There has been a wave of progress since fashion activist and former model Bethann Hardison called out the fashion industry on its blatant lack of diversity in its most public space — the fashion show. Hardison, who was keeping tabs on the number of models of color being cast to parade the catwalks, personally penned letters to the top stalwarts of the fashion industry, outlining the issue and calling for change. Her bravery to speak on this topic subsequently led to her winning the CFDA Founder’s Award, but more importantly, it is thanks to Hardison that the default standard of beauty is now being challenged and changes are slowly being made.
But great progress on the celebrity red carpet is yet to be seen. There is a clear disconnect between progressive messages being conveyed on catwalks and advertising campaigns and what is being seen in real-life public moments with celebrities.
Having spent four years working at British Vogue, before the arrival of current editor in chief Edward Enninful, I had the misfortune to sit in on far too many meetings where options for models of color on covers were dismissed, because those covers didn’t sell as well as the Kate Moss, Kendall Jenner or Bella and Gigi Hadid covers. After leaving Vogue, a natural transition into celebrity styling revealed that the situation on this side of the industry was nearly identical. I discovered that public relations teams create an arbitrary list with a select pool of actors and actresses they want to dress and build relationships with over the course of the year. If a client is not on the list, then the chances of their stylist confirming a look are pretty much null, regardless of the calibre of the event or talent they possess.
A regimented VIP system is put in place for most luxury brands, creating almost impenetrable standards for minority VIPs to break through. With no one really holding them accountable for their biased decision-making, most brands have little incentive to revisit this system and challenge their own standards. It’s difficult for stylists to be vocal about this problem, as they fear ruining a relationship with the brand for their other clients. So, for the most part, this problem remains an issue that is being consistently swept under the carpet.
It’s important to acknowledge that a part of the issue VIP teams struggle with is a dearth of appropriate options to offer the ever-growing expanse of celebrities. A new challenge for celebrities in the age of social media is ensuring their public image aligns with designer names that put them in a members’ club of fashion innovators, which then hopefully leads to lucrative brand deals and campaigns.
After a fashion show of more than 100 looks, by the time the last model steps off the catwalk, more than half of those looks will have been either put on hold by brand ambassadors and friends of the house or confirmed for placement on the most important carpets each season, which include film festivals like Cannes and Venice, and the holy grail of global red carpets where every designer wants to see their designs — the Emmys, the Oscars, the legendary Met Gala and the Grammys.
In my work, I’ve built a diverse portfolio of clients and it is far more difficult for me to confirm looks from luxury designers for my minority clients. These clients are often the same age, winning notable industry awards, performing to sold-out audiences and breaking records at the box office. The differing factor is their race, size or gender, and they are left frustrated, wondering what blocks the sartorial access that their peers are allowed. The question is, then, “Do physical attributes usurp talent?”
At a recent dinner, a designer questioned why I wasn’t dressing my clients in his looks. He was shocked to hear that the resistance was coming from his own team. He was particularly interested in one of my clients and their work and immediately rectified the problem, so that their name was added to the list. This demonstrates that designers should try to be more actively involved in the VIP aspect of their brand.
The industry standard is such that design houses entrust this duty to a small team of VIP executives, who become the decision-makers for the brand when it comes to deciding which celebrities will be dressed. Having had the opportunity to personally meet a lot of the names working behind the scenes at fashion houses, I’ve noticed that very few decision-makers are members of marginalized communities in society. It seems that the approved lists of celebrities for a brand become a roll call that reflects their societal status. But what happens to the celebrities who find themselves on the outside of these individuals’ personal spectrum? What options for dressing are they left with?
The infrastructure of human resources across the fashion industry as a whole needs to ensure that representatives of varied backgrounds are employed on the staff, so that a multitude of perspectives around the boardroom guarantees that, where deserved, there’s a look for everyone.
If Hollywood has been quick to alleviate the concerns of many minority groups who accused the entertainment industry of being racist, misogynistic, and narrow-minded, the fashion industry is falling short of undertaking such efforts. The range of creative work being produced now is a mix of diverse narratives that reflect the multicultural world we live in, and it’s time the fashion industry, thought to be ahead of the curve on issues of this nature, took responsibility and caught up.
Zadrian Smith is a celebrity stylist and editor in chief of PETRIe, an annual, independent and global print and digital media platform.