The fashion industry has been rocked by more than one racial faux pas in recent weeks, forcing brands to respond to the lack of diversity and inclusion within their companies and throughout the industry. Responses range from public relations moves at Burberry and Gucci, the formation of an advisory council at Prada, to the appointment of full-time diversity and inclusion chiefs.
It was just a few years ago when the tech industry was first called out for its lack of diversity and inclusion. Diversity advocates then joined forces to address racial inequities in tech through the 2011 launch of Black Girls Code, Code2040 in 2012 and the opening of the Kapor Center’s new hub for tech and social impact.
Yet after years of criticism of Silicon Valley’s diversity problem, along with industry and interest groups developing solutions for change, the number of people of color working in tech continues to fall short. What can fashion learn from tech’s slow response to its diversity and inclusion crisis?
In the same way that tech touches our lives in our hyperconnected world, fashion impacts all of us. Whether we’re wearing luxury, streetwear or fast fashion, we all make conscious decisions daily about what clothing we wear and how we wear it.
Tech has been in the spotlight due to its addictive social platforms, shady privacy practices and the real-world effects of biases in its data sets and algorithms. Lack of diversity among executives and senior officials at top tech companies has created or exacerbated many of these crises. Similarly, fashion’s diversity problem has come out in questionable products and marketing campaigns being approved without diverse thinkers and creative voices in the room who are aware of cultural landmines from a wide range of perspectives.
In tech, many have focused efforts on increasing the number of people of color in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields. But building a diverse and inclusive talent force goes deeper than increasing the number of black employees in one particular area — such as engineering positions in tech or designers in the fashion industry. In fashion, real diversity will only come when companies increase the racial and cultural equity across departments — from design, digital and finance to legal, merchandising, marketing and communications.
Fashion must also look beyond established organizations advocating for people of color to improve on this count. While outreach to the black community is paramount to moving forward, black people should not be typecast to certain affiliations or areas. We are everywhere. We study and live in communities across the U.S. and around the globe.
For the past few years during New York Fashion Week, industry veterans have partnered with talent of color and organizations committed to social change. But real progress will come only when diverse talent of color is included as part of fashion’s everyday business and not just in panel discussions, industry reports and seasonal marketing campaigns.
British Vogue editor in chief Edward Enninful is an anomaly when it comes to discussing diversity in fashion because he goes beyond the talks and takes action. Enninful has not only put women of color on the cover since his editorial debut at British Vogue in 2017, but he also launched a program to bring youth from the inner city to work at the magazine. “We’re trying to open the doors so everybody is welcome to work at Vogue,” Enninful said.
Building a diverse and inclusive workforce also takes time, talent and resources. In the tech sector, lawmakers, social justice organizations and nonprofits have taken steps to hold big tech companies accountable and make change. So why has change been so slow?
When Laura Weidman Powers — cofounder of Code2040 — stepped down in 2018, she discussed the state of “diversity fatigue in tech.” Weidman Powers noted that companies who had “tried diversity quick fixes or inclusion p.r. moves” began to pull back and hope “that no one would notice that their workforce was as white and male as it always had been.”
These companies realized that “creating equitable workplaces would take more work and focus than they initially realized,” noted Weidman Powers.
Fashion is now at the beginning of confronting its diversity and inclusion problem and has an opportunity to learn from tech’s missteps. When it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts, the fashion industry is still in the p.r. stage. But after all, p.r. is a big part of fashion’s DNA. Now, fashion must go beyond the industry’s innate skill at image-making and put significant focus, funding and talent behind real diversity and inclusion. That is when we will start to see real change.
Kenya Wiley is a fashion law attorney and founder of the Fashion Innovation Alliance — focused on policy, inclusion and social impact in fashion and technology.