Black Lives Matter Force The Fashion Industry To Address Systemic Racism

On June 1rst, Tom Ford, chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), sent his now-famous letter to the advisory board asking them to do something unprecedented. He urged the board to address the Black Lives Matter movement—and take steps to address systemic racism in the fashion industry.

After some thoughtful discussion, the designers -members of the CFDA, issued a reply: “Having a clear voice and speaking out against racial injustice, bigotry and hatred is the first step, but this is not enough,” read the statement, then went into further detail on the initiatives that were to be introduced. Suddenly, racism and inequality in fashion were making headlines.

For all of us working in the fashion industry, CFDA addressing the elephant in the room has been breath of fresh air. The industry is huge, it encompasses everything from fast fashion and couture brands, retailers, buyers, and publishing -and employs more than 1.8 million people in the United States alone. And yet, this $2.5 trillion global industry has been predominantly white, run by big brands and corporations with few employees of color amongst them-an elitist island of white privilege and underrepresentation.

You can’t miss the irony of it. From the Harlem revolution to the rise of Hip Hop culture in the ’90s, fashion trends have been widely influenced by Black culture. From fast fashion brands to big luxury houses, the references to Black culture, its trends, and visual culture are countless and ever-present. From Dapper Dan’s clever mix of luxury and streetwear aesthetics to Kim Jones’ most recent collaboration with Ghana-born artist Amoako Boafo for Dior Men 2021, the industry has been widely exploiting Black culture while remaining an elitist circle and one of the main sources of white supremacy propaganda in the western world.

We are used in all-white catwalks and advertising campaigns, whitening creams” and beauty brands creating “nude” shades that cater predominantly to a white audience. There are countless inside stories of Black people being denied promotions and addressed in a racist manner. In an industry -cultural touchstone, that impacts so many people, the general unwillingness to talk politics could not but have serious repercussions.

The Black Lives Matter movement sent waves of revolutionary energy prompting a long-overdue industry-wide reckoning in fashion. Following popular culture, the industry executives realized they had to address the problem. Tom Ford’s letter has only been the beginning of a series of events that started by prompting a reply of 250 Black fashion professionals going under the name: the Kelly initiative (named after Patrick Kelly, the African-American designer first to be included at the prestigious Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter in the form of a public letter to the CFDA.

In that, they openly accused the organization of allowing “exploitative cultures of prejudice, tokenism and employment discrimination to thrive,” and demanded more radical action. Then came the Black in Fashion Council, the organization visualized by Lindsay Peoples Wagner, the editor of Teen Vogue, and Sandrine Charles, a former PR executive, aiming to hold the industry accountable for its decisions and secure the equality of its Black members. According to the Council’s mission statement, it serves as a unison of “a resilient group of editors, models, stylists, media executives, assistants, freelance creatives and industry stakeholders” to “build a new foundation for inclusivity.”

For Bethann Hardison, the former model turned diversity advocate, this is a change long overdue, and one that didn’t happen overnight. Hardison, who is on the advisory boards of both the Black in Fashion Council and the CFDA says, “Things behind the industry have started to change, you just need to search who’s there and ask who is available to hire to make a difference.” For her, the Black Lives Matter movement has been a wake-up call. “Of course, there was a lot of work done before that. Take the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show, I was one out of ten Black models to walk an event that showcased American design versus French one in front of 700 guests—something that has never been done before. Still, the Black Lives Matter movement affected the industry deeply. It spread over everyone of color.”

According to Hardison, corporations work best as a multicultural representation of people- and brands are now taking steps towards achieving equality. “Brands have started to understand and help find and educate new talent,” she notes. “Take Gucci Changemakers, a fund that launched a $1.5 million diversity scholarship program to help new talent get opportunities and support across the fashion industry. All this is new-and happening now. It’s an eye-opening discussion for the first time, people are talking race and Black history all day long. This is an educative process caused by a movement full of passion.”

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