True Diversity in the Fashion Industry
What it Means & How We Get There
“Be the change you want to see” said ex-model, Regenerative Futures co-founder, and artist, Wilson Oryema. “You can’t wait for a bus to come on a route it’s never taken before,” was his response when asked for his opinion on the diversity of the fashion industry at the moment.
But how do we begin to create this change?
Last decade we saw Edward Enningful appointed as Vogue’s editor-in-chief and we watched as Virgil Abloh and Oliver Rousteing entered into the French fashion houses, a space that previously excluded people of color. Seemingly a lot of progress was made in the 2010’s and was even declared by Vogue to be “a turning point for diversity in fashion.”
Yet, it is 2020 and we are still having this conversation. And as model, presenter and Mixer member, Georgia Moot said, “there’s still a long way to go.” The tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, have brought human and civil rights to the forefront of conversations. In fashion specifically, these conversations have largely focused on the lack of diversity in the industry.
We spoke with David Lipford, former Head of Creative Content Production for Stuart Weitzman and Kate Spade and co-founder of Dual Phocus, as well as Georgia Moot and Wilson Oryema about their personal experiences, their opinion on the current state of the industry, and what needs to change.
Through these thoughts and experiences that these three creatives generously shared with us, we have identified what some of the issues that remain are, some ways we can tackle these issues and some examples of brands who are beginning to take this seriously.
When asked about obstacles he faced during his fashion career, David shared, “for me it was just feeling seen and understood. There's not a lot of people of color at an executive level in many of the corporations that I’ve gone into and it’s just now becoming something that is even recognized in the way that we can action on change.”
He spoke about a personal experience where he had a run in with a police officer after being wrongly accused of trespassing in a hospital and had to go to work straight after. “I just had to go into work like nothing was going on because my counterparts may not necessarily have experienced things with the police in the same way that I have, but it’s like nope, come to work and let's make the business happen. So those were the kind of experiences. Not necessarily always in the workplace where people were directly aggressive racially.”
Discomfort in the workplace is an obstacle shared by Georgia and her experience with microaggressions. “I’d experienced some things that I don’t even think I realized at the time were maybe problematic. I knew they made me feel uncomfortable, so like a few discussions around my hair, or comments that would be made, or that feeling, like I said, of constantly feeling too much. They are microaggressions, so they’re not like huge acts of racism, but learning and understanding that, that all perpetuates this system and that I had the right to feel uncomfortable because of these comments. And that this is something that maybe someone who was White and petite in the industry wouldn’t face.”
There is an attitude of silence within the industry that has maintained this lack of understanding and created an uncomfortable atmosphere for many people of color. Georgia notes that there is an air “of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” in the fashion industry” and describes the feeling of not wanting to appear “difficult” or be “blacklisted.” In the end, she explains that “it all contributes to a feeling of othering and just not feeling comfortable. And you should feel comfortable in your job.”
Progress may have been made last decade, but with this feeling of othering and many other discomforts still existing for so many people of color within the industry, we clearly have not made enough.
So, what would it look like if the industry really was diverse?
Imagining True Diversity
“It just looks like you get a sense of everyone and everything,” Wilson answers. “ It’s not that we throw everything into the things that already exist. It’s more we also build new solutions and institutions which look different. You don’t change a system that needs a change by simply throwing everything that wasn’t there before into the same structure and hoping that it works for everyone. You need different forms and new structures and new things.”
Wilson imagines true diversity to feel like an “outpouring” where there is “room for everyone.” “I couldn’t describe it as a house, it would look almost like just a massive open space with all types of ground for whatever you wanted to make.”
Georgia adds that we won’t be able to get to this open space, “until stuff like race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, mental health is removed from the aesthetic of fashion and from it being able to be a trend.” She argues that until this is done, “the fashion industry isn't going to get to where it needs to be.”
For Georgia, a truly diverse industry is a place where “someone’s skin color is not a trend. You can’t change that, that should not be something where, oh you want to be more diverse this season, so you’ve decided that you’re going to use someone with dark skin and then next season you’re actually over it and it’s all about florals.”
Here are some changes that Georgia, David and Wilson believe can help us achieve this:
1. New Programs and Training
Georgia states that “there should be more schemes to help young people of color or people from diverse backgrounds to be able to access fashion and the fashion industry and the roles.”
It is important to note that these schemes should not just apply to designers. “It needs to be marketing, HR, these all need to be internship schemes. Editorial roles, writing roles.” Georgia continues to say that unpaid internships are harmful as well because “that just means that only a certain demographic of people can get into fashion and it just really perpetuates that elitism circle or the nature of the industry.”
Adding to this, David speaks about “creating workshop training that allows people to actually grow and to understand what their skills really are.” If brands did this, it would “help the company grow by evolving with their people. As their people change and grow, then the business changes and grows.”
David describes the knock-on effect that this could have. Noting that the greater diversity introduced by these programs and training “in a corporate environment is going to allow for many others, who are dependent, to understand those same changes. For those large million-dollar fashion corporations to really have a diverse group of executives in there to speak up for the board room and say “this campaign would be offensive to my culture because..” and to help people to understand so that they can correct it before it gets out to market. I think those are the things you need to have, an inclusion board, have an outside board.”
Some examples of this type of training can be seen at Nike, in its launching of Amplify in 2018, an internal development program for high-potential women and minorities at the director and senior director levels. Among many other new initiatives.
However, it is the newer brands that are truly taking the lead. Georgia mentions Telfar and Christopher John Rogers as great brands to look to and as two of her favorites, adding that their work changed her life. “Smaller brands in London and New York who are just doing really cool stuff are showing that it can be done” she says.
David also gives the example of his own company, Dual Phocus. “Part of the inclusion aspect of Dual Phocus is creating a space where someone may not necessarily have the resources to have gone to Parsons but they have a skill, they have a gift, and they have a very unique talent that can be leveraged. And our business offers a service to not only the artist by helping them to understand that there’s a way to structure your communications with the client.”
We asked David to explain more about Dual Phocus and what they do, he shared with us that “Dual Phocus is a content creation agency and an artist management company. It’s basically a content creating hub, we have stylists, photographers, graphic designers, illustrators, mixed media artists, that help to work on our creative content based on clients that have a production need.”
David’s professional experience has allowed him to be a “bridge in the gap between artists and aligned opportunities in the industry.” Dual Phocus aligns “the artist with an opportunity that really needs to leverage their skills.” It acts as a bridge between the “creative language and the corporate language.”
Another example he shared is Gucci. Who, recognizing they have a lot of work to do, have now created programs to reach back to high schoolers and teach them about the industry. They are doing this through plans such as the North American Changemakers Scholarship Program, which provides students finances, mentoring, and internships to help them break into the fashion industry.
Programs like these are essential if we want to:
2. Change Internal Structures
As Wilson pointed out, “we need to create new structures. We can’t just have everything funnel through the same system because there’s some people that it works for.” He explains that, “that’s not to say there’s only two or three structures, this could be all types of business models all holding this plot in this same open space. There’s not one structure. It’s making the soil fertile or making the land liveable for everyone without encroaching on each other’s territory and allowing for cross collaboration and exchange.”
Within these new structures, there must be diversity at every level. For example, corporately, David explains what he would like to see change internally “in terms of just real equality. From a corporate, executive, VP level, to the HR executives- to the real, true, internal growth trajectory for the executive assistant who should be moving into a project manager position. And then they can go up to be a VP of project management there. Because those are people who are really managing and manning down the fort. But those are Black women who are in those positions, who are making under $50,000 a year to do this job that is manning the forts for these super large corporations, who have more than enough to provide for them.”
Georgia elaborates on this point, adding that “you need to start hiring more people at multiple levels and not just one person and blast them out. You can’t hire just one Black editor-in-chief and expect him to change a whole system that has historically been quite White.”
She explains how, “models are often the people that are seen, they’re the most visible. But it’s the bits that go on behind the scenes that are the most decisive and the most racist or where the most ignorant things are said - behind closed doors. And they’re protected by this hierarchy of the industry. I think until you have a team and everyone in the company at different levels in the company, reflecting the people, the models that you’re booking, or the society that you’re working in, then it’s not going to work.”
One way to kick brands into action to actually hire diversely across the board is through:
Georgia believes new training “comes hand in hand with accountability...providing statistics.” She mentions the UK’s initiative with the gender pay gap and believes this same mandatory transparency should be applied to diversity within the workplace.
She goes on to say, “they’ve just made a Black fashion board in the US, in New York, like the Black in Fashion Council to help hold businesses accountable. I think once people start showing numbers or even like @show_the_boardroom, and people start seeing these things then it’s very hard to not be called out or be forced to change your hiring processes or forced to change the structure of your business”.
Although Nike still has a long way to go, they have begun to invite accountability through publishing statistics like these:
While there is still a lot of work to be done in the fashion industry, Wilson encourages us and says to “anyone reading this, you can do anything you want. You can create the change you want to see, if there’s a problem you can create the solution. You can email people, you can talk to people and put different things together and make new solutions that no one’s ever seen before. And that’s how we make a better world. It’s not by waiting for others, it’s by putting our best foot forward and we may fail. I fail all the time, I make mistakes all the time, but there’s no harm in trying. Honestly, whatever you believe you can do it. So, good luck”.
Mixer would like to thank David Lipford, Georgia Moot and Wilson Oryema for giving so much of their time and insight to us about this issue.