The takeaway of Harvey Weinstein’s recent I’ve-had-one-hell-of-year e-mail could easily apply to the fashion industry, too.
While the year started with media reports of bombshell allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against major league photographers, plenty of other firestorms erupted in the months that followed. Reports of overly handsy executives, a dearth of non-slender models on the runway, Victoria Secret’s alarmingly non-#MeToo-fashion show and Dolce & Gabbana’s public apology for offensive Instagram posts against the Chinese were just some of the fiery issues that seared the fashion crowd throughout 2018.
The need for greater diversity permeated on many levels — runway shows, advertising shoots, C-suites, women’s empowerment and in editorial. From start to finish, there were calls for more diversity, inclusivity and respect. Building from the momentum first sparked by last year’s Women’s March and the groundswell of support for the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, women and people of all persuasions increasingly voiced their opinion. Not everything was a matter of clashing opinions, though, as there were signs of progress and unison such as when Virgil Abloh became the first African American men’s wear creative director at Louis Vuitton and Edward Enninful taking over the editorial helm at British Vogue.
Model-turned-activist Bethann Hardison, who has continued to call for greater diversity through the decades, said last week that, all in all, things are “absolutely” improving. “As far as racial diversity for the fashion model, that is no doubt far better. Now to encourage [the same] behind the scenes for hair and makeup stylists, photographers, etc.”
Still, barely a month went by in 2018 when the industry wasn’t caught up in some sort of scandal or controversy.
The year started out that way when, in January, fashion brands and magazines severed ties with famed photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber after allegations of sexual exploitation in a New York Times story.
Then, in February, came The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team’s bombshell exposés that highlighted allegations against photographers Patrick Demarchelier, David Bellemere, Greg Kadel, Seth Sabal and Andre Passos and stylist Karl Templer sent shockwaves through the industry. The Globe’s reporters interviewed more than 50 models — mostly female — who “made credible allegations of sexual misconduct against at least 25 photographers, agents, stylists, casting directors and other industry professionals,” the story stated. The article only identified the six men, however.
Each of the accused has denied the claims, but the brands and magazines they worked with took on different strategies. Many brands declined to comment at all about what actions they might take. Condé Nast severed ties with Demarchelier and Condé Nast International has done the same with Kadel “for the foreseeable future.” Weber, who is being sued by former male model Jayson Boyce, said last week that a court date has not yet been set.
Bellemere said the allegations led to “a big crisis”in his career, but more and more models are encouraging him to persevere and most of his commercial clients have held onto him waiting for “the big wave to pass,” although his bookings are 5 percent of what he used to do, he said.
A day after The Boston Globe article was published Templer wrote an open letter to WWD, rejecting any accusation of sexually untoward behavior. He has doggedly protested his innocence since then and asked the Globe to clarify the details pertaining to him. In October, there was another update. While the Globe’s lawyer was adamant that the paper “stands behind all of its reporting in that article,” he addressed Templer’s view that the article implicated him in “coercing or trying to coerce models to engage in sex or sexual activities” with him.
“The article did not assert or imply any such thing, nor did it report that Mr. Templer attempted to have or had sex with any models,” the letter read. “Any claim that the Globe accused Mr. Templer of such conduct is entirely unfounded.”
With that, the Globe held firm that its article will not be amended or retracted in any way
After published reports of alleged sexual abuse, Kering and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton issued a charter for models in the fall of 2017, and then Condé Nast and Tapestry Inc. — parent of Coach and Kate Spade — released ones of their own for photo/video shoots and fashion shows and presentations with the intention of safeguarding those who work with the companies. The Council of Fashion Designers of America emphasized the importance of creating a safe environment, asking designers, show producers and photographers to consider using venues for shoots and runway shows that have areas where models can change in privacy. Hearst and the Wall Street Journal have also taken precautions to address the issue of sexual harassment.
As for how things have changed following allegations of sexual misconduct against some leading photographers, photographer Ellen von Unwerth said recently, “Everybody’s a bit scared now. It’s a different mood. You have to be so careful about what you say. It isn’t that way for me because first of all I am a woman. I am always super-careful with the surroundings and the people I am working with. I always make sure the girls are well-treated,” she said. “There is a sense of less freedom. You don’t joke like you did before. I think male photographers are probably quite freaked out, because they don’t want to do the wrong thing.”
In May, 100 models banded together to create a program to try to end sexual harassment in the fashion industry. Led by the Model Alliance’s founder Sara Ziff, the new “Respect” program asks brands, modeling agencies and media outlets to sign a legally binding agreement to protect models. Karen Elson, Doutzen Kroes, Teddy Quinlivan, Nathalia Novaes, Bryce Thompson, Jason Fedele and Edie Campbell and Elettra Wiedemann were some of the models who signed the open letter to create an environment of mutual respect and to stop sexual harassment in the industry. Models in California will soon have a little more legal reinforcement thanks to the passage of the Talent Protections Act, which was created to fight sexual harassment and eating disorders. While not designed solely for models, the law is geared for the state’s fashion and entertainment industries. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law Sept. 30 and it will take effect in January.
Even companies that tried to send a positive message encountered backlash — often of their own making.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s non-roster status didn’t deter Nike from signing a multimillion dollar deal with him in September. While some shoppers posted images of burning Nike sneakers via social media, others bought the brand as a sign of support. Nike Inc. witnessed “record” engagement from its “Just Do It” ad campaign featuring the former NFLer. Releasing the company’s first-quarter results this fall, chairman, president and chief executive officer Mark Parker said he felt “very proud” of the campaign, adding that it resonated “quite strongly” with consumers around the world and introduced “Just Do It” to a new generation of shoppers.
A few months earlier Nike had gotten caught up in the #MeToo movement when it was sued for sexual discrimination by former female employees, who claimed they were “devalued and demeaned” by the company. Former president of the Nike brand Trevor Edwards and a number of senior-level male executives exited the company earlier this year but Nike did not officially link those departures to the women-led revolt. In turn, Amy Montagne was promoted to vice president and general manager of global categories, and Kellie Leonard, chief diversity and inclusion officer. At a meeting with employees in May, Parker reportedly apologized to staffers who felt marginalized.
Other brands faced similar issues. Nike rival Under Armour faced ridicule and more when it issued a memo to employees saying they no longer could expense visits to strip clubs. Earlier this month, shares at Ted Baker took a tumble on the London Stock Exchange, after The Sunday Times of London reported that female employees were fed up with founder Ray Kelvin’s “forced hugging,” inappropriate physical contact and sexually charged comments from Kelvin. At press time, he continues to run the company he founded in 1988. Alleging that Ted Baker’s internal human resources department failed to address complaints, staff reportedly started a petition for the behavior to stop and requested that an external body hear their complaints. The company reacted swiftly, appointing an outside counsel to investigate while Kelvin took a leave of absence.
Then there was Dolce & Gabbana, long known for offensive behavior of various types. The brand’s multimillion-dollar, one-hour runway show was abruptly scrapped after insults about China were posted from the Instagram account of designer Stefano Gabbana. Some of the country’s biggest names in fashion and entertainment bailed on attending the show. In screenshots posted by Diet Prada, the verified account of Stefano Gabbana is seen sending out messages which read, “From now on in all the interview [sp] that I will do international I will say that the country of [series of poop emojis] is China” and “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” among other insults.
The designer and the brand claimed the account had been hacked. He and Domenico Dolce later filmed a video apology in Mandarin that was posted on the brand’s official Weibo account. Chinese retailers like Lane Crawford, which has 10 stores around greater China, swiftly pulled the label, as did the Chinese arms of YNAP Group, and major Chinese e-commerce players including Tmall, JD.com, Secoo, among others.
This year cultural appropriation controversies have caused headaches for major brands such as H&M, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret and Gucci. After H&M’s e-commerce site featured an image of an African-American boy wearing a sweatshirt imprinted with: “Cutest monkey in the jungle,” The Weeknd let his then 8.45 million Twitter followers know, “Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore.”
Models were not immune to apparel cultural slights either. This spring Gigi Hadid apologized after being criticized for altering her skin tone to make it noticeably darker for a Steven Meisel-shot Vogue Italia cover. Meisel, Hadid and Kaia Gerber were caught in the crossfire again in late June for a Moschino ad campaign where the models sported Jackie O-inspired hairstyles, dresses and pillbox hats with their skin painted in red and blue. Moschino’s fall runway show in Milan had a similar theme, which was to make the “It” models look like aliens and androids. In sharing the campaign on Instagram, creative director Jeremy Scott posted, “The only thing illegal about this alien is how good she looks?” The social audience took him to task for such insensitivity, given the political climate. After editing his caption and adding further comment, Scott later explained, “The concept of my ad campaign is to bring attention to the U.S. administration’s harsh stance toward ‘illegal aliens.’”
In this instantaneous age, brands increasingly know to act swiftly and often cleverly when controversy of any kind strikes. After the French Open, French Tennis Federation officials banned Serena Williams’ sleek Nike catsuit, which she claimed provided extra compression to help prevent blood clots. The athletic giant took action by posting a black-and-white image of Williams on the court in the outfit with the message, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
In the politically charged U.S., First Lady Melania Trump fired up all sorts of public and online debate just by her fashion choices. For a visit with border control agents and detained migrant children in Arizona in June, FLOTUS sparked an international firestorm by wearing an Army green Zara jacket imprinted on the back with “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” (Her stylist of choice, Hervé Pierre, said he had never seen it before the worldwide media blitz.)
She ratcheted up the critics again in October during a four-nation tour of African countries. Her choice of a pith army helmet for a safari in Kenya sent them into overdrive, since colonialists and military personnel wore similar styles while commanding colonial armies in Africa. When asked about the white pith helmet at the end of her trip, according to the press pool, Trump said: “You know what? We just completed an amazing trip. We went to Ghana. We went to Malawi. We went to Kenya. Now here we are in Egypt. I want to talk about my trip and not what I wear. That’s very important, what I do, what we’re doing with USAID, my initiatives and I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.”
Speaking of what to wear (or not), Victoria’s Secret faced a firestorm for its tone-deaf, over-the-top runway show, which relied on va-va-voom showgirl style lingerie that struck many as not only dated, but oblivious to the women’s empowerment movement that has been gaining force since last year’s Women’s March. The fallout included the departure of ceo Jan Singer after just two years.
Halsey, who performed at the show, blasted the underwear maker. The musician told her 10.2 million Instagram followers, “As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have no tolerance for a lack of inclusivity, especially not one motivated by stereotype.” Other high-profile personalities like model Louise O’Reilly and Rihanna also lent some of the support via social media. Meanwhile, competing brands like ThirdLove founder Heidi Zak ran multiple ads in The New York Times trumpeting her company’s inclusivity and encouraged readers to change the channel from the Dec. 2 airing of the pre-taped Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
And the e-commerce underwear company Lace released its first TV commercial with an emphasis on diversity. The 30-second spot’s message was “Love Your Body, Show Off Your Curves.” Meanwhile, vocal models like Ashley Graham, Kate Upton and Iskra Lawrence continue to call out the fashion industry for not being more inclusive. At the other end of the spectrum, the under-fit fashion designer Victoria Beckham was criticized for eyewear ads featuring the ultra-thin Giedre Dukauskaite, who some found to personify an unattainable physique.
Even amid all the turmoil, there were major strides. Virgil Abloh’s debut as men’s wear creative director at Louis Vuitton at the Palais Royale in June marked a milestone in diversity for the fashion industry. To mark the leap forward, models — many of whom were of different ethnicities — marched down a rainbow-colored runway as a sign of globalism and the world’s interconnectedness. The show left many — including Abloh’s mentor Kanye West — in tears.
This year’s winner of the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, is among the up-and-comers elevating fashion as their careers advance. LaQuan Smith, James Flemons and Telfar’s Telfar Clements are also gaining acclaim. But brands and retailers need to appoint more people of color in decision-making roles and such power positions as artistic director, creative director or chief digital or innovation officer, according to Kenya Wiley, an attorney and founder of the Fashion Innovation Alliance. Minority general counsels account for only 11 percent of general counsels at Fortune 500 companies, she noted.
Beyoncé single-handedly helped fashion accomplish another first by tapping the 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell to shoot her for the September cover of Vogue, making him the first African-American to shoot the cover of the magazine. Other sharpshooters like Dana Scruggs, Andre Wagner, and Campbell Addy forged ahead too. A few months back Scruggs, for example, became the first black lenswoman to shoot a pro athlete for ESPN magazine’s “Body” issue.