It's Fashion Week, and this season the diversity chat has evolved beyond body size and skin colour.
Coincidentally, the Emmy's have just happened, and the messages coming from both occasions is not about why marginalised groups need to be represented, but how they are being represented.At the Emmy's this year, actor Riz Ahmed became the first man of Asian descent to win an Acting Award. Riz recently highlighted why the we language use when discussing inclusion is important. He chooses to use 'representation' over 'diversity' when discussing the issues of marginalization within media and political structures. During his speech at the Annual Diversity Lecture at The House Of Commons in March this year, Riz stated that
It's worth watching his speech in full. This is a message that some brands such as L'Oreal, have yet to grasp.
"Representation is not an added extra, a frill. Representation is absolutely fundamental to what people expect from culture and from politics. What people are looking for is the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen, that they are heard, despite or perhaps because of, the uniqueness of their experience - they are valued. They want to feel represented. Every time you see yourself in a magazine, billboard, TV, film, it's a message that you matter, you're part of the National story, that you're valued. If we fail to represent people in our mainstream narrative, they'll switch off."
Global brands hire ambassadors to promote their fresh diversity policies. Then they reject those very ambassadors when they voice the unique experience for which they were hired to represent. These brands seem to want your face but not your opinions - even when it's those opinions that have been instrumental in turning your followers into their market. Munroe Bergdorf the transgender model recently fired by L'Oreal being the most recent example. We can only imagine the number of stories that don't reach the headlines - I have a few, for another time.
The stories told by Munroe and Riz matter - they represent unheard groups, some of which I've written about before. I think we have a long way to go when as consumers we slavishly applaud our retailers for publishing images of their swimwear models complete with stretchmarks. These are models who in every other way represent commodified ideals of beauty. I don't see much to celebrate there. There will always be the odd art director, keen to adopt a relevant stance on inclusion, using a brown, middle-aged or plus size model; but the prevailing stereotype - young, slim, airbrushed - remains irresistibly the default for the majority of brands, fearful of risking their margin.
That said, there are clear challenges to tokenism in the diversity debate within publishing. Edward Enninful is now editor at British Vogue, and Lydia Polgreen at HuffPost.
Interesting to me is the action of individuals outside of these structures, and I'm thinking in particular of Tate Ambassador, Daniel Lismore, with whom I recently connected over work projects. He's garnered attention for one thing - dressing expressively, outside the codes of fashion. He has done so expressly without an agenda, but for the sake of expression itself. To me it's interesting because without intention, he is challenging. He appears from outside my echo chamber of feminism and minority groups like an enigma, stimulating for me a fresh perspective on the subject of representation.
Daniel Lismore Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken Published by Skira Rizzoli, 2017. Image © Colin Douglas Gray.
Daniel has drawn criticism and even abuse. But why shouldn't he be himself? We may be acculturated to dressing in high-street brands, but does this not in itself restrict our outlook? Is this not part of the reason he seems so different? But it's no big thing. He just likes to express himself visually. Why would anyone have a problem with that? If they do, if we do, we need to think about these restrictions, because they exactly reflect the restrictions on diversity big brands impose on themselves for fear of risking their profit margin. So what is our margin, that we are so afraid of risking in associating with difference? Why would difference even be so controversial?