Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Diversity and representation within the fashion industry has been a longstanding subject of contention. In the last decade, this issue has gained traction, as consumers are increasingly politically motivated and willing to use the power of the purse to support more ethical retailers. However, in efforts to become more diverse, fashion brands – both high end ateliers and fast fashion retailers – have often resorted to black-fishing and tokenism. The fashion industry feeds off black history, culture, and design, whilst simultaneously excluding or exploiting black voices and representation.

The failure to acknowledge and accredit black designers is historic; former First Lady Jackie Kennedy snubbed the designer of her 1953 wedding dress, Ann Lowe, derogating the creator as merely a ‘coloured dressmaker’, when asked who created the now globally recognisable gown. This sentiment defines the fashion world we know today, which is manifestly plagued with ignorance both on and off the catwalk.

Recent years have indeed demonstrated the alarming extent to which fashion is racially insensitive. Whether it be Marc Jacobs 2016 utilisation of faux, coloured dreadlocks on his predominantly white runway models, Gucci’s 2018 debut of a black wool balaclava jumper with a horrifying resemblance to blackface, or Burberry’s 2019 release of a jumper adorned with a noose around the neck; reminiscent for many of the appalling history of lynching.

A plethora of mainstream trends we wear today have origins within the black community (yet rarely get recognised for this): sneaker culture, high end streetwear, or oversized clothing is all associated with the Hip-Hop genre that emerged from the Bronx in 1970s New York. Despite this, luxury fashion is still a Eurocentric world, dominated by white designers, models, and consumers who repeatedly and unashamedly abash black culture. And the western norm of the biannual fashion months in Paris, London, Milan, and New York is hugely telling of elitism in the industry.

Exclusion also occurs on the catwalk; only a third of Milan’s 2019 Fashion Week catwalk models were non-white, and supermodel Naomi Campbell herself stated that her campaigns don’t run in certain countries due to her ethnicity. Runway model Olivia Anakwe shared her experiences of microaggressions via Instagram, that included shows where there were no stylists who knew how to style her hair and simply “turned their backs on her”.

Black consumers also have to deal with daily ‘retail racism’; as popular retailer ‘Anthropologie’ is now being boycotted following reports that staff were encouraged to follow black customers round the store. A 2017 survey indicated that a staggering eighty percent of African-Americans have reported experiencing racial stigma and stereotypes whilst shopping. 

By using money as a political tool and ‘voting’ through what we purchase, we can begin to hold brands accountable. Supporting black-owned business is essential, we must also challenge brands that are tokenistic, commit microaggressions against people of colour, use diversity as a selling strategy alongside churning out vacuous performative ally-ship on their social media. These discriminations, microaggressions, and prejudices can only be resolved by actively abstaining from merchants who rely on this exploitation.