Do black lives matter to the fashion industry?

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Leading brands in the fashion industry took part in #blackouttuesday to pay tribute to George Floyd and show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. However, critics fear that this display of solidarity was merely lip service. The fashion industry does not have the best reputation for encouraging diversity and representing the BAME population. Despite the influence of black culture on fashion, the industry has neglected those who have made it what it is today. 

The fashion industry has been largely influenced by trends which were popularised by black culture. These include hoop earrings and chunky jewellery, bucket hats, logo mania, velour tracksuits and bandanas, among many others. The Motown Era and the black power movement in America in the 1960s popularised many trends. The styles we see now resemble those of activists and artists, such as Angela Davis, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson. They used their clothes and accessories to own their identity and represent Afrocentric style.

The birth of hip hop and rap culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s shaped the fashion scene once again. Artists like Tupac, Jay-Z and Kanye West popularised the streetwear culture, which is now reflected in brands such as Fendi and Prada.

Despite owing many of its runway looks and trends to the influence of black culture, has the industry always treated black people with due respect? In recent years, brands at the top of the industry have faced criticism for serious errors in judgement and their ignorance towards their racially offensive products and styles. 

May we be reminded of Gucci’s blackface scandal? Their black, balaclava-style jumper, which had a cut-out at the mouth and was surrounded by oversized red lips, sparked huge controversy. At the hefty price of £688, the jumper was removed from Gucci stores for resembling blackface. High street fashion label H&M also came under fire for its monkey hoodie. Modelled by a black child, the jumper read: “Coolest monkey in the jungle”. The company axed the product and was forced to hire a global diversity leader. Luxury fashion brand Prada was also criticised for its insensitive red-lipped monkey dolls, which echoed racist ‘Sambo’ imagery. 

Does the fashion industry promote cultural appropriation? In recent years some fashion houses have appropriated and commercialised typically black trends and customs. In 2018, Vogue was accused of cultural appropriation for a shoot showing Kendall Jenner with an afro. Similarly, Marc Jacobs was criticised for racial insensitivity when he styled his predominantly white models in dreadlocks on the catwalk.  

However, it is the millions of black and Asian people making our clothes in factories thousands of miles away who face the worst treatment. Of the 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are women of black and Asian backgrounds. Fast fashion is reliant on the exploitation of garment workers. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, brands are refusing to pay for billions of pounds worth of orders they had already placed with suppliers in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia. These manufacturers are now stuck with heaps of unwanted clothes and are unable to pay their workers. Hundreds of thousands of garment workers will lose their jobs because of this refusal to pay up.

With accusations of a lack of racial inclusivity in the industry, small steps have been taken to increase diversity and equality. For example, people of colour made up 47% of the models at New York’s most recent fashion week. However, there is still a long way to go. Equal racial representation is not only needed on runways and magazine covers, but at board level across management and in the creative studios. Following #blackouttuesday, the industry has been challenged to do more than post a black square and transform the industry into a living showcase of diversity.

Written by Charlotte Crompton

Edited by Katie Wheatley

Flora and Katie are your fashion editors

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