Life & Arts Opinion

The fashion industry: When racism walks down the runway

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The fashion industry thrives by exploiting people of colour (image by Marissaorton via Flickr)

Rather than capitalising on contemporary issues for profit, the fashion industry must stand with black people, says Frances Tso.

STATEMENT SNEAKERS, bike shorts and bamboo bags have been the latest trends to take the fashion industry by storm. However, given the unapologetic use of racist iconography within the industry, their performative response to the killing of George Floyd and their willingness to engage in exploitative practices, perhaps the latest fashion trend is racism.

The fashion industry has long moulded itself to represent style and beauty. However, the message conveyed through its ignorant missteps is that the industry adores black culture but turns a blind eye to black people.

From dressing up white models in multi-coloured faux dreadlocks, or releasing a balaclava that covers the lower face with a wide red lip outline during Black History Month, this to-and-fro volleying of racist gaffes demonstrates that the industry capitalises on black aesthetics to generate billions in sales, all the while operating under the veneer of inclusivity.

It is only when the veil is lifted that brands have had to answer for these slipups in fear of threats of boycotts and consumer outrage. Their responses have overwhelmingly been for the sake of theatrics.

The value of authenticity

The brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 has catalysed a global dialogue on the place of systemic racism in today’s society. It has forced us all into an uncomfortable corner, where we reflect on our contributions towards the normalisation of racism.

Thousands have congregated on the streets to denounce police brutality, and thousands more have uploaded images and stories on their social media platforms in support of Black Lives Matter. Given that almost two-thirds of consumers identify as “belief-driven buyers” who align with a brand based on their position on contemporary issues, it is unsurprising that fashion brands were quick to share captions denouncing racism and discrimination. Many have also lined their timelines and feeds with empty black squares.

However, with all talk and no action, it seems like the black squares are not the only thing that is empty.

The counterfeit market is increasingly expanding with “super fake” items which are falsely marked and sold as authentic goods to oblivious consumers. It is ironic that fashion brands cast a look of disapproval towards counterfeit goods; yet, their “super fake” actions of publicly supporting a cause, despite being at loggerheads with their internal practices, is seemingly justified as “staying woke”.

The Black Lives Matter movement has emboldened employees and insiders to speak up about the performative nature of fashion brands in response to Floyd’s death. The statements put forward by fashion brands in support of anti-racism is directly contrasted against the brand’s internal practices, which exposes and reaffirms the performative reality that is firmly embedded beneath the façade of civility.

Despite making a public donation to the Black Lives Matter campaign, clothing brand Reformation was criticised for workplace racism by a black former employee, Elle Santiago. Though it publicly called for an end to racism, Salvatore Ferragamo was called out by actor Tommy Dorfman to be a 'racist work environment'. The chorus of public declarations will not emit a pleasant chorus unless they are accompanied with tangible actions that traverse beyond mere theatrics.

Proof of purchase: Verifying fashion brands' anti-racist stances

Just as consumers ask for a receipt as proof of purchase, fashion brands should also get their receipts ready to ensure that their conversations about racial equality on social media are a genuine expression of the principles that they stand for. This cannot happen unless, and until, the fashion industry owns up to its lack of diversity. This is the only avenue to engender meaningful change.

The fear of consumer backlash has led to the racial trickle-down effect, which refers to the idea that increasing the number of non-white people in executive positions and meeting hiring quotas will produce anti-racist effects. Such is the case with Prada, who announced a diversity inclusion officer to review designs before they hit the market.

This attempt towards racial affinity appears justified, especially after being blasted for releasing a line of figurines with black faces and exaggerated red lips. However, by functioning under the pretext of diversity, this complies with the misconception that racial affinity is necessarily a by-product of hiring quotas.

Instead, this provides a false sense of progress that enables the deeper immersion of corporate strategies within the industry that endure “business as usual”. Unless diversity efforts are incorporated into the culture of the company, the promotion of a small number of people of colour into executive jobs will merely serve as a checklist, rather than an initiative that emerges from a place of authenticity.

A refund, please

Consumers are entitled to a refund if the product carries any hidden debts or extra charges. However, what if the hidden cost is the burden of wearing clothes produced through the exploitation of poor, non-white workers? What if the very shirt you are wearing right now represents a continuation of a legacy of colonialism and European imperialism and their unapologetic use of exploitation?

Trade liberalisation policies, like NAFTA, have authorised the shift in the human costs of bulk manufacturing into countries where labour is cheaper and laws are harder to enforce. This is justified as a lucrative avenue to create sizeable transactions and exceed profit margins. What follows is a mutual, yet problematic, recognition that Western consumer satisfaction continues to be contingent on the exploitation of black people.

While garment workers have long been protesting and lobbying for policy reforms and systemic changes to improve their working conditions, the mainstream day-to-day discussion displaces workers’ demands for consumer-centred solutions, namely the mandate to “shop better”.

By turning a blind eye to the clear breaches of labour laws, this propagates the dangerous myth that individual consumer choices – rather than organisational reforms to the global division of labour – can fix unapologetic exploitative practices.

Instead of “shopping better”, we need to do better. 

The next steps to achieving real equality

So, what happens when racism walks down the runway? It exposes the structural problems within the fashion industry that render it acutely unfit to confront its own racism. As it walks down, we see how the toxic culture of performativity intersects with discriminatory undertones to illustrate a sector whereby racism is normalised.

Addressing racism in fashion does not merely reduce to including more black people in the fashion arena, nor is it confined to sending people of colour down the runway every once in a while. Instead, it means recognising past mistakes and confessing how black culture has been continually appropriated and degraded.

We must delve deeper into the discriminatory undercurrents that do not evaporate simply because brands have publicly denounced racism, or made donations, all while cultivating a culture of performativity. For fashion brands to recover from falling over on the runway, they need to consider the entire hierarchy, all the way from executive members to the garment workers.

Only then can the fashion industry confidently walk down the runway and confidently embody authentic inclusivity and acceptance.

Frances Tso is an undergraduate Arts and Laws student majoring in Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales.

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The fashion industry: When racism walks down the runway

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