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A Response to Systemic Racism in the Fashion Industry

By Melissa Lipari

The world of fashion has not been the most inclusive industry throughout the decades. Whether it was the infamous Kate Moss mantra, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny,” that made thousands of girls starve themselves, to the whitewashing scandal of 2014 involving Prada’s Spring/Summer collection, to the exclusion and mistreatment of former Vogue editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley, for his skin color and weight – we can all agree that even though the fashion industry is full of creativity and excitement, it is an extremely toxic place for people who do not fit a certain criteria. For those who are people of color, are not a size 0, or do not uphold any of the expectations that are deemed “important” by people in high places, the fashion industry could be a hard industry to break into - let alone find success in. Systemic racism in fashion is very real and it only has come to light after recent tragedies, which has led many of us to question when change will come.

Fashion has become more size-inclusive in recent years, with plus-sized models like Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser landing major magazine covers. However, the inclusivity of BIPOC has been less than revolutionary during this time frame. Recently, Anna Wintour issued a statement apologizing for her lack of inclusion towards POC during her reign as editor-in-chief of American Vogue and creative director of Conde Nast (Vogue’s media company). After the tragedy of George Floyd and the rising support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, The Guardian reported that, “Wintour apologized to staff at the magazine for ‘publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant,’ admitted there were too few employees of colour, and took full responsibility for mistakes made during her 32-year tenure.” It is maddening to learn that after 32 years of being an editor-in-chief, it took until 2020 and the recent racial injustices for Ms. Wintour to realize the damage done by the lack of representation or tolerance that the proclaimed “fashion bible” has been printing. Harper’s Bazaar, another major fashion magazine owned by Conde Nast, recently just appointed their first black editor-in-chief in 153 years. Yes, you read that right, it took about a century and a half for Harper’s Bazaar to have a black person in a primary executive position. Fashion is supposed to be an industry that is inclusive, innovative, and boundary breaking. Yet, all we have seen for the last century is the systemic racism that we see on the news and in various other industries.

As a fashion student myself, I am so saddened to read the stories of fashion labels or media companies blatantly mistreating their staff of color or not including them - due to the white-washing standards that we as a society have put in place - but have since grown out of. I am a Hispanic woman, which could put me at a considerable disadvantage to my white colleagues when I apply for my dream job. Many might ask, why would you allow yourself to put your faith in an industry that is not on your side, or on the side of people of color in general? My answer is simply, I want to create change. If people of color stopped inserting themselves into the fashion industry, or any industry where they are a minority for that matter, we would not see representation. It is going to take our voices being heard for change to be created. These voices are going to start within the industry. If I become a content creator, editor, or even editor-in-chief one day, as I hope to be, I would never wait over 30 years to hire someone of color to work at my media outlet. I would want people who look like me, people who are black, people who are Muslim, people who are from all different races, religions, and sexes to feel represented by the pages of my magazine.

When I was young, my dad used to take me to Barnes & Noble every Saturday to get a new book. As much of a bookworm as I was, I always found myself browsing the magazine section while my dad was off in the classic or mystery aisles. I remember picking up my first Vogue magazine at around 10 years old, flipping through the thick card-stock pages, soaking in all the material. I was fascinated by the different collections, the gorgeous garments, the stunning models, and the beautiful features of the men and women who graced the pages. One thing that alarmed me was that I did not see anyone who was brown-skinned, like me. The cover stars were usually a famous actress or singer of that decade but even they were often white. Hollywood is one of the most diverse industries (even though it is far from perfect) and yet, only white women were found on the cover of Vogue for years. 

I never forgot about this moment, even though it occurred over 10 years ago. Now as an adult, I vow that if I am ever put in the position of someone who is as influential and successful as Anna Wintour, I will do better for all of the 10-year-old girls who pick up Vogue or any magazine for the first time. It is time that the fashion industry catches up with our current social justice issues. We are talking about more than just clothes; we are talking about consumerism and representation at its finest.

My final words to the fashion industry are, do better. Do better for the young people of color who dream of being a designer. Do better for the young people of color who dream of having an article published on Do better for the next generation. The generation that comes from all walks of life, all skin colors, all body types, all genders. The generation that is going to change the fashion industry forever.


Fashion & Beauty Publications to Support that are POC Inclusive:

  1.   Paper
  2.   Ebony
  3.   Refinery 29
  4.   WWD
  5.   The Fashion Law


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