At New York Fashion Week a relatively unknown model and artist Ashley B Chew made a silent protest with a leather tote that read 'Black Models Matter.' Her word play on 'Black Lives Matter,' a slogan prominent in recent US protests against police brutality against African-Americans, brought big questions about racial equality into the field of high fashion. This seems to be happening with increased frequency.
Vogue recently declared that 2016 would signal a change in direction for the magazine. In the January issue, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour writes 'All of the many progressive societal changes that we have experienced recently are pointing us to a place of far greater inclusiveness, tolerance and diversity.' This uncharacteristic declaration suggests a fashion world keen to embrace equality and inclusivity.
The fashion industry lacks diversity in terms of race, class, sexuality, ability and size. From its inception, fashion reflected bourgeois European concerns, which made whiteness the measure of true beauty. Fashion's rigid hierarchy of race and class was inherited from the colonial mind-set established by the art, literature and drama that preceded it. If fashion creates images of social power, then why has the industry suddenly grown a conscience? The answer may lie in the challenges fashion has faced in recent times. Alongside frequent calls for more black and Asian models, the industry has also been criticized for the pressure it places on all women to conform to white standards of beauty.
The comedian, Chris Rock's 2009 documentary film Good Hair drew attention to the efforts - and cost - for many African-American women who work against the natural texture of their hair in an effort to be fashionable. Perhaps this is why supermodel Maria Borges gained attention for sporting her natural hair on a recent Victoria's Secret show. The typically upbeat response from American magazine People was to celebrate 'another big stride for beauty' rather than criticizing the industry, or using words like racism.
The persistent use of painfully thin bodies is one of the most insidious practices in the fashion industry. There have been some signs of change with the recent signing of Tess Holliday, a size 22 model, to a major London-based modelling agency. So too, the singer Beth Ditto plans to launch her own clothing plus-size line this year, in collaboration with the fashion designer, Jean Paul Gaultier. Both Andreja Pejic, who has worked as a model for menswear and womenswear, and Caitlyn Jenner who posed for Vanity Fair in 2015, have given fashionable form to transgender debates.
Terms, such as non-binary, once confined to university seminars and political meetings now surface in trend forecasts and twitter rows. As an educator, I see this as evidence of a new generation of fashion graduates determined to address questions of power. A recent report from the trend forecaster WGSN, describes the demand for products and services that take account of inter-faith and multi-cultural needs in explicitly political terms as 'a consumer call-to-action.'
With so much user-generated imagery and bloggers, the traditional fashion magazine no longer sets the agenda; many people are influencing the fashion world from beyond it. Threadbared, a project set up by Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minh-Ha T. Pham, is a good example, whereby academics are using an online presence to join debates on the politics of fashion. The cultural appropriation debate emerged almost exclusively online where images are freely shared. When a design by Kokon to Zai (KTZ) at a London show appeared online, Salome Awa noticed a striking resemblance to a garment designed in 1922 by her grandfather, who was one of the last Shaman of the Canadian Inuit.
In the past, it might have seemed okay for models in fashion magazines to wear Native American war bonnets for fun, blissfully unaware that these 'looks' might actually be part of someone's cultural heritage. With fashion media crossing national and regional boundaries, images are likely to reach audiences who have intimate knowledge of their social, cultural and religious meaning. The digital sphere is unlocking fashion's ugly secrets. People are prepared to expose cultural insensitivity in an effort to discourage designers, stylists and editors from appropriating cultural motifs at will. And these debates are taking place online.
Changing global markets and new flows of information have altered industry priorities. Fashion can no longer afford to be elitist and white. In many ways, too, the world of fashion blogging has upset the white privilege of the fashion media. A new site, Hijablicious, founded in 2010 by two London-based women caters for those who want products and style tips for modest - usually faith-based - dressing. The rise of bloggers and e-commerce exposes the gulf between fashion consumers and the traditional end of the industry. While it plays catch up, new media fashion innovators are busy setting the agenda, which has no doubt, finally pushed Vogue to embrace equality at the grand old age of 124.
This February, HuffPost UK Style is running a month-long focus on our Fashion For All campaign, which aims to highlight moments of colour, size, gender and age diversity and disability inclusivity in the fashion and beauty world.
We will be sharing moments of diversity at London Fashion Week with the hashtag #LFW4All and we'd like to invite you to do the same. If you'd like to blog about diversity or get involved, email us here.