The fashion industry doesn’t exactly have a pristine reputation. And while it’s been trying to set a new course for itself throughout the past few decades, has it done enough to clean up its act? Harper's Bazaar Arabia contributor Georgie Bradley investigates…
Time’s Up. Enough Already. No means no. You’ve heard these words before, I’m sure. You might even be having some #MeToo déjà vu. Well, you’re on the right path of pathos.
I am, however, talking about the fashion industry and its need for a radical reset after decades of bad behaviour. Despite always being acutely in touch with its socio-political surroundings, some intensive intro-spection has historically gone amiss – until the dam finally burst on the ugly truth a few years ago, forcing the industry to do some much-needed navel-gazing for systemic change.
We have the call-out culture of a post-#MeToo world to thank for putting an incisive light on the industry’s slew of mea culpas. The time is now to not settle for anything less than a hard-line reckoning. From racial representation and sustainability to mindful consumption and just being a kinder, more sensitive industry – the talk is on the table to overhaul its reputation and, thankfully, agenda-setting moves are being made. But the picture may still be bleak...
It would be remiss to not flag the advocates already doing their part for change. The likes of Miuccia Prada and Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri have created truly global impact with powerfully encoded collections putting issues like climate crisis, sexual harassment, body positivity, inclusivity and gender parity in full, unadulterated view. Stella McCartney has also done the lion’s share of schooling us on sustainability and the importance of not being manipulated by the ‘get it or regret it’ missive plastered on the pair of jeans it took 15,000 litres of water to make – a big contributing faux pas from the fashion industry.
We know a lot of fashion’s wrongs already. Diversity on the catwalk still feels like tick-box tokenism. The majority of fashion companies don’t hire minorities in high-stakes roles. Firestorms over racist products by Gucci (and then some) have raged on the internet. Right now, the status quo for size inclusivity on the runways means a one-off plus-sized model opening or closing a show. The problem is, it’s met with stratospheric albeit misguided applause. Sure, they have their moment – but what about their ongoing movement? Where are their commercials? Their endorsements? Their high-fashion magazine covers?
Naomi Campbell told a Wall Street Journal conference late last year that diversity “needs to go deeper. We want to be seen within the actual companies, in the offices. Are you going to give diverse staff a seat at the table to advise and be part of the projects that you do?… We need to put diversity behind the desk. Consistency in the future will kill the crimes of the past.
As far as our collective fervour, it’s all well and good us spouting out hard-hitting criticism with pithy hashtags from the Insta-frontlines – but that appetite for change needs to escape the echo chamber and happen in IRL. Because for as long as talk of diversity and inclusion exists only in the digital realm, they run the risk of remaining in the buzzword category – a place where ardent wokeness sits alongside fair-weather consciousness in a finite social media lifecycle of: create, co-opt, satirise and disappear. But this is where fashion can act as a bridge between art and reality, because “fashion creates resonance in something and relates it back to the consumer,” says Shooq AlShawi, a luxury strategist and consultant who works with regional brands. If the industry leads the way on a re-newed rhetoric, the rest will follow.
Fashion has the responsibility of owning and celebrating difference. So much of our everyday in-securities come of not seeing ourselves reflected in the world of fashion – a space that infiltrates more than its own parameters. If the fashion industry allows us to feel that we exist – in our own unique way – alongside others with a similar DNA – that narrow lens of what is currently consid-ered beautiful widens to capture a fuller field of vision.
The industry has a massive sphere of influence. Therefore, it needs to tap into its empathic potential to be kinder to its people and patrons. By reversing the homogeny-washed image it currently purports, allowing us to overcome the institutionalised setbacks preventing us to reach a point of self-acceptance, the industry can make a new example of itself.
The fashion industry doesn’t often do something merely as a goodwill gesture, though. Of course, some brands do... but it’s a business with a bottom line: what will sell? In the glory days of a buoyant economy, it had more free reign to be bad and get away with it. Now, in a panic-stricken planet gripped by COVID-19, the industry is teetering on the edge of uncertainty with its tail between its legs – and for who knows how long? Perhaps this is a time for crucial self- reflection and to capitalise on kindness.
Thankfully, we are head and shoulders above where we once were. Designers, casting directors, and editors are taking stock of where the industry stands on hot-button affairs and the willingness to make the exception the rule is now happening. While the industry’s sluggish progress can feel like watching paint dry, it’s also been a period of con- sidered initiatives and wake-up calls – Tom’s one-for- one business model gives away a pair of shoes to the unprivileged for every pair it sells, showing effective cause marketing. Ashley Graham is spearheading the case for curvy models. And Gucci learnt from its lesson, installing an in-house diversity arm and appointing a woman at the head of it.
Change has already come of age. But it has to come from within. It’s not a ‘time will tell’ situation. The time is now.
Lead image courtesy of Jason Llyod-Evans/Chanel S/S15