From designers to Anna Wintour, fashion industry leaders say they are determined to improve diversity. How will we know whether they’ve succeeded?

Stephen J. Arias

In May, after the death of George Floyd while in police custody, activists poured into the streets with demands for racial justice and police reform. That multiethnic chorus expanded into a call for equity in every corner of the culture, from politics to fashion. In response, social media was quickly flooded with fashion companies, influencers and boldface names touting their support of Black Lives Matter with symbolic black squares and historical quotations about racial equality. The words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin were in heavy rotation. But like a litany of “thoughts and prayers,” the brief messages resonated as perfunctory rather than instructive.

“A lot of people posted on Instagram, ‘We stand in solidarity.’ What does that even mean?” says designer Tom Ford, who serves as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This is not the first time outrage has overflowed its banks, Ford says. And in the past, sadly nothing happened. But this time is different. Perhaps.

People of color who have remained silent about years of indignities in the fashion industry are speaking up. Midcareer designers whose advancement has been blocked because of biased talent searches are storming the industry’s barricades. Designers are taking mass retailers to task for their gross failure to support Black-owned businesses. Editors at glossy publications are posting on Twitter and Instagram blunt descriptions of being underpaid. And even those who have found success in fashion are revealing the barely healed scars accrued from the good fight.

And this time, folks were not willing to let companies issue a public relations statement and move on.

“I was sitting in my house getting all these emails and seeing these Instagram posts in my thread, and it felt so empty to me — incredibly empty,” says Aurora James, founder of the accessories brand Brother Vellies. “I was receiving these messages as a Black woman and as a Black business owner. I was seeing it, but I wasn’t feeling it. The business owner in me needed to put a metric on it to make me feel like [companies] meant what they said.”

In a gust of frustration, James created the Fifteen Percent Pledge, an initiative challenging large retailers to commit 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. The number is roughly equivalent to the percentage of Black people in the United States.

Designers are taking mass retailers to task for their gross failure to support Black-owned businesses. Editors at glossy publications are posting on Twitter and Instagram blunt descriptions of being underpaid. And this time, folks were not willing to let companies issue a public relations statement and move on.

“I knew intuitively as a business owner that these retailers weren’t even close to that number. They were sitting at one to two percent on average,” James says. The pledge requires businesses to audit their product mix and make those numbers public.

West Elm and LVMH’s Sephora are two of the largest retailers who have signed on thus far. Vogue has also pledged to participate and to improve its hiring of Black photographers and stylists, among other things. Vogue and Vanity Fair each only recently hired their first Black photographer ever for a coveted cover shoot.

“We have an internal benchmark that we are determined to meet in terms of external and internal talent and content and everything that we’re doing, not only at Vogue, but I think across all Condé Nast titles,” says Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue and artistic director for Condé Nast. Everybody is, you know, I think very conscious of moving forward, doing the right thing, recognizing mistakes, knowing we can do better.”

The Fifteen Percent Pledge is only one of the unprecedented number of initiatives harnessing this moment to change the way the fashion industry operates so that its doors are opened to a wider variety of participants. The demand for greater diversity isn’t focused simply on models and designers as it has been in recent years. The industry is being called to account for the composition of corporate boards, brand managers, editors, photographers and anyone else who has a hand in an industry that shapes our sense of self.

The problems have been laid bare. The demands are specific. The voices are so numerous that they are harder to ignore. In all cases, “inclusivity” is the operative word. Inclusivity goes beyond numbers. It requires empathy, curiosity, respect and fairness. Creating an inclusive culture is a high hurdle, and knowing when a company has cleared it is, in many ways, subjective. How will the fashion industry know when it has succeeded?

From its earliest days, the fashion system as it exists in the United States and Europe — from Condé Nast to Dior — catered to White aristocrats, debutantes and socialites. American designers took style cues from Paris, and photographers swooned over muses such as C.Z. Guest and models like the Swedish-born Lisa Fonssagrives, one of the earliest fashion stars. The men and women running magazines were part of the tight social circle of one-percenters who were celebrated in their pages. For many young women, a stint as a junior editor was akin to a finishing school.

Yes, there was a gritty, behind-the-scenes industry that was populated by recent immigrants and other bootstrapping strivers, but the gentry owned the spotlight. “Fashion is not a business that was set up to help people with nothing win,” says James, who grew up in a small town outside of Toronto.

Over the years, activists have tried to break open the system. Black designers have been advocating for greater access to financial capital and retail shelves. They’ve decried their lack of representation on the red carpet and in magazines — platforms that give brands the kind of visibility that could help increase their market share or attract investors. They’ve been frustrated by the lack of recognition from their peers that’s epitomized by CFDA awards — or at least nominations for them. But as much as folks criticized the clout of publications such as Vogue and the clubby atmosphere of the CFDA, the goal has always been to break into the clubhouse, not burn it down.

Kevan Hall is one of the success stories and someone who has tried to prop open the clubhouse door for others. He was working under his own label in Los Angeles when, in 1998, he was hired as creative director at Halston, where he was charged with reviving the New York-based brand known for sexy, minimalist silhouettes. “The offer came; I accepted it. There was some backlash [in the industry] over how could this African American man who we’ve never heard of, from California, take on this? Coul
d he do it?” Hall recalls in a phone conversation. After debuting at Halston with what he describes as 42 well-conceived ensembles, “all doubters were silenced.”

Hall’s tenure at Halston was creative, tumultuous and ultimately short-lived, as the business churned through a handful of presidents in about three years. “It was crazy but brilliant, and I wouldn’t change a moment of it,” he says. “It gave me more exposure.” He returned to Los Angeles and his eponymous collection. In 2019, he co-founded the Black Design Collective in an effort to till the soil for the next generation of designers. The collective has raised money to support Black entrepreneurs whose businesses have suffered during the pandemic and is producing a directory of Black designers. “Fashion has known that [racism] has been there, and they haven’t done anything,” Hall says. “I feel like fashion is having an awakening.”

Today, fashion faces a philosophical divide over tactics. After so many fits and starts toward greater equity, will change ultimately come through diplomatic engagement — by insiders helping insiders? Or does the system need an outsider — or at least a band of disenfranchised actors — to pull down the sacred monuments? “A little bit of how I got to where I’m at, I’m even keel. I’m also an optimist. I do believe the world can be a better place. I formally say yes to that,” says Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White and menswear designer for LVMH’s Louis Vuitton. (About 12 percent of LVMH’s U.S. workforce is Black.) “I believe we can upend systemic racism. I believe that the fashion industry can mirror real people.”

So rather than setting dynamite to fashion institutions, Abloh is supporting the Fashion Scholarship Fund. He raised $1 million to support Black students interested in careers in fashion — not only in design, but also on the financial side of the industry. “If we talk about changing the complexion of the business, it has to be beyond the design side,” says the fund’s executive director, Peter Arnold. “That’s the only way to get executives of color.”

The most prominent of the racial equity initiatives, the one that has won the support of companies such as Condé Nast, Tommy Hilfiger, Tiffany & Co., L’Oréal, Calvin Klein and others, is the Black in Fashion Council. Founded by Teen Vogue editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and public relations consultant Sandrine Charles, its goal is to create a numerical rating system that reflects the degree to which a company is inclusive. The system will be modeled after the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which measures a business’s support of its LGBTQ workforce. The HRC will conduct the fashion data analysis.

Although the criteria are still being hashed out, the Black in Fashion Council is focusing on the makeup of a company’s board of directors, whether it advertises in Black-owned media or media aimed specifically at Black consumers, the diversity of its supply chain and whether unconscious-bias training is an ongoing effort. (While the companies won’t pay to be rated, the council is supported by donations, and those donations can come from the industry.)

Teen Vogue editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner at Paris Fashion Week in March. (Christian Vierig/Getty Images)

RIGHT: Off-White founder Virgil Abloh at Paris Fashion Week in 2019. (Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images)

LEFT: Teen Vogue editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner at Paris Fashion Week in March. (Christian Vierig/Getty Images) RIGHT: RIGHT: Off-White founder Virgil Abloh at Paris Fashion Week in 2019. (Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images)

The council considers itself an internal agent for change, not an external one. Indeed, the CFDA chose to work with Peoples Wagner and Charles, over other initiatives, because of their openhanded community approach, says Steven Kolb, the CFDA’s chief executive. The co-founders like to emphasize that they want to move from “cancel culture” to “accountability culture.”

It’s that very spirit of diplomacy that raises skepticism in Kibwe Chase-Marshall, who is the leading voice behind the Kelly Initiative. Named after Patrick Kelly, who was the first Black designer to become a member of Paris’s fashion consortium, it has taken a more confrontational stance. In a letter to the CFDA, Chase-Marshall and co-founders demanded that the trade organization conduct an industry-wide census detailing the racial makeup of fashion companies and organize a third-party audit of member companies’ hiring practices. They wanted a response by Juneteenth. They didn’t get one and by mid-August still had not.

Chase-Marshall was born in Trinidad and grew up in Washington. He built a career in New York as a designer working for brands such as Michael Kors and Oscar de la Renta, but he was also frustrated, as he was never promoted to the rank of creative director despite his experience. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he still designs but also focuses on writing and activism. “I’ve watched over the course of two years as a really disturbing hybrid of tokenism and a lottery system developed,” Chase-Marshall says. He sees tokenism, for example, in Prada’s decision to ask director Ava DuVernay and artist Theaster Gates to co-chair a diversity advisory council after the Italian company faced complaints for selling charms that resembled racist golliwog characters. And the many fashion competitions, such as the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, that provide the winner with money and mentoring are, for him, akin to having to hit the lottery to advance in the industry.

After so many fits and starts toward greater equity, will change ultimately come through diplomatic engagement — by insiders helping insiders? Or does the system need an outsider — or at least a band of disenfranchised actors — to pull down the sacred monuments?

For years, Chase-Marshall hesitated to speak up because “you fear professional retribution. And I didn’t want to come off as bitter and unwilling to recognize my own inadequacies.” But the fashion system is too racist to be fixed by a change of ideology, he says. A changing of the guard is needed at the CFDA and elsewhere. “I have given up on any modicum
of likability,” Chase-Marshall says. “There’s no way to be likable to make this change.”

It’s no surprise that much of Chase-Marshall’s antipathy has been directed at two targets: the CFDA and Vogue. The former is the closest thing the industry has to a governing body, even though the nonprofit organization has no actual authority over its members. The CFDA is a bully pulpit controlled by a membership more inclined to cajole. “We are limited,” says Ford, the chairman. “We cannot force companies to do anything. But in taking on new members, we can certainly look at how diverse the company is, and that can affect who we accept.”

Ford spent much of his design career based in Europe leading Gucci and Saint Laurent. His eponymous company brought him back to the United States and to Los Angeles. Over the years, Ford’s runways and marketing campaigns have been distinctive for two reasons: sex appeal and diversity. “I’ve worked with Black models my entire career. I’ve been concerned with making every fashion show and campaign racially balanced,” he says. “We had Black designers on our design team. We had Black members of our executive team.”

“I live in a very liberal world where the pain people were feeling, I don’t know that it had really struck me,” he says. Now that it has, now that he has had Black friends describe the way long suppressed frustration has recently come to the surface, he’s trying to empathetically consider what it means to “move through life as a Black person.”

Soon after protests began, Ford convened a board meeting and the CFDA sketched out its plan for change. It includes building an in-house employment agency for Black professionals. The organization also hired Bonnie Morrison, a veteran public relations executive, to broaden its support of young talent; it added anti-racism activist Bethann Hardison to its board of directors; and promoted CaSandra Diggs, who is Black, to CFDA president. There’s also a new advisory board chock full of high-profile people of color, all of them very much fashion folks. Its focus is strictly on fashion concerns, despite internal lobbying to broaden its scope and address issues such as police reform. “There’s enough to do righting what’s wrong with the fashion industry,” Ford says. “I think we need to stick to our lane.”

Wintour, the second target of particular animus, has clout and influence that reach far beyond the Condé Nast publishing empire and into the psyche of the entire fashion ecosystem. After Condé Nast employees began to detail experiences of racial prejudice and disrespect, there was Twitter speculation that fashion’s most prominent power broker would tumble. Instead, Wintour, who has been at the helm of Vogue for 32 years, planted her flag more firmly, deciding to move into the storm rather than evacuate. I totally understand and recognize the voice of social media,” Wintour says. “But I still feel you have to look inwards and examine yourself and think about what you’ve done — what was right and what you have done that is wrong.”

Condé Nast plans to conduct a census of its employees where possible. (There are prohibitions against collecting racial data in Europe.) It also expects to make the results public, at least to its workforce. The defunct Condé Nast internship program is returning, with participants being paid for their efforts, which will reduce the financial burden of living in New York City for disadvantaged students. And Vogue specifically is hosting a mentorship initiative with about 20 veteran employees providing one-on-one support to newer ones.

We’re sort of guinea pigs for the rest of the company,” Wintour told me during a video interview. “We’re to do it for six months and then it’s going to be rolled out across the company so that there’s a real sense of communication and collaboration and people understanding what a road forward could be for them. And it’s also us learning what we can do in terms of communicating better and being more collaborative and understanding of our workforce.”

“I recognize that there are moments and times people within the company, without the company, when they haven’t felt as welcome as they should be,” Wintour continues. “And I would just say to all of them that we are working as hard and as fast as we possibly can to change that perception and to change it also as a reality. We want everyone to feel welcome at Condé Nast and to be welcome because of their talents and their passion and their creativity and their view on culture.”

“I will take full responsibility if the next time you and I speak, there isn’t a sense that change has come or is being accomplished, or at least it is moving forward,” she says.

Gucci’s blackface sweater didn’t reveal fashion’s race problem, but in 2019 it made the crisis plain. In a decades-long bloodletting of one thousand cuts, this one nicked a nerve. The jumper in question was a black turtleneck with an exaggerated collar th
at extended up over the nose. The cutout for the mouth was outlined in bright red lips. A brown-haired, White model advertised the $890 trifle. Social media declared the sweater racist; and so, it was.

After apologizing for the insult, the Italian luxury brand began wrestling with diversity, equity and inclusivity within its vast global workforce. It hired an academic to parse the role that systemic racism plays in fashion, as well as an experienced diversity chief to dissect its corporate culture. In other words, Gucci began to do what the whole of the fashion industry is being pushed to do now in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and sweeping social upheaval: Change its ways.

The crisis “pushed us,” Gucci president Marco Bizzarri said in an August conference call. “We passed through it and did more thinking [about inclusivity] than others.”

“Mistakes will continue to happen,” he says. “The goal is to try to make sure that the more we are able to interact and not leave it to only one person to take [an idea] from A to Z, we minimize the mistakes.” The holy grail is to have a workforce that is not cowed by the singular voice of a creative director or fearful of overstepping boundaries — one that feels empowered to speak up and voice a concern. To have an organic system of checks and balances work without stifling creativity — that’s the goal, Bizzarri says. “I think we are leading the way.”

With a year-long head start, the company has already done or considered — and in some cases rejected — many of the things that this diffuse racial reckoning is seeking. Gucci has shown a preference for working with those who are intimately familiar with the industry rather than outsiders, as some activists would prefer. It believes in the ability of money to generate change as it deepens its commitment to scholarships. And, perhaps most notably, in light of all the metrics the industry is embracing, it has learned that numbers don’t tell the whole story.

In 2019, about 15 percent of Gucci’s U.S. workforce was Black, which is reflective of the number of African Americans in the country’s population. Today, Black employees make up 9.2 percent of Gucci management in the United States; Hispanics or Latinos constitute 21.2 percent, and Asians are 12.6 percent. Diversity is a numbers game that Gucci arguably is winning. And yet, in the weeks after the blackface controversy, Gucci was a brand in shock. The company considered itself adamantly progressive in an industry populated by people who believed themselves to be exceptionally open-minded. Gucci had a track record for diversity and for responding to cultural sensitivities.

The sweater controversy wasn’t just an aesthetic issue. It was an indictment of corporate culture. Blackface is not a minority problem. It’s one that runs through American history, indeed through world history. And everyone was silent. How could something that could be construed as so deeply offensive make its way from Europe to the American marketplace without anyone voicing concern?

François-Henri Pinault, chairman of Gucci’s parent company, Kering, expressed his frustration to me during an interview last year. “We have thousands of people working in America. How come no one raised a finger? How come? It’s our responsibility to make sure they feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey guys, are you sure about that?’ ” Pinault told me he intended to make diversity and inclusivity priorities, not just at Gucci, but also throughout Kering. “It’s not enough to talk and express and convince,” he said. “We’re at the point where we have to force it.”

Gucci brought in a chief diversity officer; it lost that chief diversity officer — although she will continue to consult. “One single person cannot create change,” Bizzarri says. “That’s why we started the global equity board.” It includes Hardison, a former model and talent agency owner, who is one of the many recurring protagonists in fashion’s long, slow racial conversion. “She speaks very freely and openly,” Bizzarri says. “She’s someone who understands and knows the business we are in.”

Gucci has taken to conducting its first interviews with prospective hires by phone. While this has proven necessary during the pandemic, it was an idea that preceded the crisis as a way to eliminate at least some unconscious bias. The company also made several intentional hires of Black executives at the vice president level — new positions that increase its management diversity without waiting for turnover at the top of the company.

At the corporate level, Kering added two people of color to the board of directors — thus integrating the board. As of June, 62 percent of Kering’s U.S. employees are people of color, and 21 percent of senior management fall into that category. “Inclusion is the responsibility of every single person in the organization,” says Kalpana Bagamane Denzel, chief diversity, inclusion and talent officer at Kering. Denzel, who arrived in October, is a fashion outsider — an American who has spent much of her career abroad in Germany, Switzerland and now Paris. “I grew up as the only Asian kid in class. My worldview is built on what I experienced,” she said by phone from California, where she was visiting her children. “People have to understand the lived experiences of people unlike them. That leads to empathy.”

As a professional, “I was the diverse talent. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a meeting room where I’ve been in the majority,” she says. “The pressure is on that person to figure out how to read the room. It made a difference if the culture embraced me and I didn’t feel like I was different.”

Denzel is challenging Kering to reconsider the skills that are important in a specific job, to rethink what stellar credentials look like and to seek talent in fresh places. She’s encouraging people to sit in their discomfort.

In other words, fashion has to shake off its long-standing tropes. “There’s a dedication throughout history where we trust the rightness and the authority of the old guard, the European genius who comes in as the creative director. We’re dedicated to all thos
e narratives that uphold a belief system that’s tethered to race,” says Kimberly Jenkins, an assistant professor of fashion studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. That includes the industry’s stubborn admiration for “the White genius who uses Black ingenuity as raw material.”

Jenkins spent six months counseling Gucci on fashion’s corrosive attitudes — just the beginning of any entity’s tutoring, she says. “The education that’s required of people is a long game. It requires learning some things and unlearning some things,” says Jenkins, who created the Fashion and Race Database, a website filled with historical and cultural reference material, to better inform an industry with magpie tendencies. “It poses a challenge to the systems in place and the positions that some people have.”

“It takes visionary thinking,” she says, “and courageousness.”

So when will Gucci and Kering know when they have succeeded? “If we can get to a point where anybody can come into one of our [design] houses, and if asked, ‘Do you feel like you fit in?’ — and they say, ‘Yes,’ ” Denzel explains.

Inclusivity requires constant nurturing and monitoring. Striving for it is never-ending. But ultimately, this sort of education has the potential to offer individuals far more than professional satisfaction. Kering wants “their employees to take this with them into society,” Denzel says. “They want them to go well beyond taking this into work.”

“Having people go through what Gucci has gone through, we’ve been able to learn from that. It’s a journey. This journey will be a long one.”

Robin Givhan is The Washington Post’s fashion critic.

Styling and editing: Solange Franklin. Hair: Naeemah Lafond. Makeup: Natalie Cardona

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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