The fashion industry’s lack of diversity isn’t just on the runway.
The topic usually surfaces around fashion week, when thousands of models appear on runways and the world can watch which designers embrace diversity, and which don’t. Among designers, there’s also a striking lack of diversity. And behind the scenes, the fashion industry is often just as lacking in diversity at the executive level. In the retail industry, black workers account for 11 percent of retail employment, but just seven percent of management and senior positions like human resources, public relations, administration and sales, according to a 2015 report on retail race divide by Demos, a public policy organization.
In Glossy’s latest Confessions, where we grant anonymity in exchange for honesty, we speak to a black fashion brand consultant who has had more than 20 years experience at an executive level in the fashion industry, working with and for brands, retailers, buyers, sales teams and executive boards.
The fashion industry is often called out for its lack of diversity on the runway, what is it like within companies?
If people think the runways are lacking diversity they should see head offices globally. I’m talking about buyers, sales teams, the press, the make up is a single pantone: white. At a recent trade show it was staggering to see how little diversity there is in the business.
Are there certain areas in the industry that are particularly bad for a lack of diversity?
Every single aspect. The only place you’ll see diversity is at a store level, not an executive level. All of fashion’s woes and bottom line numbers are also tied to a lack of diversity because there aren’t enough ideas.
Does the industry know it needs to be more diverse?
Yes, of course they know. But there’s been no one in my career saying aloud, ‘We need diversity. We need more ideas. We need to change it.’ When people of color in the business bring up a lack of diversity we get ignored and it falls on deaf ears. Some employers are committed to diversity, I had one say to me, “You’re wrong for fashion but that’s why I need you here.” I helped them recruit at colleges with large black populations.
Have you brought it up in a job before?
Yes, and I got branded as someone being difficult. In a meeting with buyers and the head of creative we were pre-proofing a Christmas book and we had a black model. One of my managers stopped on the black model and said, “I’m not sure about this model, I don’t know if we have this customer.” I was the only person of color at the table and I had a decision to make about speaking up, it wasn’t hard. I asked, “Well, why don’t we have this customer?” The look she shot me was ‘How dare you speak?’ Two months later, I was out of that division, she’d gone to HR and said I was insubordinate.
Are you glad you said something?
If I had not questioned her or been at that table the pictures would have been reshot because it wasn’t an issue for anyone else. That’s part of the problem and why things look the way they do.
Where does the lack of diversity stem from?
A major factor is the gatekeepers to the industry: executive hiring firms have little diversity, they’re always 90 percent white. So even if companies were committed to diversity and acknowledging they have an issue, trying to enlist a search firm to help you with diversity, you’d be challenged to find a firm that’s diverse itself.
What’s it like dealing with those hiring firms when you’re job hunting?
When I talk to my black colleagues, no matter what aspect of the business they’re in, design, planning, store operations, if they’re at a senior level they’re told the same thing by search firms: “You’re an unusual candidate,” “You’ll be bored with everything we have for you.” It’s like of course I’m an unusual candidate, it’s because you don’t usually hire people who look like me.
What about in job interviews, do you think employers are looking to become more diverse?
In one interview I wasn’t being asked questions about the role and I could sense the president of the company’s apprehensions. I decided to steer the conversation and tell her I knew about the factories where the brand made its clothes, and I knew about their pricing system because of my previous job. I asked her if she had read my résumé. I’d gone through a recruiter and we’d never met in person but a few days after the interview she called and asked if I was black. She then told me off the record that I was a good candidate, but that I wasn’t getting the job because it was the president’s first hire and she was concerned that I’d be her first hire. I’m so glad the recruiter had the courage to tell me what it was otherwise I would have been racking my brains for what else I could have done.
What impact does a lack of diversity have on fashion in general?
Companies need more ideas and input from people of color. There are certain little things when it comes to buying for example, certain colors do not work for a lot of people of color. Buyers are often laying things up against themselves to see what it looks like. If you don’t have a brown person picking that color saying, “This looks terrible on me,” it will be chosen, and no brown people will buy it.