The past two months have seen echoes of exasperation across black communities worldwide, in reaction to the US killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor. The fashion industry’s reaction to these events has seen big players – Anna Wintour, the British Fashion Council, Jonathan Anderson, Reformation, Sarah Mower and Carine Roitfield, to name just a few – issuing apologies, and brands such as All Saints, Burberry and Calvin Klein making vague proclamations of solidarity. Well intended as those social media epiphanies may have been, it struck me that they evaded the most pressing causes of institutionalised racism within fashion: access and equity.
Undoubtedly, it is not inclusivity, but exclusivity that drives fashion, from the VIP culture of the front row to the nepotism and lack of transparency surrounding recruitment for the most elusive roles and opportunities. Endorsement by the British Fashion Council is commodified through the extortionate fees charged to designers for listing on the official London fashion week schedule. Entry-level, emerging designers who pay £500 a year for a British Fashion Council membership pay £630 to be listed, while non-members pay £1,000 a season. The tiered pricing structure for event listings – in which costs rise as high as £3,000 a season – do not take into consideration the additional costs of the catwalk shows and presentations, or a designer’s production costs for the clothing collections. Such expense excludes many from the vital opportunity to be seen by essential press, buyers and industry professionals. While in many cases they are now illegal, fashion’s continuing culture of unpaid internships allows those with financial ability and adequate networks to get ahead.
Traditional industry career advice often describes the world of fashion as a meritocracy, with hopefuls urged to get the right education, then explore “every opportunity” and be a “relentless worker”. But data-driven reports such as Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries debunk the myth of meritocracy. The authors write that what is particularly worrying is that: “Those people who are in the best position to effect change are the very people who most strongly support the meritocratic explanation.”
As a fashion designer, business owner, former Central Saint Martins graduate and current university lecturer, I have witnessed processes rigged with racial and social inequities, across educational and professional sectors. But it is not only my own experiences – or those I have witnessed among black peers – that inform my approach to fashion’s systemic racism. As an academic, it is my access to data.
It is data that unquestionably shows that black people are underrepresented in the very industries which claim to want to make space for them. Creative industries are not diverse in terms of ethnicity, with particularly low numbers of black and minority ethnic workers across museums, galleries and libraries (2.7%); film, TV, video, radio and photography (4.2%); and music, performing and visual arts (4.8%).
UK government statistics show that the black ethnic group generally has the lowest percentage of workers (5%) in “manager, director or senior official” jobs, while occupying the largest percentage (16%) within “elementary” jobs – the lowest skilled type of occupation. Where access to education is concerned, the data is even more telling. Higher education organisations often seem impressive on the surface – University of the Arts London’s 2018 Diversity and Inclusion report, for example, lists the student population as 47% black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and 53% white students. Yet when offered with the context that 87% of these BAME students are international students of Asian background, most of whom pay extortionate fees, this framework warps the integrity and effectiveness of any BAME-targeted approaches at ensuring equitable access to all minority groups.
When data is broken down by ethnicity, a very different picture emerges among UK-resident graduates. Indian, Chinese and ”other Asian” graduates, who all fall within the BAME category, have the highest average earnings one year after graduation, out-earning even their white counterparts. Black Caribbean, black other and Bangladeshi students have the lowest average earnings within one year of graduation.
As a means of understanding and assessing racism across fashion and the creative industries, the BAME framework is fundamentally flawed. Not only does the term distinguish little difference between non-white communities, it insidiously serves as a way of collectively “othering” communities that fall outside the parameters of whiteness. The impact of this exceeds semantics: it assumes as a prerequisite that the same issues to the same extents subjugate across different minority-ethnic groups. Data analysed through BAME therefore often presents favourable, yet skewed, narratives of inclusion for corporations that conveniently exploit diversity and inclusion as a marketing and box-ticking tool.
The recent performative disassociation from fashion’s elitist practices, by many of its gatekeepers during the Black Lives Matter protests, suggests further misunderstanding about systemic racism in fashion. No one can self-proclaim allyship or sympathise their way out of systemic racism. In my view, a clear start and call to action is for fashion to adopt ethnicity-specific frameworks that allow different communities the dignity of difference and offer clear metrics for appraisal. Armed with adequate data, the bottom line is that equitable inclusion must be mandated through government policy – we cannot rely merely on sentiment and the moral compass of individuals to invoke and sustain anti-racism.