Discussions of race and diversity in fashion have heated up in recent weeks as history and current events converge.
A new documentary, The Gospel According to André, has brought former Vogue editor André Leon Talley’s career in to focus and the discussion around the film has called attention to the lack of progress for inclusion in fashion since the 1970s. In a recent appearance on The View, Talley characterized the pace of change in fashion behind the scenes as, “a slow burn.”
Meanwhile, at the recent CFDA awards, Edward Enninful, the first black editor-in-chief of British Vogue was honored with the prestigious Media Award. And the ceremony itself was the first in the organization’s 56-year history to be hosted by an African American, Actress Issa Rae. Despite these landmarks, the awards notably passed over a number of black designer-nominees.
Although we’ve seen increased awareness around diversity and inclusion, when it comes to power positions, the fashion industry has a long way to go. Here’s how fashion and retail can do better:
First, it’s critical that brands and retailers appoint more people of color in decision-making roles and positions of power. For fashion, retail and luxury brands, that means the position of artistic director, creative director or chief digital or innovation officer.
Diversifying the makeup of General Counsels (GC) and attorneys is particularly important. These and other in-house legal positions are often responsible for reviewing and signing off on a company’s most important matters and can help flag policies and products that might reflect bias. Unfortunately, minority GCs make up only 11 percent of General Counsels at Fortune 500 companies.
My own experience in the legal department for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is an exception and proof of the impact these roles have. Though I was the only African American attorney working in MPAA’s legal department, my position afforded me the ability to help ensure that MPAA’s outside counsel, consultants and academic advisory council represented the diversity of the entire film industry and its consumers.
I continue this practice today through my day-to-day work with startups and enterprise companies in fashion, tech and retail—connecting talented attorneys of color with entrepreneurs seeking legal advice on intellectual property protection, data security, privacy and initial coin offerings.
It’s also critical to place and mentor talent of color in solid internships as well as junior and mid-level positions—so that they are able to grow professionally and rise with confidence to the levels of director, vice president and CEO. Internship programs can help open the doors for full-time positions and expose students and recent graduates to the inner workings of the fashion industry. Also, junior and mid-level employees are better able to advance within an organization when they have someone looking out for them, who is willing to assign them coveted and challenging work assignments and extend invitations to power meetings and exclusive company or industry gatherings.
There are a few noteworthy examples showing the fashion industry’s improvement. In March, Virgil Abloh was named as Louis Vuitton’s first African-American artistic director for menswear. Elaine Welteroth—Teen Vogue’s former editor-in-chief and only the second black woman to hold the chief editor title of a Condé Nast publication—has pushed boundaries by ensuring that there are more culturally and racially diverse stories and images in media. Dapper Dan—who has been a fashion icon in Harlem for years—is finally being recognized in luxury fashion as a result of his joint venture with Gucci. And the next generation of designers at Parsons School of Design can now take a course in fashion and race taught by Kimberly Jenkins that may lead to a cultural awakening in the brands that these students go on to launch or work for.
Whether it’s the latest runway looks, cult makeup brand or streetwear collaboration, the fashion industry sets the style trends for the season.
It’s time for fashion to be a trendsetter for diversity and inclusion too. No more slow burn. It’s time to pick up the pace.
Kenya Wiley is an attorney and founder of the Fashion Innovation Alliance.