Fashion Industry Insiders Discuss Racism, Elitism and More That Needs to Change

Let’s name some open secrets in the fashion world: racism, elitism, fat-shaming. All things that have thrived in an ecosystem that’s historically made bank on exclusion.

Small improvements over the past decade have brought more inclusivity—on runways, in magazines—and recently, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve seen change that feels deeper and longer-lasting, like growing economic support for BIPOC-owned businesses.

But as these fashion insiders confirm, there’s still a lot of work to be done to dismantle the ingrained issues that keep *all* people from participating in what should be an open-to-everyone career path in design, retail, media, and yeah, influence.

Meet our experts:

can black lives matter finally fix the fashion industry

D’Ara Nazaryan

So, this story’s headline—”Can BLM Finally Fix the Fashion Industry?”—is obviously super loaded. Let’s unpack it.

lindsay peoples wagner

Lindsay Peoples Wagner: I don’t think it’s easy to say one thing can fix the other—all these problems are really built into the system. They’ve been here for centuries.

I don’t think it can just be one thing that’s really going to fix these industries. It’s going to take a plethora of initiatives and different ideas to attack the racism but also the elitism, classism, and nepotism that we constantly see in these spaces.

nana agyemang

Nana Agyemang: It’s great to start this conversation, but it’s also unfortunate that it took someone’s death for it to be discussed. Black people in the industry have been talking about it since we started working in it. I started EveryStylishGirl in 2016.

I don’t think it’s easy to say one can fix the other—all these problems are built into the system.

kimberly m jenkins

Kimberly M. Jenkins: Now white people and brands have called upon us: “Can I ask you a question?” We’ve had so much labor stolen, so much material culture stolen, so much creative genius stolen, and on top of that, we also now have the burden of education. People are tired.

This is a global industry, but it can seem like some countries are less motivated to change. Do we move forward together or at our own paces?

nana agyemang

NA: We should move forward globally. There’s a pattern: The more we speak up, the more change will happen. We’re all dealing with these issues.

When I think about this question, I think about Edward Enninful, editor in chief of British Vogue, getting racially profiled at his own place of work—it’s the same issue everywhere. A lot of people were shocked that he spoke up about that, but to me it’s a great sign of progress. If it weren’t for the Black Lives Matter movement being so global, he may not have spoken, he may not have put his experience on social media.

candace marie

Candace Marie: The global pandemic is the perfect chaos. We’re not traveling, getting distracted. We’re not going anywhere. You’re in your house and it’s right there in front of you. We’re all forced to face this now and say, “What are we going to do about it?”

Why is accountability—for, say, selling designs with hurtful symbolism or employing all-white leadership—a top priority?

nana agyemang

NA: I want to make sure it’s not all just performative.

This issue of systemic racism is going to take a really long time to fix. It’s up to these companies to really ask themselves what anti-racism policies they’re going to implement.

candace marie

CM: Yeah, a lot of people acknowledge a problem, throw up a black square on Instagram. But what’s happening after?

You have to flip the mirror on your own organization, especially before you make any sort of statement. What have you done internally as a company to make it right? It shouldn’t be that the one person of color in your organization is in the Diversity and Inclusion role.

The same instances occur season after season. We have to start working from the inside.

sandrine charles

Sandrine Charles: We’ve realized that the same instances occur season after season, whether it’s a fumble by a consistent brand or another one that puts a Band-Aid on something.

We have to start working from the inside. Implementing universal standards around hiring, pay equality, inclusion, and representation means everyone will understand what we need to do.

kimberly m jenkins

KMJ: Companies will often donate to charity or start a Diversity and Inclusion team. This is a way to buy time. These types of initiatives can look good, but they don’t disrupt the structure—in fact, they kind of keep it in tact.

Radical change would be putting someone new in the C-suite. It may still take a long time to see that kind of change. Many people at the top of the pyramid feel like they have too much to lose—they’re too fearful and not courageous enough to move away from the canonical practices of the industry.

Getting into the fashion industry—whether you’re in media, design, what have you—is really hard. What’s behind that?

lindsay peoples wagner

LPW: In this industry we run on elitism a lot, and nepotism. All these different biases have made it so that the same kinds of people get the same jobs and opportunities. And once you’re in, there are more barriers. In magazines, you’re not making a ton of money. Who can afford $9 an hour in New York unless someone is financially supporting you?

nana agyemang

NA: And also once you get in, you’re also dealing with layers of racism: microaggressions and macroaggressions. So anyone on the inside who wants to combat that has to take a look at themselves and at the places they work and ask what policies they can implement to make current and future employees feel safe.

Let’s talk fast fashion. It’s a double- (triple-?) edged sword—there’s so much wrapped up in it.

kimberly m jenkins

KMJ: It’s so complicated. When sustainable, slow fashion came on the scene it was an elitist style of dressing. Not everyone can afford a $240 organic sweater, but you have a clean conscious buying it. Now there’s a binary—if you buy slow fashion you’re a good consumer and if you buy fast fashion you’re morally corrupt. It works the same way with fast food.

Instead of finger pointing at the people who are consuming fast fashion or fast food, we should be pointing the finger at the systemic structures that keep people from making a livable wage and the companies, which could try to learn a new way to produce ethical, sustainable products at an affordable price point.

nana agyemang

NA: Thrifting is a great workaround for consumers who don’t want to support fast fashion and still need to shop for affordable clothes, but even that’s not ideal for everyone. It can be hard to find the right sizes.

kimberly m jenkins

KMJ: There are also cultures around the world where secondhand clothing is quite literally vulgar and unclean. It’s a spiritual point of view or an ideology. We can’t tell those people just to wear it anyway and stop going to H&M.

We should be pointing the finger at systemic structures that keep people from making a livable wage.

sandrine charles

SC: The good thing is consumers are more educated nowadays on what they’re purchasing and they can use this education to speak out against companies and, if they’re able, hit them where it hurts—in their pockets.

But fast fashion needs to take accountability for what they’re doing, especially on a human rights level.

The phrase may typically be “imitation is the highest form of flattery” but in fashion we’ve got loads of co-opting and copycat design. Why is this a big deal?

candace marie

CM: One thing I’d say is that as you move up the ranks in fashion, you almost expect to get copied. We’ve all seen fake designer bags. But financially, many of those luxury fashion houses can afford to get copied. Up and coming designers—who sometimes get copied by more established brands or even influencers—can’t always recover from that.

nana agyemang

NA: And the interesting thing about co-opting, when you look into the case of the Telfar shopping bag for example, his mission is to make affordable luxury bags for the Black community. Now you have people buying the limited bags and re-selling for triple the cost so that the community it’s for is priced out.

Is there ever a time when taking from a culture you aren’t a part of, for your own profit, is okay?

lindsay peoples wagner

LPW: Fashion has not done well with cultural appropriation. There have been so many obvious situations where people say, “Oh, this just ended up on a mood board; we had no idea.” But Black people always try to give credit where it’s due, and we just want that same respect back.

The number one rule is to have empathy. Think about if you were in that person’s shoes.

kimberly m jenkins

KMJ: Yes, I go by fashion law professor Susan Scafidi‘s three S’s. That’s Source, Significance, and Similarity. So, 1) Identify the source or the group of people who created the item you’re inspired by. Do you share their lived experience or have any relationship with that group of people? 2) Is this item precious, sacred, or political in any way? If it is, copying it could be offensive. 3) And then with similarity—if you’re blatantly copying or replicating something that could be problematic and conversely, it could be offensive if you make it too different, so you have to do your research.

And, importantly for designers, if you have the privilege, engage in profit-sharing or codesigning. It’s not going to hurt your brand or reputation. Share the wealth.

Many brands are already addressing racism and inequality head-on. How can we keep up the momentum?

sandrine charles

SC: Equality has to be a personal goal. We’ve all got to keep our feet on the gas. We can’t let this conversation go. If we do, the whole notion of allyship is an illusion.

You can go still go about your day in your life and do the things that make you happy. But your peers are still drowning, they’re dealing with trauma, depression, anxiety. Acknowledging it for a week, or while its trending, doesn’t sustain change.

lindsay peoples wagner

LPW: Yes, a lot of people don’t understand that you have to keep working against biases. You have to put a daily effort in. I think a lot about Flo Kennedy and her incredible activism work. She says, “Freedom is like taking a bath, you’ve got to do it every single day.”

Racism is something I wake up and viscerally deal with every day—I don’t have to post about it for it to be real, it is what it is. There has to be a concerted effort. You put everyday effort into it, or just don’t do it at all.

Acknowledging it for a week, or while its trending, doesn’t sustain change.

candace marie

CM: It’s also about doing your research, shopping amazing Black brands. These brands have always had great products and excellent ideas, it’s just that everyone else is catching up. Give us the opportunity—even the playing field.

kimberly m jenkins

KMJ: Start by picking one issue to really put your concern toward (this doesn’t mean you don’t care about other things), whether it’s ethical factories or historic erasure. Learn all you can about it and channel your energy toward it. Not just donating money, but going to marches, reading the books, watching YouTube lectures or videos about it—and shopping accordingly. If we all put 100 percent of our individual energy towards one thing, it can be powerful.

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