Diversity Pays Off : Fashion
When you finish reading this article, you might think I am biased towards Africa. And why not? I myself am African and for the last decade, I was able to see the novelty that can be brought by my fellow compatriots.
I want to start the series of “Diversity Pays Off” with the less obvious one — fashion.
What we now take as trendy has been crafted for years by a few maisons by experienced hands, published by either by the Condé Nast or the Hearst family.
The older generations of designers (and I write this with respect) brought a sense of style that was attuned with their time. The trend setters and the consumers were from the same demographic with more or less similar aspirations, standard of beauty or purchasing power.
This series of articles are not meant to blame or denouce the fact that the fashion industry has had a specific way of seeing beauty. Whether one may be inclined to change or not its views towards beauty, one has to acknowledge the changes that have been in the air for quite some time but it seems some companies may need another push to realise how the future is being shaped.
The last week in fashion has been an interesting one. Let’s even extend to the last three months, COVID brought some companies to close but the Black Lives Matter movement shed lights on an industry that thrives on diverse consumers but is reluctant to let diversity into its offices. A case in point is that two executives from Condé Nast had to resign, one for a sensitive picture on how he was representing the Latinos. There is also Andre Leon Talley’s book tackling the relationship he had with Vogue Magazine and its editor -in-chief Anna Wintour. Although, I have not read the book yet, it seems like Mr Talley has a lot to share about the culture of the company and the attitudes of Mrs Wintour regarding the black community in the company she has been managing for 32 years (same age as I am). Since then Mrs Wintour issued a statement by taking “full responsibility of past mistakes”.
Whether coworkers and consumers accept her Mea Culpa or not, I believe it is a tough situation to be in when a leader starts losing her “influence”. She is or was known for her particular management skills and in this case, it seems like she is losing ground.
With that, she has been able to keep her spot as the editor for more than three decades in a space where beauty and youth supposedly go hand in hand. In her 70s, it seems like one of her main goals would be crafting a space for her daughter, Bee Schaffer, the way that her own father, Charles Wintour did for her “I think my father really decided for me that I should work in fashion”. And why not? It is a recipe that worked in the past.
But here is a problem, fashion in the 80s & 90s has changed drastically. Where a designer was working in a house or two (Karl Lagerfeld), the industry has seen a change on the consumer side — whether it is the Millennials or Gen Z who are driving the change; it seems the old way of doing business is no longer sustainable.
What used to be sacred (and I write this without chuckling) seems to be so passé; like a black designer — nowadays, I can type their names without having to google them : Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton & Off-White, Jerry Lorenzo with his own brand Fear of God (amen, I had to do it), Kanye West with everything sneakers (as I am writing this, it seems like Mr West is ready to enter the beauty market, male or female consumers, who knows? — Surprise us Ye!), do I need to write about the sneaker industry? No.
Must add that there is a Jordan x Vogue.
Consumers can be loyal or treacherous if not handled with care — the change started a “long” time ago in fashion shows years and it is not stopping!
Here is me introducing my pick for the spot of Editor-In-Chief at US Vogue : Liya Kebede.
Mrs Kebede has been working in the fashion industry for two decades, has collaborated with the brass of fashion, whether designers, make up artists, photographers, etc.
She is Ethiopian with a diverse background, having lived in Addis, Paris then New York ; she speaks Amharic, French & English. She is one to appeal to a diverse group of people, informed about what is happening in different regions of the world. In addition, to assist those in need, she started a foundation to help alleviate women & children mortality due to giving birth in an unsafe environment. She also founded a sustainable clothing line LemLem ( according to its website means to “bloom and flourish”)that aims to empower women by “elevating artisanship and expanding production and jobs across Africa.”
What may have been difficult to grasp is the culture change that was brought steadily by numerous “influencers”. The same way I see the COVID changing our every day lives and knowing that no ones holds an answer; I am confident that “one who seeks finds”. Anna Wintour and her company may not see that the change that she was able to bring is not sustainable post- COVID, post-Trump, post-Black Lives Matter. This is no “The Devil Wears Prada”, this is a need not a dream of change; it seems like change to be effective must come from the top.
Who knows, it might even bring to life a Vogue Africa?
Earlier this month, Hearst Company appointed a mixed race woman : “a proud daughter Lebanese father and a Trinidadian mother”. I am baffled by how some appointments are celebrated with such fanfare, as if having a Black, Latina or other is an accomplishment in itself. When I read their backgrounds, I see women who have been working and shaping their industry ; the fact that they had reached the top is somehow a normal path. Here is to Edward Enninful for Vogue UK, Samira Nasr for Harper’s Bazaar, Radhika Jones for Vanity Fair, Nekesa Mumbi Moody for The Hollywood Reporter.
Haven’t we learned a thing or two about diversity?
When Rihanna launched Fenty, it was successful and I can only guess LVMH was happy to have made that “bet” on black, brown skin. The realisation of a need for a different palette of colours increased the bank accounts of both Rihanna and the Arnault family. Kudos to LVMH for having seen the necessity of diversity by bringing Virgil Abloh, Kim Jones and more recently Matthew Williams at Givenchy. Pat Mc Grath, MBE, is another example of a make up artist being successful in business.
Adwoa, Adut, Anok, Slick are the faces of the future generation. At one time, it was Iman, Naomi, and Tyra, few to get enough diversity on the runways. Nowadays, models are more than that, they have platform unavailable for their predecessors. Adwoa with her podcast on mental health brings in a much needed conversation among teenagers or women under 25 who do not know where to look for help or are scared to do so. Nowadays, it is less about the glamour and more about activism.
Case in point will the appointing of Emma Watson as a new board member of Kering Group. The Kering group portfolio may not be as large as LVMH’s I hope it will do more in the future regarding diversity.
Mr Enninful appointment as the head of Vogue UK did not bring the company to bankruptcy , to the contrary his arrival brought more subscriptions to the magazine.
Brand ambassadors are also chosen with a purpose to increase the turnover by reaching untapped consumers — case in point : Lupita Nyong’O for Lancôme, Michael B Jordan for Piaget, Lebron James for Audemars Piguet and Adwoa Aboa for Rimowa.
There is a whole world outside the streets of Paris / Milan/ London or New York. Fashion is happening in Africa, Middle East, Asia, and South America.
What I would like to see in the future…
This decade has brought things to ponder about : from the state of current affairs, the climate change, the sexual harassment, the necessity of empowering women etc.
Sexual harassment is no stranger to the fashion industry where the recipe revolves usually around sex to sell. I believe the role of fashion designers, editors-in-chief or anyone with influence will create a safe space for models (especially underage boys/girls) by making their partners i.e model agency, scouts, photographs, brands responsible.
The lack of accountability has helped underwrite what was being done to young girls. Am I the only who thought that Terry Richardson work are distasteful? Am I the only one shocked about Gerard Marie, the former president of Elite Agency who was accused numerous times of sexual assault and somehow still manages another model agency?
Where Mrs Wintour has taken “full responsibility”, there are things of the past that can’t be erased but at some point, the industry needs to move forward for its own sake.