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- A recent uptick in calls for social justice over the past month has reached the fashion industry, with employees of several brands coming forward with allegations of racist behavior and toxic workplace environments.
- Accusations of marginalization aren’t new in the image-obsessed industry, but the combination of a pandemic, changing consumer expectations, and the Black Lives Matter movement has some experts saying this could be the tipping point.
- Experts told Business Insider that the corporatization of the fashion industry has made decision-makers focus on what they see as the most valuable customers: middle-class white women and teens with extra spending money.
- Through this white gaze, fashion aspirations center on an idealized version of young, thin, white, feminine, and able-bodied beauty.
- But younger customers, who are more sensitive to diversity and inclusion and tolerant of political messaging from brands, are demanding change using their money and social-media power.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On June 1, L’Oréal Paris posted on Instagram a black square with white text that read, “Speaking out is worth it.” The brand, like countless others, expressed solidarity with the Black community amid widespread protests calling for police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
But not everyone was convinced companies would back up diversity and inclusion efforts with systemic change.
In particular, L’Oréal Paris came under scrutiny for its post because of its treatment of the British model and activist Munroe Bergdorf in 2017, when the brand canceled her campaign after she spoke out against racism. “I said just yesterday that it would only be a matter of time before RACIST AF brands saw a window of PR opportunity to jump on the bandwagon,” Bergdorf wrote on Instagram.
That bandwagon Bergdorf was referring to is the Black Lives Matter movement, which many fashion brands and media outlets have hopped on with social-media posts. Now they are weathering a storm after what employees at brands like Reformation, Anthropologie, Refinery29, and Vogue describe as years of toxic company culture.
Since the beginning of June, the fashion world has been whirling with allegations of racial discrimination.
Anthropologie was accused on Instagram of racially profiling Black shoppers.
Former Refinery29 beauty writer Khalea Underwood wrote for Business Insider that she wasn’t given the same opportunities as white reporters, making her believe she was “merely a diversity hire.” The site’s cofounder and editor in chief, Christene Barberich, resigned.
Leandra Medine, the founder of the fashion website Man Repeller, stepped back after readers commented that the site was exclusive and lacked diversity.
Current and former employees at fashion brand Reformation told Business Insider they experienced microaggressions and racist behavior because of a culture driven by CEO and founder Yael Aflalo, who resigned in June.
There was even speculation that the legendary Vogue editor and Condé Nast executive Anna Wintour would resign, according to Business of Fashion. One of her direct reports, Bon Appétit Editor In Chief Adam Rapoport, resigned after employees alleged a “toxic” workplace culture of microaggressions and exclusion.
Business Insider pored over reports of these allegations and spoke with fashion historians and critics to learn why systemic racism seems to run so rampant in the industry. What we found is that an obsession with an idealized version of young, thin, white, feminine, and able-bodied beauty has long facilitated a culture of marginalization that affects employees, models, and consumers alike.
Discrimination goes unchecked at every level, according to insider reports that have surfaced in the last month. Employees are afraid to go against values that have been normalized for decades, for fear of losing access or opportunity in an exclusive industry. Brands stay silent so as not to seem political or alienate customers, while consumers buy into cyclical trends appropriating cultures that are rarely celebrated by the industry.
But a younger generation of customers might be ready to hold brands’ feet to the fire, amid the coronavirus pandemic, increased scrutiny on systemic racism, and changing consumer values.
Beauty trends A white-dominated industry creates certain ideals of beauty
Vogue’s March 2017 cover featured seven models. Though the group was ethnically diverse and featured the plus-size model Ashley Graham, the models all shared a look: dark brows, high cheekbones, long legs, and relatively light skin.
What was widely criticized as an inadequate attempt at inclusivity mirrors the lack of diversity throughout fashion, from runway to boardroom. With the industry’s obsession with a certain flavor of attractiveness, only 17% of the models walking major runways during fashion week in spring 2015 were nonwhite, according to The Fashion Spot. Less than 4% of the Council of Fashion Designers of America members are Black, according to Fast Company, and Black designers are in charge at only two leading European fashion houses. Only three major fashion magazines are helmed by Black editors. Instagram is ruled by a single face.
The industry, by catering to the vanity of the historically white majority, perpetuates a vision of whom its customers desire to be. This facilitates an aspirational hierarchy of beauty standards, seen on runways and in magazines, that glorifies tall, skinny figures and makes it incredibly difficult for people of color to make it in the industry.
But times are changing. By 2019, The Fashion Spot reported that 36% of models on major runways during Fashion Week were nonwhite. Customers are demanding more, Deirdre Clemente, a fashion and culture historian, said. “This is a knowledgeable and confident group of consumers coming up,” the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, associate professor told Business Insider. “They want authenticity from the brands that they support, and it’s going to be more than models. It’s going to be more than advertising campaigns.”
Beauty trends Exclusive access creates a classist system
Exclusivity — it’s what differentiates Target from Nordstrom and H&M from Hermès. The price tag determines who has access, and this classism serves the privilege that runs deep in the fashion industry. This is evidenced by the Black professionals who say they were not given the same respect, promotion, and opportunities as their white colleagues.
In her memoir, former Teen Vogue Editor in Chief Elaine Welteroth wrote that Black fashion and beauty are underrepresented in mainstream outlets. “I learned quickly that Black titles are not always regarded with equal respect; especially in the fashion and beauty space, we were commonly treated as second or even third tier,” Welteroth wrote.
Historically, industry leaders had an economic incentive to cater to white beauty standards. Since the corporatization of the industry, beginning in the 1950s, companies sought the target audience with the most disposable income, Clemente said. But times have changed.
“As the fashion industry struggles to see their consumers as more than middle-class white women or middle-class white teenagers who spend a lot of money, that’s where we see these holes,” she said.
Lately, consumers have been using their money to make change. Black-owned businesses have seen a significant increase in sales as people on social media have encouraged their followers to “buy Black,” Bloomberg reported. Designer Aurora James is asking retailers to take a tangible approach to racial inequality in retail by matching their representation of Black business owners to America’s 15% Black population.
Beauty trends Imitation goes unchecked among homogenous decision makers
Fashion trends have long been built on imitation — or appropriation. Henna, tribal makeup, large hoop earrings, and streetwear are examples of the mostly white industry mimicking other cultures for profit.
Kim Kardashian received backlash for sporting cornrows — a historically African hairstyle — at the 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards. According to Teen Vogue Editor in Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, the Kardashians have often used such imitation as they’ve built their empires.
She wrote in The Cut: “The Kardashians have perfected their not-too-dark-but-not-too-light skin tone, their plump lips, and their rounded butts — they go to immense efforts to obtain black features.”
The Kardashians, in turn, have spawned an army of imitators — Instagram influencers and YouTube stars who perpetuate racial ambiguity for financial gain.
In another example from 2018, Vogue published a cover featuring LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen that many critics called a racist imitation of King Kong.
“The picture’s visual inspiration might be King Kong, but the narrative corollary is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation,” Wesley Morris wrote for Slate, referring to a 1915 movie that portrayed Black men as a sexual threat to white women. “Men, lock up your ladies! Here comes LeBron!”
Experts believe a changing of the guard is in order, driven by industry insiders and consumer tastes. Just five years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement gained recognition, corporate brands remained silent for fear of seeming too political. Now brands are speaking up because for the first time, it makes good business sense, Mark Cohen, a Columbia professor and the university’s director of retail studies, told Business Insider.
The coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, outcry against police violence, and changing consumer preferences have created a moment of great pressure from customers. “Some of the volume of voices stems from the crisis that we’re in at large,” he said.
Beauty trends A young generation of customers demand accountability in exchange for their loyalty
A McKinsey & Co. report on fashion in 2020 said nearly two-thirds of consumers identified as “belief-driven buyers” who will tout or cancel a business based on its position on social issues.
In addition, purpose-led brands earn increased consumer support, according to the Capgemini Research Institute. In its survey of 7,000 consumers, 78% of respondents said brands have a larger role to play in society, and 75% said they would prioritize purchasing from brands that support pandemic relief efforts and the social-justice movement.
Customers are more tolerant of political messaging, and they expect brands to make deeper change beyond an Instagram post. Silence on hot-button issues can hurt a company’s bottom line, Tiffany Tolliver, a branding expert, previously told Business Insider.
“It’s not just a blanket one-step move,” she said. “It’s rooted in a consistent plan for action.”
The week after Bergdorf spoke out against L’Oréal’s controversial post, she posted a surprising update on Instagram. She had met with L’Oréal Paris President Delphine Viguier-Hovasse and agreed to join the company’s UK diversity and inclusion board. “I believe in accountability and progress, not cancellation and grudges,” she wrote.
This reaction is indicative of how young people are calling on the fashion industry to not just acknowledge systemic racism but also engage in the ongoing work of unwinding inherent biases that cause inequality.
“I thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to practise what I preach and take up that seat at the table to be the representation that we deserve as a community,” she wrote.