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First of all, I don’t like the word “diversity.”
Before you jump down my throat, let me explain. Diversity is one of those corporate buzzwords that started as a whisper and has grown to a full-volume, somewhat-misdirected shout. It’s a generic, catch-all phrase used by anyone who wants to appear to give access to those who were formerly excluded. As a Black woman who works in digital media, I see the word diversity tossed around all over the place, to the point that it’s become white noise — now, it’s just something hyped up by stressed brands who don’t want to get dragged on Twitter.
Fashion has always, always, always had an inclusivity problem. That said, it’s undeniable that we’ve made strides—every year since, it seems the most-talked about shows of the seasons are those from Black designers, and personally, I’m still recovering from the Zendaya x Tommy Hilfiger Paris Fashion Show from March 2019, which boasted an all-Black, all-ages, all-sizes modeling cast. The *Chef’s kiss* of runway, if you ask me. Still, it’s a little sad to see how far we haven’t come in 2020, especially when it comes to Fashion Month diversity and inclusivity on the runways. To really dive in, I talked with a few fashion experts who weren’t afraid to call out the nonsense about what they think the fashion industry got right this season, as well as what designers still need to improve on. I’ve also included my own two cents after running around New York Fashion Week, where I took notes on what I saw first-hand (comfortably from my second-row seat, thanks for asking).
Texture was abundant this Fashion Month—meaning Black models were allowed to have Black hair, instead of hiding it away under weaves or wigs. (Not that that’s a bad thing; wearing a wig is a benchmark of my personality.) “I think the variety of hairstyles for Black hair was noteworthy, such as the architectural afros at Christopher John Rogers, and the range of braids, from simple box braids to sharp cornrows, at LaQuan Smith and Fe Noel,” says Mary Anderson, a freelance editor and stylist.
It should be no surprise that Black designers wanted to show off Black hair, but when designers like Nicole Miller, Dennis Basso and Christian Cowan send their models down the runway with Grace Jones-esque top fades and TWAs, it’s a (positive) sign of the times. And with that, another high note: We made it through a Fashion Month without hearing a horror story about a Black model being mistreated by unqualified hair and makeup artists. “Maybe it happened this season and it didn’t go viral, but I hope more Black models are getting as equally-skilled hair and makeup artists as the other models receive,” says Anderson.
It was also quite nice to see women of various deeper skin tones represented on the runway. Too often, “diversity” really means “one light-skinned Black model with a 25-inch weave and a 22-inch waist.” This year, it was truly pleasing to see models of all colors represented. From the chocolatiest of chocolate girls to the olive-skinned and everything in between—we were all there. “A lot of times when we talk about diversity on the runway, we’re talking about Black models and forgetting Latinx models or Asian models,” culture writer Evan Ross Katz points out. “The industry has stagnated, but advances have been made over the past couple of years.” In a sea of white models, if you’re tossing one person with a slightly different skin tone in there, you’re not being diverse. You’re placating. The standout when it comes to true inclusivity at NYFW is Chromat, a brand that makes it a point to give an all-inclusive show every season because that is who they are. Until other brands embrace authentic diversity in their shows, a token model here or there will continue to be, pardon my French, performative bullsh*t.
But of course, we hadn’t come as far as we thought. Learning nothing from H&M’s monkey controversy, Gucci’s blackface sweater mess, or pretty much anything featured on Diet Prada ever, the Fashion Institute of Technology fashion show had the audacity to send its models down the runway in oversized lips and monkey ears, even after a Black model called a racist spade a racist spade.
Cool—this year’s casting appears more inclusive. But does it even matter if the audiences attending the shows aren’t equally as diverse? I made a note to look at who was sitting in the front row at some of the NYFW shows I attended this season. Let me tell you: the people in charge of invitations have a ton of work to do in terms of audience-building, because most front row seating looked like the Whites & Ivories section of the paint color aisle at Home Depot. In a time when Black journalists are finally saying “Hey, we need access to your shows in order to talk about you,” fashion is still saying, “Nah, we love when you talk about us, but we don’t need you to experience us IRL.”
“One of the most heartening things of the Christopher John Rogers show was just looking around and seeing a diverse range of people,” says Katz. “I don’t even mean gender or sexuality, I mean in terms of size and people of different means,” he adds. Leslie Jones went viral for her reaction to the Christian Siriano show, and in my eyes, she was acting the way Black women do when they want to support the people they love most—loud and proud. When I go on to eventually become Pyer Moss’s best friend, you can likely expect the same thing from me. Fashion shows are a spectator sport, and yet we’re only allowing certain people to spectate. We drag politicians for having majority-white attendance at their rallies or their lack of support from non-white people, so why shouldn’t we drag fashion designers for the same thing?
Yes, a lot of us devote an entire month to talking about and watching clothing that we will never be able to afford in our lifetimes, but that’s kind of the fun of the entire experience. But here’s the thing—when does being luxurious, rich, and exclusive translate into flat-out exclusion of certain audiences? These exclusionary brands see the positive reactions and powerful impact of their colleagues’ inclusive works, and they still shrug at the very notion of ever opening their mind or changing their vision.
The people who want to create change, advance the culture, and expand the idea of beauty are doing so, and the people who aren’t appear unbothered. “You’ve got your Chromat, Pyer Moss, Christian Sirano, who pull so much weight in terms of trying to include people who are often marginalized on the runway, while there are certain brands out there that don’t care, never did care, and perhaps might never care,” says Katz.
While progress on the runway appears to be happening at a snail’s pace, I can’t deny that there’s certainly change in the air. With up-and-coming designers changing how shows are cast and seen, I have an inkling of hope that one day, just maybe, inclusion and diversity will no longer be business buzzwords, and instead, can be built into the ethos of fashion brands and their designers, in the name of people celebrating their true, authentic selves.