Fashion, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is not only “a popular style of clothes or hair at a particular time or place,” but also “a popular way of behaving.”

There is no doubt diversity and inclusivity became popular, key issues in fashion in 2019, in a movement “bottom-to-top,” propelled by consumers, the general public and the power of social media, ready to censor, rectify, give voice to those without a voice, urge, applaud or simply react. Long considered a pool of creativity, freedom and innovation, the fashion industry has actually realized there are still steps to be taken and that it is not as diverse as it thought.

“Fashion interprets, mirrors and responds to the general sensibility. There are enormous changes taking place and yes, there are disparities. But we are mapping them out, we are working on finding solutions,” said Carlo Capasa, president of the Camera Nazionale della Moda, admitting fashion’s delay in responding to these issues. “We really want to do something about this, set rules and follow them, just as we did for sustainability, creating guidelines and standards.”

In December, Italy’s Camera Nazionale della Moda released a manifesto aimed at raising awareness on the themes of diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry.

In particular, the document comprises 10 guidelines intended to support fashion companies’ development toward more inclusive policies that could respect differences in race, gender, sexual and religious orientation, age, mental and physical abilities and socio-economic circumstances. The principles range from “Diversity is an asset” to “Recapturing the ethical dimension of aesthetics” and “Inclusion builds business.”

“Fashion is culture and is at the center of the cultural changes in the world,” said Giovanna Brambilla, partner at Milan-based executive search firm Value Search. Such changes include an increased awareness of environmental and political issues and “a consciousness that we are citizens of the world.” Expressing an opinion today is accelerated by social media and, while communication for luxury brands used to be one-way, now it’s a two-way dialogue, contended Brambilla.

“Luxury brands that compete on a global scale must be diverse and inclusive to respond to a specific request by consumers,” she said. “This is not only a cherry on top, but it’s a must if you want to be a leader and not a follower.”

Brambilla conceded luxury companies have been paying more attention to inclusivity and she has responded by putting together more comprehensive pools of different candidates, balancing men and women and geographic origins. But at the same time she noted that, “beyond the statements, there is one African American creative director, Virgil Abloh, in luxury.” In March, 2018 Abloh was named as Louis Vuitton’s first African American artistic director for men’s wear.

“Apart from the regional executives, at corporate level, we don’t really see many managers and creative directors representative of minorities. How much is really changing in the control room? How much is being done on the surface, for market reasons, to reach out to potential customers and how much is deeply felt? We must understand how much is washing, how much is determined by politics. It’s part of our job to provoke and stimulate the discussion,” concluded Brambilla.

Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm, concurred.

While underscoring this is “surely a very important cultural step in the luxury world,” which has given jobs “to minorities who were simply invisible to the fashion system before,” Ferreri also pointed to the influence of social media, which have “an enormous power in declaring the success or the failure of a collection or a choice of image with an incredible speed in circulating the news.”

The Dolce & Gabbana fallout in China last year, following offending videos from the brand and comments from Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram, which the designer contended had been hacked, served as a warning signal that pushed “everyone to rush and fix things, to create an internal filter or buffer over style, communication and visual merchandising, fearing social media’s censorship,” observed Ferreri.

Minorities, religions, cultures are all apparently protected “by a moral entity” within each brand, “which technically should be omniscient in recognizing in an embroidery a possible sign that can be linked to the Arab language; a color of a sweater that can be reminiscent of the skin tone of Native Americans, or in a headgear a reference to a faraway tribe in the Amazon rainforest. It’s a huge task, almost impossible to take on to do it properly, because, if we must be careful, we must be so with everyone,” said Ferreri.

While clearly pleased about the progress made and “the removal of stupid barriers,” he was also suspicious of “marketing operations that are almost worse than discrimination,” self-imposed racial quotas, “commercializing ethical choices for brand awareness,” which “leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. I believe an idea must be really absorbed and not converted into a marketing tool, as part of any step forward in cultural progress,” he said, citing, for example, the ban on fur by companies that have little to no business in that arena and continue to work with exotic hides.

Arguing in favor of the changes taking place in the industry, Piero Piazzi, president of Women Management, said fashion has evolved, fallen in line and is mirroring a world that “is no longer only black, white, yellow, hetero or gay but rainbow.”  For years, models of color or Oriental were a small minority but today different ethnicities are equally represented on the runway, he claimed. Piazzi also underscored that Adut Akech was recognized as Model of the Year at the British Fashion Awards.

“I very much love this big inclusion in fashion. I was the very first to take a risk by representing a transgender model, Lea T. I was very much criticized at the beginning but time has proved me right. I had been waiting for this moment for years, fashion opening up to reality and I am extremely happy it’s happened.”

Piazzi said companies “such as Gucci have created a structure, setting up an in-house casting office, rather than turning to external casting directors.” There is more attention to  street casting, “looking for particular and unique faces but not professionals. I am sure that in the future many others will follow, trying to create a true and real world in the 10 minutes of the show.”

Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli in September attended the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Milan with Akech, a presenter of the event who has fronted the brand’s fragrance campaign, and said at the time that it was “very important” that the model and activist was “embodying the beauty of a Roman brand, with no boundaries.”

Piccioli has been especially involved in the casting of models for his shows and campaigns, and said at the WWD CEO Summit in October that he believes “inclusivity means complexity and tolerance, what life is today. If you want to reflect what life is today you have to reflect diversity and complexity. I am not just talking about Adut or Naomi [Campbell], but even Kendall [Jenner], who is something completely different from them.”

Miuccia Prada also recently admitted she has been much more attentive to the casting of her shows and has approached the subject of cultural appropriation and freedom of speech. Earlier this year, the Prada fashion house revealed that artist and activist Theaster Gates and award-winning writer, director and producer Ava DuVernay would co-chair the Prada Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council. Since then, it has added three more councilors: the president of the Fashion Institute of Technology Joyce Brown; chief of strategic partnerships at the United Nations Population Fund Mariarosa Cutillo, and renowned scholar Sarah Lewis, professor of history of art and architecture and African and African-American studies at Harvard University.

“In addition to amplifying voices of color within the industry we will help ensure that the fashion world is reflective of the world in which we live,” said Prada at the time.

Last year,  Prada faced online accusations that animal-like figurines and charms in its stores and windows evoked blackface. The group subsequently issued a statement saying it “abhors racist imagery” while explaining that the figures are “fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre” and known as Pradamalia. Prada and the council also partnered with universities and organizations to “spearhead internship and apprenticeship initiatives in diverse communities to close the inclusion gap in the fashion industry.” This includes sponsoring scholarships and training programs in the U.S. and in every Prada office globally. Prada USA employees are undergoing a diversity training facilitated by The Perception Institute, with the intention of extending the training to the whole company worldwide. The company is also hiring a D&I director in New York. In November, Prada dedicated the last edition of its “Shaping a Future” conferences to the topic of social sustainability.

Gucci was also quick to act following accusations earlier this year that a balaclava-style sweater evoked blackface, despite creative director Alessandro Michele’s explanation that it was a tribute to Leigh Bowery and to his camouflage art. The first four initiatives mapped out were: hiring global and regional directors for diversity and inclusion; setting up a multicultural design scholarship program; launching a diversity and inclusivity awareness program, and introducing a global exchange program.

In July, the Italian company appointed Renée Tirado as its first global head of diversity, equity and inclusion. “Only knowledge and experience allow you to fully understand what diversity is, and to have long-term, real results,” said president and chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri at the time. “Education will mitigate preconceptions.”

At WWD’s Culture conference in Manhattan in November, Tirado spoke about Gucci’s efforts to foster more diversity. Tirado, who previously worked at such organizations as Major League Baseball, AIG and the U.S. Tennis Association, was asked how the fashion industry compares to other sectors when it comes to the topic.

“There’s no one industry doing it better than any other,” she said. “Some are investing at different levels and are showing up and committing to it in different ways. I think where fashion has an advantage compared to other industries I’ve been in, is that it does value creativity and does have a significant amount of diverse representation. Because of the nature of the business, there’s an inherent agility and willingness, I think, to be open to evolution and change. There’s a different appetite and accessibility in fashion that could actually end up making it a best-in-class industry around this conversation, compared to others,” she said.

“I think fashion has a better opportunity than other places I’ve been to lead this conversation very aggressively at a really, really fast pace. It’s already built in. Compared to the other industries I’ve been in, and this is not to disparage any of them, I think the appetite is a lot more genuine here. It’s not to say there’s not work to be done. It’s clear there’s work to be done. I see a different type of enthusiasm around this, a different type of openness that I’ve not seen in other parts of my career. For me, it’s an energizing place to be. If done correctly, with the proper investment and commitment, I legitimately think fashion can actually be at the forefront of this conversation. And all these industries which are saying, ‘we can’t figure it out and we can’t find talent,’ will look at what fashion’s done and we’ll end up leading the way.”

She said a lot of this appetite is being driven by the climate worldwide and current attitudes. “The market is global,” she said. “In the U.S., right now 43 percent of Millennials and Gen Z consider themselves a person of color or biracial. The world is changing. That is the core group that’s leading the conversation around fashion. There’s a different impact that fashion will feel if we don’t take a stance early and be in front of it.”

Gucci also in March launched its multicultural Design Fellowship Program as part of its Diversity & Inclusion initiatives to promote cultural exchange between designers coming from different backgrounds. Eleven designers were selected at the end of October and they will join Alessandro Michele and his team in Rome for a learning experience starting in March for one year.

At parent group level, in October, marking a fresh push for more openness in its offices, Kering named Kalpana Bagamane Denzel chief diversity, inclusion and talent officer, charged with promoting a working environment at the luxury group that encourages diversity and inclusion. Kering has been building its focus in this area, promoting diversity through its sustainability strategy, which includes a goal of gender equality and equal pay among men and women by 2025.

Such efforts have also been key for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which in 2007 introduced the EllesVMH — Inspiring Gender Diversity Program launched by Chantal Gaemperle, group executive vice president of human resources and synergies. In 2014, LVMH joined signatories of the U.N. Women’s Empowerment Principles. More recently, the group in April subscribed to the U.N. standards against discrimination of LGBTQ communities, launching SHERO, an internal digital platform and community to support women who work for the group and Inclusion Index, a program encouraging activities supporting the group’s initiatives in favor of diversity and inclusion.

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