of colour in that boardroom or in that meeting who could have shared their frame of reference and pointed out why something was wrong or offensive. Its something noted by Candace Marie Stewart, Pradas social media manager, who said: Youre not seeing any other women of colour at the shows, especially going into the luxury space. I remember a photographer told me he was shooting me because he wanted to make the street style some type of diverse. Its not their fault.

Fashions slow walk towards progress is painful to watch, but it is also fuelling thoughtful and beautiful collections. Both Telfar Clemens and Jean-Raymonds Pyer Moss are reframing the black experience through their work. Alongside a collaboration with the Black Lives Matter movement, a recent Telfar collection conceptually referenced the fact that one in four cowboys in the American west were, contrary to popular opinion, black (the labels slogan its not for you, its for everyone, speaks to a utopian view of race and gender relations). Meanwhile Pyer Moss show Sister is focused on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer black woman who provided the bedrock of early rocknroll. As we watch it unfold, it is at least something.

Priya Elan is the Guardians deputy fashion editor



Recommended For You

Like it? Share with your friends!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.