As 2015 recedes into the distance, it’s easier to get a full-length, wide-angle view of the year’s fashion in all of its lace-trim, Yeezy Boost, technical cashmere-filled Instagrams. What were the events that resonated? What did they mean? And did we look good as it was all unfolding?
The lack of diversity — both on the catwalk and in glass-walled offices — has been one of fashion’s most enduring troubles. From whitewashed runways to models in blackface, fashion just can’t seem to get the race thing right. But few new models had as good a year as Lineisy Montero, the young black woman from the Dominican Republic with the impressive pout, high cheekbones and close-cropped Afro. She marched down the runway for influential design houses such as Prada, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs. And she co-starred in advertising campaigns for Prada.
In 2015, the runways, magazines and lucrative advertising campaigns looked more representative of the population as a whole than they have in many years. Credit for this progress belongs to activist Bethann Hardison, who along with models Naomi Campbell and Iman have been doling out tough love — and a bit of public shaming — to an industry that prides itself on being open-minded but still couldn’t envision a black model wearing its fancy clothes. Folks didn’t quite understand that loving Beyoncé, Rihanna and “Empire” did not absolve it of racist behavior.
While it is far too soon to declare racial parity within the fashion industry, it’s worth noting that there’s at least a baker’s dozen of black models who have been booking big jobs this year and making waves, and that’s a significant uptick in an industry that only a few years ago barely had more than one or two models of color on the runways during an entire season of shows. This year seemed more inclusive, not only because of the racial diversity but also because of the variations in the look of those models. They were both fair-skinned and dark, and some of them even wore their hair in short Afros, including on the Victoria’s Secret runway, which in fashion counts as practically subversive.
Celebrities — those walking billboards, those golden hangers — also benefited from fashion’s wider embrace. Rihanna starred in Christian Dior’s advertising campaign; the first time the French house cast a black woman in the lead role. There was diversity on the menswear side of the aisle as well, where athletes such as Victor Cruz, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook exploited their love for fashion and their influence over regular Joes. Wade and Cruz were “ambassadors” at New York’s menswear shows; Westbrook collaborated with True Religion.
The upper echelons of retail, press and design changed, too, but only slightly. Black entrepreneurs have typically been missing from the ranks of boy wonder designers who benefit from industry buzz as well as financing. People of color have little voice in the executive ranks of retailers where decisions are made about which new brands to promote or which up-and-coming designers to nurture. And the small coterie of editors-in-chief and creative directors who help shape the culture’s definition of beauty and sex appeal is especially difficult to infiltrate. These are rarefied positions that don’t routinely open up, but when they do, the short list is startlingly homogeneous.
But this year, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, the duo behind Public School, took over the design reins at DKNY — the remnants of the once-great American fashion brand founded by Donna Karan. Osborne is of Jamaican descent. Chow’s background is Chinese. After more than a decade without a fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue named Roopal Patel, who is Indian-American, to the position. And this summer, W magazine ran an especially bold and sophisticated fashion spread featuring only black models, which was styled by its fashion director Edward Enninful, who is also black.
None of these accomplishments came with much fanfare for what they signified for diversity within the industry. And perhaps, that is for the better. To still be noting various racial landmarks in the 21st century is exasperating. But what they did prove is that fashion looks better, smarter and more relevant when it is as diverse as the society it serves.
Fashion moved forward; but it also tumbled back, not in any new way, but in the old familiar ones. For the third time since 2013, Alexander McQueen is facing accusations of racial discrimination. The latest lawsuit was filed this month by two black employees at the brand’s Madison Avenue store in New York. It is an issue that other fashion companies — Barneys New York, Ralph Lauren — have grappled with in the past. High-end fashion is built on an image of exclusivity and it can be a quick slide into discrimination if managers are uninformed, uneducated, insecure or simply steeped in their own personal prejudice.
Fashion continues to have its many ugly sides. This year, it also struggled mightily with the increasing speed of the business cycle and seriously began to ask whether that amped-up pace serves the consumer. As the business demands collided with the volatility of creativity, there were high-profile departures and firings from Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Gucci, Donna Karan and Lanvin.
In September, Givenchy opened its New York fashion show to the public, and the public watched in silent, appreciative reverence. That success has Seventh Avenue researching whether shows should be even more consumer-focused. Instead of giving retailers and editors a peek at frocks six months before they arrive in stores, perhaps runway shows should be tempting consumers with garments they can buy right now.
If there was any trend that defined the season it was genderless dressing. Gucci’s new creative director Alessandro Michele emerged as fashion’s critical darling, the man who gave the world horsebit loafers lined in kangaroo fur and who made the case for men in lace and pussy bow blouses. His work touched a nerve because it arrived just as the cultural conversation was adjusting to a new understanding of gender as being on a continuum. Caitlyn Jenner made that clear in her coming out story in Vanity Fair. The world applauded how glamorous this transgender woman looked in her old Hollywood lingerie, which made one wonder what the reception might have been if she’d looked dumpy and old.
Fashion helps us tell our personal stories. It’s a celebration of creativity and ultimately allows us to project the public persona of our desires.
This year, men looked especially good. Women? Meh.
Men’s fashion, which once changed one mincing step at a time, is transforming by leaps. There’s a wealth of new colors, patterns and fabrics. There are singular melodies and refreshing mash-ups: slim suit-wearing hipsters, gender-blurring dandies, athleisure-wearing urbanites, artsy-Goths, bespoke gentlemen, grunge rockers. A lot of men have dabbled in fashion; others have done a deep dive. But on the whole, men looked stylish because they explored themes instead of simply purchasing an “it” item.
Women bought into runway trends like nouveau grunge; they wore their Ann Taylor dresses and their yoga pants. They turned up on the red carpet in fishnet and spangles. Men dressed for occasions. Women undressed. And the men won.
This year, men sallied forth looking swell. And the fashion conversation got a whole lot more interesting.