As Fashion Month inches closer and closer, designers, casting directors, and editors are taking stock of where the industry stands on hot topics. Have we grown more inclusive? Exclusive? Who is the latest sustainability queen? King? The four-week, biannual fashion gauntlet has grown increasingly political, and for good reason, but it's a lot to take in at once.
Earlier this week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (a non-profit organisation dedicated to revitalising, supporting, and advancing American fashion) released a diversity report titled "Insider/Outsider," that includes polling, quotes from industry figures, and an open-ended route toward framing positive change.
Across 14 pages, their findings conclude a lot of things we already know, such as the fact that inclusion and diversity are inextricably linked, that the change also has to happen off the runway, and that the majority of fashion companies don't hire minorities in high-stake roles, like the Black community, women, and LGTBQ+ people (who the CFDA are referring to as "outsiders"). So, as we head into another month of thin, whitewashed runways, it's worth asking if such reports actually works — and if, come time for model castings in New York, London, Paris and Milan, we'll see revolutionary change.
"We have been witnessing a long overdue change in fashion where people at all levels of the industry are increasingly tuned in to the need for inclusion and diversity," CFDA president & CEO Steven Kolb says in the report. "As an organisation, we keep an ear to the ground and work with our designers on topics that are important to them on both a personal and professional level. We are committed to seeing this through, both as the governing body of American fashion and as an employer, with the mission to create an industry that is diverse, inclusive, and equitable."
While that's true, in addition to other initiatives like its health memo and its guidelines for the safety and protection of models in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the CFDA's argument that change in fashion is “long overdue” doesn't hold as much weight as it did in, say, 2017 or earlier. Because, at this point, we've witnessed what overnight change looks like in other industries and cultural spheres; we've seen articles, images, and marches break the internet. Journalists are trained in breaking the internet — a Pulitzer-level feat for digital media (think: the Weber, the Testino, and Richardson moments). So, in that sense, it should be the designers, casting directors, and fashion executives resisting that change who are truly on the outside.
In addition to the CFDA's findings, editorial platform theFashionSpot releases a more in-depth diversity report each season, for runways and ad campaigns. Each season, theFashionSpot calculates how many models of colour, plus-size/curvy models, models of different genders, ages, and abilities walked the runways of New York, Paris, London, and Milan, and contrast the data with the season(s) before. From spring 2015 to spring 2019, the percentage of models of colour on the combined runways has risen 19%, from 17% to 36%. Yet still, the headline "[Insert Season Here] Was The Most Diverse Ever" manages to supersede any semblance of actual, lasting progress. It means we're applauding those who hire even just one or two more Black or trans models than the season before, reaching a new — and arbitrary — bar of "ever".
Our barometers of progress and success are misguided. We praise brands like Prada for casting Sudanese model Anok Yai for being the first Black model to open their show in 20 years. And Louis Vuitton for having Californian Janaye Furman open its spring 2018 show, the first time a Black woman opened a runway show in its 163-year history. Just last year, we praised the fact that every NYFW runway had at least two models of colour on it — two, in a sea of dozens of white women. And we applauded Karl Lagerfeld for casting Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech as the second Black model, ever, to close out a Chanel haute couture show (as a legendary Chanel bride), following Alek Wek in 2004.
We do the same when it comes to tokenising curvy models, too, like Candice Huffine, Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser, and trans or non-binary models, like Teddy Quinlivan, Hunter Schafer, and Oslo Grace, and differently-abled models, like Aaron Philips and Jillian Mercado. But, except for Graham, where are their campaigns? Their commercials? Their endorsements? Their high-fashion magazine covers?
That more diverse models are walking the runways is progress no matter how you look at it, but it’s still not enough. The improvements shouldn't be overlooked, nor should reports like these be taken for granted.
So, outside of these diversity reports or Diet Prada, what's it going to take to tilt the scales toward the inclusion the CFDA is talking about and away from outmoded, alienating ideals? To stop talking the talk and walking the walk? Change has to come from within; not from the ground up, but from the top down. A pre-forum questionnaire included in the CFDA report that was sent to 50 high-level executives at over 30 fashion companies showed that 36% respondents graded themselves a 3 out of 5 when it came to evaluating the extent to which diverse groups feel able to make their fullest contribution, including 62% of respondents who gave themselves the same score in terms of their organisation’s commitment to an inclusive workplace.
Without the CFDA’s new “Insider/Outsider” report, we wouldn’t have this data — nor would we have Associate Dean of Parsons, School of Fashion Design Jason Kass summing up the data in one sentence, “It’s the right thing to do.” But if a diversity report hits the internet and no decision-makers read and take it to heart, did it make a sound? In a previous season, we might have told you that “time will tell,” but the time is now.