“I think it would be hard for the industry not to feel connected to the bigger world; after all, we want to sell in the bigger world,” says Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry’s pre-
eminent trade organization.
“But anything we do comes from the bottom up. It has to come from the industry for us to take the lead on it,” Kolb says. “There’s always going to be a cross section of people who say we don’t do enough, but that’s life.”
For years, special interest groups have argued that the fashion industry is unwilling to recognize the sweeping power and influence it has. Bloggers and activists have expressed outrage over designer runways and glossy magazine editorials that have remained stubbornly, homogeneously white — even as the American population becomes more diverse.
In Michelle Obama, the country has an African American first lady over whom the fashion industry swoons. In 2009, the CFDA saluted her with a special Board of Directors’ Tribute during its annual awards gala. Yet despite having such a high-profile, African American fashion consumer living in the White House these past five years, Seventh Avenue has not moved on from its celebration of the individual to a broad acceptance of a group. The first lady has not inspired a surge in the use of black models.
Parents, consumers and health experts have lamented the risks of using preternaturally thin, adolescent girls to model clothes created for mature women and presented in adult environments. And activists have pushed, prodded and attempted to shame the industry into being more accountable for the continued existence of sweatshops that mass-produce garments at cut-rate prices in struggling communities around the globe.
Over the past year, those controversies all entered the cultural conversation in a sweeping wave, from the blogosphere to Washington’s non-governmental organizations to the New York legislature to Southeast Asia. “There’s something in the air right now,” says Susan Scafidi, a pioneer in the area of fashion law who fields questions from designers on topics ranging from contracts and labor practices to copyright protections.
For example, designers would be well advised to look closely at the lineup of models for their shows for spring 2014, says Bethann Hardison, a former agency owner who has been leading the charge for more racially diverse runways for more than five years. She is planning a public campaign asking members of the industry, from New York to Paris: “Regardless of your intent, are the results of your actions racist?” She will be keeping tallies on multiracial representation and will follow up with designers who are lacking. And she says she will not shy away from invoking the r-word — racist.