The fashion industry has become more diverse, more inclusive. More open. It is less them-vs.-you. It is us.
Yes, fashion still has its flaws. Designers often still have tunnel vision. The industry still makes head-smacking gaffes. There are far too many cases of profound insensitivity and cavalier cultural appropriation. (Will those Kardashians ever learn?) But in the past decade, it has opened its doors to more people of color, plus-size women, transgender women and those who simply don't fit the industry's classic definition of beauty. Most importantly, fashion is talking about diversity in more nuanced ways — and learning from its mistakes.
Two years ago, Brandice Henderson, who describes herself as a “fashion coach,” was having dinner with five designers at Harlem’s Red Rooster. They were all up-and-comers, lauded by major fashion magazines, who had dressed an assortment of famous women. The scene was typical for New York with one significant exception: All five of the designers were black.
This is no small thing.
Four years ago, five women walked into IMG Models and immediately impressed the company’s president, Ivan Bart. One of them especially stood out. Her name was Ashley Graham and she was plus-size. But as Bart put it: “A star is a star is a star.” Graham has gone on to become the rare model who is known by name well outside the insulated world of fashion. She is not a plus-size success story; she is, quite simply, a success.
This is no small thing, either.
In 2017, Vogue ran countless photo stories celebrating Hollywood stars and cultural figures, but it also published visual essays on Latinas in Los Angeles, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, lesbian models and black servicewomen.
This is significant, too.
During the past decade, the New York fashion industry has been in upheaval over the subject of diversity, or the lack of it. The most egregious examples were on the runways. They are fashion’s billboards and its proving ground — the place where designers spin out their wildest fantasies, and where the public receives its notions of fashion at its most glamorous and rarefied. And the message, in the mid-2000s, was that high-end fashion was for emaciated white teenagers.
The ranks of editors and designers were lacking in diversity, too. There were no editors-in-chief of major fashion publications who were black. The rising generation of designers who had captured the industry’s attention were mostly white — sometimes Asian, but rarely black, Latino or even female. Plus-size women were not part of the fashion conversation. And gender fluidity had yet to become an aesthetic interest.
In 2007, activist Bethann Hardison organized a “town hall” meeting to start a conversation about fashion’s worsening diversity problem. In 2013, she meticulously tracked designers’ hiring practices and publicized the results. The lack of inclusiveness was striking. And Hardison unflinchingly called such practices “racist.”
Now, the industry looks significantly different from the days of clone-like waifs, golden-haired muses and magazine mastheads that read like the Social Register. There is greater recognition that fashion needs to change.
Last year, after designer Marc Jacobs featured models — many of them white — wearing fanciful dreadlocks in his spring 2017 runway show, social media lit up in anger because of his failure to acknowledge the hairstyle's history within black communities. Six months later, his fall 2017 show was an ode to hip-hop; he cast mostly models of color and included show notes lauding the influence of black youth.
Fashion has also had several landmark moments: A black man has been appointed editor-in-chief of British Vogue and a black woman is at the helm of Teen Vogue. Joan Smalls, who was born in Puerto Rico, became Estee Lauder’s first Latina spokesmodel. French Vogue featured a transgender model on its cover.
There are more models of color on major runways. A range of designers have included plus-size models and older women in shows and advertising. A more diverse group of designers, including four black men, make up the 10 finalists vying for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. Women are also well-represented.
“I think fashion is becoming more democratized,” says Henderson — for consumers as well as those hoping to build a career in the industry.
As fashion designers unveil their spring 2018 collections over the next few weeks, it will be an opportunity to see whether fashion’s forward trajectory continues or stalls. “There’s a consensus about having an inclusive runway,” says Bart. “I’m hopeful at this stage.”
Bart has been working in fashion for 30 years, and the first model he represented, back in 1986, was a young black woman who was part Russian. When a jewelry company was looking to hire someone “tall, pretty and effervescent,” Bart suggested her. The company hemmed and hawed and “finally said, ‘We’re not looking for black people.’ I dropped the phone.” He ultimately got her the job after traveling to personally show them her portfolio.
After Hardison’s 2007 town hall, Bart considered his place in the fashion business. As the head of one of the industry’s larger agencies, with a roster including Smalls, Kate Moss and a host of celebrities, he decided to help lead the way.
“I think the industry got lazy,” Bart says. “We’ve got to start telling [clients] what they need. When people say no, we have to tell them why they’re wrong.”
That’s why he decided not to simply target Graham for the plus-size market, but for womenswear in general. On the company’s website, she and fellow plus-size models Candice Huffine and Marquita Pring are not segregated in a separate category or called “plus-size.” They are simply models. Graham has appeared on the cover of American Vogue and in runway shows alongside whippet-thin models. She has her own line of lingerie.
What the fashion industry does is important to the broader culture, Bart says, recalling actress Lupita Nyong'o's heartfelt speech about finding validation of her own dark-skinned beauty in the images of Sudanese-born model Alek Wek, whom IMG signed some 20 years ago.
“It’s okay if people are resistant,” he says. “They will change if you stay the course.”
The website the Fashion Spot, which tracks diversity on the runway, has tallied about 30 percent nonwhite models in recent seasons. There are models in hijabs, models with vitiligo, models with physical disabilities. The question is no longer who isn't represented but how to make that inclusiveness feel organic rather than self-consciously trendy.
The need to change is not simply moral, Bart says, but also financially smart. “The Internet changed everything. Anyone can pull up anything online. If you want that consumer, you need to reflect who they are.” If consumers don’t like what they see, they are likely to make their displeasure heard.
The Vogue website has become a more diverse, global experience than the print magazine, speaking to “more people and different people,” says Sally Singer, creative digital director. It even reads as if it is written by a variety of voices that share a common interest, rather than the single, dominant voice of print.
“I don’t think it’s a conscious decision,” says Chioma Nnadi, the website’s fashion news director. “Our staff is just very diverse and very young.”
Vogue's digital natives roam freely and report on everything from the baati, a classic Somali cotton dress favored by hijab-wearing model Halima Aden to the personal aesthetics of people who identify as "they." While Vogue might have written about these subjects in the past, Singer says, it's doubtful that those stories would have found a readership within those communities. "Now, they're sharing it on Facebook."
The Internet is also broadening the ranks of designers. Ten years ago, Henderson founded Harlem's Fashion Row, a production company aimed at supporting multicultural designers who were absent from the top fashion weeks, the store racks at influential retail outlets and the pages of mainstream glossies.
Back then, “I could barely count three designers of color. . . making a mark and getting the attention of the fashion industry,” Henderson says. Today, she can rattle off nearly a dozen. Social media and e-commerce have lowered the barriers to success, making it easier for designers to connect directly with customers.
Designers can market themselves around the globe with a single website and an Instagram account. If an accepting audience isn’t in New York or Los Angeles, perhaps there’s one in Indianapolis or Tupelo, Singapore or Qatar.
One of the Harlem's Fashion Row designers, for example, found his fan base in Japan. Reuben Reuel's Demestik collection, worn by Ava DuVernay as well as Beyoncé, sells on Etsy.com. It's not Bergdorf Goodman, but it gets the job done.
“For designers 10 years ago, it was just all about the art. They didn’t want to hear anything business-wise,” Henderson says. “I was different, too. Something in the economy woke us up.”
A recession will do that.
As the spring 2018 shows begin, the conversation about diversity has expanded to include the role of immigrants in the industry and the rights of women. Diversity is not just about the imperative of an inclusive runway. It is also about identity: both personal and national.
"Ten years ago people never wanted you to refer to them as a 'black designer.' Just call me a 'designer'! Now, with Black Lives Matter, with the political climate, people are proud to be a black designer. They're proud to say it to people in the fashion industry," Henderson says. "I even have more stylists who say they have clients who [specifically] want to wear a black designer."
Diversity is political. It’s a form of protest.
When Vogue posted a story in March about women in East LA, it happened to coincide with a conversation about a rise in ICE raids under the Trump administration. It was the fashion site’s most-shared story — in the middle of Paris Fashion Week.
“I thought we had lots of momentum after the civil rights movement and then we have Nazis go marching through Charlottesville,” Bart says. “This is going to be our resistance: Showing the totality of humanity.”