The Unsexy But Necessary Way To Ensure A Truly Diverse Fashion Week

I’ve been working in proximity to the fashion industry for more than a decade. In that time, it's felt like we've some version of the same conversation every year: is Australian Fashion Week (AFW) diverse and inclusive enough to reflect our nation’s unique perspective on fashion? 
It’s a worthy discussion and one that is constantly evolving. What started with questions about the size of runway models in the late 2000s has expanded to examine the opportunity for representation of race, age, gender identity, broader body diversity and ability on and off the runway. This year, after Black models boycotted 2023 Melbourne Fashion Week in protest of alleged discrimination, tokenism and unfair pay, the scrutiny at AFW has intensified. 
But how do we know whether these conversations are moving us forward and actually improving diversity at AFW?
Let's start by giving credit where it’s due. There have been genuine efforts to foster inclusion with some important ‘firsts’ achieved in recent years. In 2021, the historic first-ever dedicated runway show for First Nations designers. The show closed with an unforgettable gown by Marrithiyel designer Paul McCann worn by Gamilaroi and Dunghutti drag queen Felicia Foxx, instantly becoming a part of Australian fashion history. In 2023, Ngali became the first First Nations brand to have its own solo show. 
After Rheed McCracken was unable to manoeuvre his wheelchair during an inclusive runway show in 2021, the program course-corrected with its first-ever adaptive runway show in 2022. And after the success of a dedicated ‘curve’ show, curated by Bella Management CEO Chelsea Bonner and headlined by Robyn Lawley, AFW 2023 saw several designers put on more diverse shows. Bonner told Refinery29 Australia at the time, "For 20-odd curve models to be booked for AFW, it is quite a leap forward."
This year, it’s been encouraging to see designers committed to delivering true diversity and a unique fashion point-of-view secure a place on the program. The iconic, bold prints of Liandra by Yolngu designer Liandra Gaykamangu; the theatrics and queer revolution of Nicol & Ford; and the imaginative, experimental world of Iordanes Spyridon Gogos. 
The introduction of talks and workshops to the Fashion Week program has helped open up the conversation quite literally, too. On day one, a masterclass by the legendary curly and Afro hair expert Rumbie Mutsiwa was a true moment of education (and an attempt to address a persistent sore point within the fashion and beauty industry). On day two, a discussion on the impact of Western Sydney on Australia’s cultural identity, navigated by an inspiring panel of creatives: designer Chris Potirakis, artist Jamaica Moana, and community creative mentor Esky Escandor. 
All of these incremental steps are positive, and there is undeniable energy behind the push to make AFW as brilliantly, beautifully diverse as it can be. But how do we channel that into more consistent progress? Data and reporting. It’s an unsexy but logical and necessary next phase of the journey. 

That level of transparency might be uncomfortable at first, but it’s the only way to ensure that the industry is moving in the right direction.

The only way to know if efforts to make change are having an impact is to measure them. And to measure that impact, we have to collect meaningful data. We can take examples from two global reports. The first is the Size Inclusivity Report, which Vogue Business started publishing in 2023 for the four major fashion weeks: Paris, London, New York and Milan. The report breaks down the percentage of straight-size, mid-size and plus-size looks on the runway in every show, every season – including men’s fashion week. The data helps us keep an eye on diversity backsliding (for instance, it found that AW24 shows were slightly less inclusive than the season before), while also praising those who get it right. The most recent report shouts out British designer Sinéad O’Dwyer, whose show contained 40% mid-size and 44% plus-size looks.
In January, the British Fashion Council released its inaugural U.K. Fashion DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) report. It found that 89% of fashion’s ‘Power Roles’ (CEO, CFO, Chair and Creative Director) are held by white people, and 76% are held by men. Unsurprisingly, 86% of white men surveyed actually believe that the industry is diverse. The report makes a case for U.K. luxury fashion brands to assess their own business, set DEI targets and track their progress, even suggesting strategies to close industry gaps. It’s not perfect, but the commitment to quantifying the problem goes a long way. 
Australian Fashion Week can become a leader in this space by surveying everyone involved in the production of the event to determine the baseline level of diversity on race, disability status and queer representation. The size of every model booked should also be collected in a similar method to the Vogue Business report, a job easily done with the help of cast lists. 
Larger organisations often struggle with collecting this kind of data. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently decided against including ethnicity in the 2026 census as “testing showed that the public is unlikely to have a consistent understanding of what ethnic identity is.” The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) documents the pay gender pay gap in Australia, but it lacks the intersectionality of equivalent agencies around the world. For instance, in the U.S., we know that Black women are paid 12% less than white women; here, we can only guess how much being Indigenous or disabled compounds the pay gap.
Where the ABS and WGEA are challenged by the sheer amount of people they need to collect data from, the comparatively smaller size of AFW could make it easier to conduct a survey (an estimated 2400 people worked on the event in 2021). 
Then, with the scope of the issue quantified, it can track the changes and figure out which strategies are making the biggest impact. Publishing an annual report will enable us to see and celebrate positive shifts, double down on what’s working and move away from what doesn’t. That level of transparency might be uncomfortable at first, but it’s the only way to ensure that the industry is moving in the right direction.
Getting analytical will almost certainly uncover new problems and areas of weakness to address. That’s a good thing. It will take targeted, data-driven strategies operating at all levels of the industry to start making things measurably better. It all starts with a commitment to data collection, measurement and reporting.
Without it, AFW attendees and those watching from afar can only go off the vibe of whether it felt like a good year or a bad year for diversity… and it’s clear that people who love fashion are craving more certainty than that.
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