Is the fashion industry racist? In light of recent talk, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Ex-Vogue editor, Alexandra Shulman, has faced criticism for comments about her successor, Edward Enninful, the ethnic composition of her team and the models she chose to grace her covers. And then there’s the debate about whether actor, Lupita Nyong’o, and singer-songwriter, Solange, had their cover image hair digitally altered by magazines with the effect of diluting their ethnicity.
I’m something of an outlier within fashion – a middle-aged woman of South Asian heritage from a working class background who only recently career changed into the industry. I’m an anomaly, perched on the periphery, which strangely enough provides quite a good vantage point.
To suggest fashion magazines should more actively embrace diversity within their ranks and in their copy is true. But it’s not just as simple as getting the numbers up. It’s about what sells. And the evidence shows that conventional-looking white models are the most commercial.
When I first started my label, I made a conscious decision that we would celebrate and champion differences in ethnicity, age and ability. Our models would be truly representative and would express only positive, assertive body language. We wanted to create genuine role models. It’s been a struggle from day one. Why? Because customers don’t buy from these images.
A number of people actually warned me against the idea. A colleague, who’d previously worked at a pre-eminent fashion model agency, told me outright – “Don’t hire black models, they’re not commercial. That’s why brands don’t use them.” I refused to believe it. As a woman of colour, I knew what I wanted to see and I knew I wasn’t alone.
But it turned out to be true. Our sales lagged. So I decided to experiment. I took images of our most conventional-looking, white model (Rosie) and our size 16, black model (Cris). Both wore the same outfit, bar the colour of the blouse. As part of a promotional email, I sent it to our customer base. Over 90% of the hits were on the image of the white model. I tried similar experiments and saw the same results. The heat maps on our website also returned the same pattern. The most interesting test was one in which I sent an image of an older, disabled model alongside Cris. The click-through rate collapsed.
I’m not a psychologist but I wonder if we have all been conditioned only to react to the types of images we’re most used to seeing and to ignore those that are unfamiliar. Without realising it are we subconsciously programmed to reinforce the stereotypical beauty standards we claim to reject?
Change must ultimately come from the customer because they have the purchasing power to direct the industry’s behaviour. Companies will always do what’s good for their bottom line. However, the leading lights of the fashion industry and the fashion media could give the process a helpful nudge by taking more of a risk and increasing the diversity of their imagery.
The industry argues that it has already taken great strides in its efforts to do this. But, however well intentioned, this has sometimes misfired. Perhaps the lack of representation within the offices and studios of the fashion industry also needs to be addressed so that it can better relate to its audience.
Data is lacking but a glance around the industry shows minimal representation of ethnic minorities. One of my former designers, of Afro-Caribbean heritage, was strongly advised by her parents not to pursue a career in fashion due to the lack of any successful, black female fashion designer role models. “Why make it harder for yourself?”, was their advice.
The media industry is similar. According to a City University survey, the British journalism industry is 94% white and only 0.2% black. Other research showed that among leading print journalists, 51% had been to private school and 54% to Oxford or Cambridge.
How can this change? Take down one of the main barriers to entry for most BAME journalists and fashion creatives – unpaid internships. Internships are the only way to secure the relevant work experience needed to gain a foothold in the industry. If they’re unpaid they automatically reduce the talent pool to one that is economically self-selecting. Only the privileged can work for free.
The fashion industry is aware that it needs to up its game. Many labels and magazines are trying but it’s not easy to get right and many fall into the trap of tokenism or worse, offer up caricatures. If the industry wants to be seen as genuinely inclusive it will need to open a few doors.