Performativity and All-White Workplaces: The Racism that Happens Behind-the-scenes of the Fashion Industry

In the wake of the recent global Black Lives Matter protests, discussions surrounding racism within the workplace have been bought to light, with individuals and former employees finally finding the courage to speak out about their experiences of discrimination. As a result, many industries and companies have come under fire for their problematic attitudes towards their non-white employees and their consequential lack of action, with the fashion industry being one of the most revealing. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the fashion industry lacks diversity, with runways and fashion campaigns featuring predominantly white, thin models, and constant instances of cultural appropriation seen on the runway and in collections. However, recent years have shown a development in the diversity seen on the runway, with South Sudanese model Adut Akech winning model of the year at the 2019 Fashion Awards. Whilst this improvement cannot be said for every fashion house (just look at the Dior AW20 campaign), the inclusivity seen amongst models is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. One well-known luxury fashion brand that has been hailed for the diversity of their models is Jacquemus. This French fashion house, founded by designer Simon Porte Jacquemus, is most well-known for its stunning runway show backdrops, the Le Chiquito mini bags and also inclusivity of models of all sizes, races and genders, with Vogue even congratulating the brand for their “gorgeously diverse casting”. Whilst Jacquemus has been praised for this diversity, recent revelations prove that this inclusivity goes no deeper than surface level.

A tweet from @DECOUTURIZE revealed the striking difference in diversity between the Jacquemus models and the Jacquemus team. The tweet, which has now been retweeted almost 32,000 times, shows a diverse group of models from Jacquemus’s most recent Spring 2021 runway show, followed by another image of the behind-the-scenes team, which seems to be predominantly white. Whilst white washing is not a surprise within the fashion industry, numerous people were shocked by the difference between Jacquemus’s models and their team, labelling their diversity as purely performative. When the only racially diverse aspect of the company is accessible and able to be viewed by the public, it is impossible to regard its model casting as anything other than diversity optics and doing the bare minimum to be perceived as diverse and inclusive. However, there is no need to ‘cancel’ Jacquemus or label Simon Jacquemus as a racist. Instead, this news emphasises the importance of openly critiquing larger fashion brands in the hope of improving diversity and inclusivity within fashion. This recent discovery is instead part of the wider conversation about performativity and lack of diversity within the fashion industry.

Some may remember that a similar conversation occurred last year in relation to Virgil Abloh’s Off-White. Abloh posted an image of his team on his Instagram, but it didn’t take long for his followers to point out the lack of diversity, with one twitter user tweeting “they call it Off-White, but it seems All White to me”. With Jacquemus and Off-White publicly called out for the lack of diversity in their teams, we can only presume that the same is happening behind-the-scenes with other fashion brands. It is a well-known fact that the luxury fashion industry is not accessible, especially from a consumer standpoint, with luxury fashion companies marketing towards the elite and wealthy. There are only approximately 4,000 couture buyers in the world, and with the costs of luxury fashion products rarely coming to less than £200-£300, it is not affordable for the majority of consumers. However, the recent topic of performativity within the fashion industry suggests that fashion is equally as inaccessible from the inside, especially for BIPOC. A 2018 article from Fast Company claimed that only 3% of CFDA members were black, and that less than 10% of NY Fashion Week designers were black. Whilst some may argue that there are generally fewer non-white designers, meaning that white people will obviously be the majority within the fashion industry, it also begs the question: why does the fashion industry predominantly consist of white people?

One of the biggest barriers that prohibits inclusion within the fashion industry is class. The fashion capitals (Paris, Milan, London) are the best places to break into the business and it is practically impossible to get a job in the industry without connections, a degree or experience. However, racism and classism are still ongoing issues within these cities, which results in the fashion industry being inherently racist and classist at entry level. In France, one-third of households in which the head of the family is an immigrant from Africa lives in poverty, compared to 13% of the general population. With statistics like this, it is no surprise that BIPOC from lower income backgrounds are unable to gain unpaid internships in fashion capitals, where living conditions come at extortionate prices (rent in Paris is between €1,000-3,000 a month). This  means that individuals have to be at least middle class to even start a career in the fashion industry. As well as classism, systematic racism is something that is rife within the fashion industry, with some of the industry ‘greats’ such as Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano found guilty of making racist remarks. Large fashion houses have even been accused of stealing, appropriating and profiting from the work of young BIPOC designers, with Balenciaga recently accused of stealing the work of designer Tra My Nguyen. How are young BIPOC designers and interns supposed to enter the fashion industry when their work is being used by large fashion houses without credit, or they are not being paid for their craft and labour?

It is strikingly clear that featuring a diverse selection of models on the runway is not enough to tackle the ongoing issues of racism and performativity within the fashion industry. More needs to be done to encourage and include BIPOC to work behind-the-scenes of the fashion industry in positions such as designers, stylists, hair and makeup, photographers, editors, and so many more. Emphasising the importance of transparency and inclusivity within fashion, and hiring a diverse team will only add creativity, culture and individuality to a company. As a result, this will undoubtedly pave the way for the openly diverse fashion brands and designers of the future. 

Megan Finch

More information about improving diversity and inclusion within fashion companies is accessible via Black in Fashion Council.

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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