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.”

Ninette Murk’s eternal optimism will save the world

There are people that can turn every heartbreaking event of their life into an act of positivity -and Ninette Murk is definitely one of them. The founder and creative director at Designers Against AIDS (DAA) and creative platform for social change Beauty Without Irony (BWI), Murk created DAA as a tribute to her assistant, Peter, who died of an AIDS-related illness; and BWI as a response to the cynical outlook the fashion business was adopting –being a fashion journalist she was experiencing it big time.
20 years later, both foundations are going from strength to strength, with DAA successfully collaborating with leading and popular fashion brands, designers and celebrities such as H&M, Eastpak, JBC, Delvaux, Marc Jacobs, Bernhard Willhelm, Rihanna, Timbaland, Robert Smith from The Cure, Pharrell Williams and Kendall Jenner. In 2013 Murk relaunched BWI as a creative platform for social change staging exciting international exhibitions in Essaouira (Morocco) and Antwerp (Belgium).

Today, in a world experiencing the aftermaths of the corona pandemic and in the midst of the #blacklivesmatter protests in the US and Europe, Murk’s creative optimism appears the only way to go forward. Indeed, her full body of work is a celebration of pure beauty, idealism, and lust for life -a lust that overcomes all obstacles to support a good cause –and makes a positive change to the world. Here, she speaks about DAA, her more recent project ‘Beauty for a Better World 2020’- and how eternal optimism in action can save the world.

Tell us a bit about your most recent projects, especially Beauty for a Better World 2020?

Beauty for a Better World was a very early project of mine that started with the Twin Towers incident and the overall world apocalypse that happened -and didn’t really get the attention it deserved. I then went on to found Designers against AIDS, a project that became very famous -and got media attention especially after our 5 years lasting global H&M collaboration. Many designers contributed, in fact, we have a vast archive of work that represents our mission. Meanwhile, I wanted to reboot my beauty projects as I feel the perception of beauty in the world is important-but most donations were made to DAA just because the initiative has gained so much publicity. I don’t think it’s bad, naturally, I just felt I needed to do something involving beauty-and thus restarted it. We have a great team of high profile and talented people both in the fashion and media industry that are passionate about our mission. I believe in beauty -in fact, the process of choosing your most beautiful artwork of all to be exhibited on behalf of BFBW2020 has been cathartic even for the artists themselves.

Your work deals a lot with beauty and happiness through awareness and responsibility-How do you define the idea of responsibility in the fashion industry? What’s missing in terms of ethics right now?

Every company (not only in fashion!) should make sure that it’s being fair on every level of their process- towards their employees, customers, suppliers, ad /media agency, shareholders – and also to the planet. The focus right now for many businesses is mainly about making as much money as possible, cutting costs wherever they can. This is not sustainable and it certainly is not human.

 

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Kendall Jenner and Neville Jacobs (dog of Marc Jacobs) in one of the t-shirts he designed to benefit Designers against AIDS. This project by LOVE Magazine also featured Gigi Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Cara Delevingne

 

What is the greatest lesson fashion must learn from the coronavirus epidemic?

Fashion must slow down, its more imperative now than it has been some years ago. The fashion schedule with so many shows a year and countless meetings and fast fashion production are destroying nature, the most important thing we have-and thus our wellbeing and future. There are solutions: reduce the schedule, produce less and better quality clothes that are ethically made, and make your supply chain as transparent as possible. Full transparency is needed. I am also a member of GWAND, a Swiss festival for Sustainable fashion, and have learned a lot from these people-advocates of sustainability in a creative and not –boring, fun way! Sustainable fashion isn’t anymore how it was some years ago-the clothes are actually very nice, stylish, and more accessible price-wise.

The #Blacklivesmatter movement is causing a stir-How can fashion brands fully embrace diversity?

They must mean it. Not many brands are actually investing in diversity in their staff roles or ensure equal pay rates. They must hire more black people, promote and consult them. Diversity in fashion is not a new concept, in the past, Benetton and their photographer Oliviero Toscani have been successfully embracing it with great vision-and commercial success. The Benetton clothes were just brightly colored basics, but the message, the awareness, the brand ethics were powerful. They talked about AIDS, racism, everything that matters. Diversity also means more representation in terms of sizes. Brands must embrace diversity and actually mean it as a long term strategy-don’t just add a plus-size model to gain attention but then not do anything groundbreaking. You don’t brush off the need to show diversity and inclusivity just by stating it or posting a #blacklivesmatter on your Facebook page.

So, how does it feel being an eternal optimist?

This is more part of who I am, more of my attitude towards life than a structured philosophy. I have been through a lot the recent years in terms of personal health, and have managed to get through them smiling and with optimism. You see, I may occasionally feel pain or get a low mood, but then I focus on all the great things I am blessed to have: a nice life, a house with a beautiful garden, a great husband, and an invaluable circle of friends. Those are priceless -and that’s how we all should face life.

Ballet Room by Antonio Paladino
Graduation collection of Serkan Sarier at the Antwerp Academy (2001), photo by Antonio Paladino-the start of Beauty Without Irony project

 

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The Dita Von Teese- designed T-shirt for DAA’s first global Fashion against AIDS collection with H&M.

beautywithoutirony.com

designersagainstaids.com