Why Is It on Black People to Fix Fashion’s Diversity Problem?
A high-profile dustup this week illustrates a larger industry issue.
In a year full of buzzwords, “diversity and inclusion” are a twofer that keep floating to the top of the discourse. Every time a brand puts out an attention-grabbing campaign, launches a new product category, or makes some sort of egregious misstep that captures the attention of the whole internet for a couple of days, headlines are flooded with these two words. And in the worlds of fashion and media, everyone appears to be working harder to make sure that whatever it is they’re pushing, many types of people will feel represented by it. Those attempts, however, often come up short.
A dustup earlier this week between Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond, and fashion publisher Business Of Fashion is just one example of recent shortcomings — proving that those typically doing the most work to fix diversity issues are rarely the ones causing the problem.
On Monday, the designer posted, “BOF499, I’m off the list” to his Instagram story, leaving many wondering what exactly happened between him and the publication. Then, in a Medium post published the following day, Jean-Raymond further explained that while he was invited to be a part of the publication’s annual “500” list, he was misled when it came to BoF’s intentions for including him.
It all began when he was invited to speak at a BoF Voices event in February, in a one-on-one discussion with legendary model and fashion activist Bethann Hardison. He writes that, en route to the event, he was informed the solo conversation had turned into a group panel with other black designers, and instead of Hardison moderating, it would be Tim Blanks, former editor-at-large of Business of Fashion, who is white.
“Many of these group panels just lump us all in, 'Black in Fashion' or 'Diversity & Inclusion,' when the reality is my family is vastly different, making strides in every category — sustainability, politics, VC... But instead they make us speak all together in the commonality of our blackness and force us to disagree on stages in public, facilitate infighting, and then we have to do the emotional labor to make the ops comfortable,” Jean-Raymond wrote, explaining why the switch-up was offensive. He went on to say that many white designers are given a platform — a solo stage, or a magazine cover — to stand on their own, celebrate their achievements, and be heralded as a leader in the industry. As someone who’s often lauded as a changemaker in fashion, he expected the same.
This scenario is all too common. Putting together a black panel and not giving artists and influencers the space share their stories individually is tokenizing and reductive. Further, anyone being invited to speak at such a glossy event is expected to be grateful for the opportunity at all, a sort of “be glad you’re even invited” innuendo that makes standing up to demand equitable treatment all the more burdensome to the black artists, creators, and activists who are already being exploited for their work. Having to ask for equality to that which your white counterparts receive by default — as Jean-Raymond has done, or as Rep. Maxine Waters did when she famously reclaimed her time — is an inspiring and empowering act, done by someone who shouldn’t have to. The time, and the space on stage, should have been given from the start.
The burden of explanation and the labor of fixing “diversity and inclusion” mishaps are so often put on those who have been excluded, and quite frankly are not causing the issue. Along with using such buzzwords, brands must operate with respect, knowledge, and dignity for the communities they are attempting to represent — none of which seemed to be the case when Jean-Raymond arrived to the BOF 500 gala to find a Black choir performing at the entrance. Cherry-picking parts of Black culture to highlight — a habitual misstep in fashion — is not the way to show you are serious about diversifying your brand, or making new audiences feel welcomed to it, but instead is a clear display of how little you respect Black contributions to society. Insult was added to injury when, per Jean-Raymond’s description, BOF editor-in-chief Imran Amed jumped in front of the choir. “[He] turn[ed] into Kirk Franklin and start[ed] dancing on the stage with them and shit,” the designer wrote. “To a room full of white people.”
“Homage without empathy and representation is appropriation,” Jean-Raymond continued in his reflection. “Instead, explore your own culture, religion, and origins. By replicating ours and excluding us, you prove to us that you see us as a trend. Like, we gonna die black, are you?”
The problem is more widespread than the BOF ordeal. Earlier this year, model Adut Akech was profiled in an Australian magazine which placed images of another Black model, Flavia Lazarus, next to her interview. This kind of careless mistake makes people of color appear to be interchangeable (as long as you’ve got the one to show you’re checking off that box). Other instances turn a lens into the room of decision-makers, begging the question of whether diversity is prioritized anywhere up the chain of command, like the infamous Pepsi commercial that nearly torpedoed Kendall Jenner’s career by association, or the time H&M put a young black boy in a sweatshirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Then there are the more full-circle examples, like when Gucci paid homage (to put it generously) to Harlem fashion institution Dapper Dan without crediting his original work, only to later bring him on as a collaborator to add his sought-after aesthetic to the luxury house. Gucci later sent a sweater resembling blackface down the runway, which, incidentally, Business of Fashion reported on this week as “a brand paying for its cultural insensitivity — and trying to change.”
When it comes to our Blackness being used for clout and a bottom line, we have heard enough apologies after the fact — and Business of Fashion’s Amed did issue a public statement about how, as “the only brown kid in class” growing up, he takes the issue of inclusion personally. “When we decided to focus our latest print issue and accompanying BoF 500 gala on inclusivity, we did so precisely because a superficial approach to inclusivity is indeed insulting — and wholly insufficient. The industry needs to go further and invest in the difficult work of genuine cultural change,” he wrote. He goes on to explain how he had meant to create a diverse event, and uplift a variety of personalities and POVs into the accompanying issue of his magazine, and that he hopes to sit down with Kerby Jean-Raymond to continue learning more. No matter how heartfelt, an apology like this is a double-edged sword for the community who has already been offended. It’s passing the buck back to them — back to Jean-Raymond, specifically — to teach everyone else how to do better.
The burden of making sure that diversity initiatives are prioritized and handled respectfully should fall to those who have otherwise ignored us. It is their job to ensure they are not forcing diverse voices to share a packed stage and wrest time away from one another. It is their job to be sure they are not using a meaningful cornerstone of our culture as set dressing, but truly centering our voices. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned gesture appears empty, devoid of genuine appreciation. And fashion, which is all about expressing who you are and what you want to say, can do way better than that.