Days after 250 Black professionals signed a letter to the Council of Fashion Designers of America calling for inclusivity, accountability and greater transparency, the organization responded Thursday night by highlighting existing plans for more diversity.
In a lengthy statement, the CFDA also addressed suggestions made by Kerby Jean-Raymond and other board members at a meeting on June 2 — two days before the organization unveiled its multitiered plan that includes job placement, mentorships, apprenticeships, education and other efforts.
”The CFDA board of directors is made up of a racially diverse group of designers who are dedicated, individually and as a group, to creating permanent, systemic change in the fashion industry. After the latest CFDA board meeting, swift initiatives were put forth to increase the number of designers of color in the fashion industry. Key to this task is the creation of an in-house agency set up to identify Black talent and connect them with fashion companies looking to hire,” the statement read.
”The CFDA has also met with community stakeholders and organizations that share similar objectives. Donations have been made to the NAACP and Campaign Zero. We are continuing our long relationship with Bethann Hardison and Harlem’s Fashion Row, and through the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund initiative ‘A Common Thread,’ a $1 million donation has been made to Harlem’s Fashion Row Icon 360 fund for Black and people of color fashion companies impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CFDA will also work with the Black in Fashion Council led by Teen Vogue editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and publicist Sandrine Charles,” the statement continued.
The 250 Black creatives, who appealed to the CFDA Monday, spelled out their requests in “The Kelly Initiative,” which was named for the designer Patrick Kelly, who was the first American to be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter in 1988. The initiative was championed by editor James Campbell, creative director Henrietta Gallina and writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall. The group’s requests include compiling and publishing an industry census of the racial demographics, having participating companies agree to bias-mitigation training for hiring and commit to create more opportunities for Black talent. In addition, the initiative called for further support from recruitment firms that would be asked to agree to third-party auditing. Another ask was the creation of the annual Kelly List, highlighting 50 leading Black professionals, who would be asked to support Black talent in future endeavors.
For years designers of color have felt slighted by the CFDA in regards to the group’s awards and other special events, according to one CFDA board member, who requested anonymity. “What everyone is feeling is not based on the statement [The Kelly Initiative] but the decades long frustration of designers [of color],” the source said.
The CFDA statement said, “We are firmly committed to these initiatives, and immediately following our announcement, several organizations contacted us, including The Kelly Initiative. We have tremendous respect for all of these groups, but at this time, we are concentrating on our work with a few key organizations in order to focus our energy and fundraising abilities.”
The CFDA’s alliance with Vogue was one of the criticisms that some designers and industry observers have put forward. Could the current backlash have been avoided?
Some say yes. During the June 2 CFDA board meeting, Virgil Abloh and Jean-Raymond offered recommendations about how the CFDA could strive to become more inclusive and volunteered their services for further insights, according to a board member. Asked if any of the board members of color were consulted about the CFDA’s plans for greater racial diversity after the June 2 meeting, a CFDA spokesman declined further comment. That was also the response when asked if any of The Kelly Initiative proposals would be considered or adopted.
Abloh and Jean-Raymond reportedly didn’t sign The Kelly Initiative. Abloh and a spokesman for Jean-Raymond did not acknowledge requests for comment Thursday.
In closing, the statement read, “The CFDA’s approach has always been to create change through education and awareness. Our mission is to create systemic change through specific initiatives, including increasing scholarships and working to create internships and mentorships for young Black talent seeking to enter the industry, and we expect to see tangible results and the important changes our fashion industry needs.”
After the fact, the group’s plans for university scholarships, job placement opportunities and mentorships were seen as too run-of-the-mill for some board members. Acknowledging how fashion is a reflection of what is happening culturally, the anonymous board member said the CFDA needs to address those issues head on. Another board member, Aurora James’, concept of the “15 Percent Pledge,” which calls for retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their space to Black-owned businesses was cited as an example of a more innovative plan.
Another board member, who asked not to be identified, said the situation came down to differences in opinions about what the group’s plans should be and how to best execute those ideas.
That said, the CFDA has taken strides to be more inclusive as evidenced by its four newest board members — Abloh, Jean-Raymond, Maria Cornejo and Carly Cushnie, who joined last fall. They joined a group that includes industry veterans like Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Diane von Furstenberg, Vera Wang and others. Despite the current discourse, one of the CFDA board members spoke of the group’s potential reach. “The overall good that the CFDA can do could be quite powerful,” the individual said.