‘It’s time to be vocally and proactively anti-racist’

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a global – and long-overdue – examination of systemic discrimination against black people in all societies and industries. Leila Fataar, founder of creative marketing and communications company Platform13, looks at what needs to change in fashion.

Systemic racism in all industries is so complex that no amount of apology will do. Official “statements” and financial donations are appreciated, but tangible and accountable action is needed. Brands and companies have a responsibility to play an active and pivotal role in trying to solve global issues.

For an industry that has the weight and influence to make a positive impact at scale, the past few years have brought some of the most offensive products and tone-deaf campaigns in fashion, from luxury to the high street. However, the sales kept coming in.

In the workplace, racism is lack of thought and empathy; it is unconscious bias and old-world policies on hiring, agency procurement, promotion and campaign production; experiencing and internalising micro-aggressions on a daily basis, often at the hands of colleagues or employers; perceptions about POC [people of colour] being “difficult”, “aggressive” or “not a team player” if they challenge the status quo; being perceived to have an invalid view if POC have different reference points. And so on.

White CEOs and senior industry leaders need to hold a mirror up to themselves and their companies, even if it is uncomfortable. They need to drive for and champion horizontal, top-down, proactive, vocal, practical anti-racism training. This will mean all brands, agencies and companies across the industry formulate long-term, sustainable strategies, rather than short-term actions that are a response to a “trend” or this moment.

It is no longer enough to have vertical “diversity and inclusion” departments in the human resources function. It’s not the job of the POC in your business to end systemic racism – it is the responsibility of every non-POC person in your business to acknowledge what is happening and take responsibility for that transformation. We need to move past the “we stand by the black community” statements to proactive actions, starting with internal structures.

Being proactive and making changes from within will reduce the risk of inadvertently offending people with tone-deaf campaigns and, most importantly, will move things forward.

It’s not enough to be quietly non-racist – it’s time to be vocally and proactively anti-racist.

I spoke to voices who have worked within the fashion industry about their experiences, and how they think we can achieve meaningful change.

‘Hire more black people in integral roles’ – Tennesha Vanterpool, sales and project manager, Phoebe English

Just as there is a glass ceiling for women, there is a glass ceiling for black people. We make it to the stores, and maybe into the lookbooks and campaigns, but the higher up the chain you go, the fewer black people there seem to be. As someone who has worked with brand founders and directors, there is something halting progression.

The industry needs to create space. Hire more black people in integral roles and allow staff to grow within the company.

I was at [denim brand] Edwin for six years and learned so much. My boss saw how hard I worked, how much I cared, and he fought for me. When I progressed from retail to wholesale after one year, the creative director at the time encouraged me to be me, and make my role my own, so naturally, I flourished.

And for the people who have made significant progress: no more gatekeeping. It is up to us to make things better for our peers and the generations after us [and help provide access].

The fashion industry as a whole needs to stop and listen. We all know the problematic history of representation within the industry, yet we’ve seen little change. That means that either someone has actively chosen not to listen or absolved themselves of the responsibility.

There is also a lot to be said for humbling oneself. People need to be way more open to constructive criticism and work towards creating real change, rather than sticking a band aid on the issue.

‘Financial inequality is holding black people back’ – Foday Dumbuya, founder and designer, menswear brand Labrum London Financial inequality is one of the key factors holding black people back in the fashion industry – for instance, difficulty securing vital funding either from financial institutions, venture capitalists, or friends and family.

Advocacy from fashion journalism and key organisations also holds back black people in fashion. Recognition of black creativity is being appropriated by better-funded, better-advocated white-owned brands.

Success should be based on meritocracy, not on who you know. Black designers often lack the network that white designers have through their education and social network, which is further propagated in fashion journalism.

I will continue celebrating and educating others about my West African culture. I will continue supporting other black designers.

The industry needs to stop tokenism – there is room for more black designers. Democratise fashion PR and help promote unrecognised brands and give them a platform. Set up purposeful black mentorships between successful black-owned brands and unrecognised black-owned brands.

‘It will uplift everyone once black talent matters’ – Lola Okuyiga, special projects and collaborations consultant, who has previously worked for Browns, Asos and Topshop Businesses need to address where they’ve gone wrong in the recent past and now. Review black and POC exit interviews and start examining turnover rates of these groups.

Being in an environment that’s not optimised for you, or is even toxic for you, while trying to prove yourself relentlessly, is exhausting.

Review black talent positions in your organisations. What support do they need? Don’t just rely on them to speak up.

Review any past HR complaints, no matter how small, that are relevant and have been swept under the rug. If you or your organisation have been complicit in causing trauma, you need to resolve it or have a real plan to ensure these things do not happen again before making a plethora of diversity hires. It’s better for retention and is the right thing to do.

Fashion is notorious for only doing “the right thing” when people are looking. This isn’t about optics. If that’s what gets progress signed off then fine, but this needs to be a lasting culture change within your organisation and therefore the industry.

It’s not a trend. If you treat it like one, you’ll get left on the wrong side of history.

Review the pay structures, hierarchy and the widely held ideas of what’s OK in terms of talent pipeline, as well as the working environment that all talent is entering, as it will uplift everyone once black talent matters.

Fashion thrives on exploitation, overworking and underpaying in many organisations. Black talent, especially in entry-level roles, is far more susceptible [to lack of progression in roles], as employees often don’t have the privilege of financial cushioning because of wider historic fiscal inequality.

The whole model is flawed and needs reform. Fashion retail, as we know is in crisis, and it’s no wonder if talent isn’t able to move up the ranks, be heard and placed in decision-making roles.

Your customer is diverse. Business teams should reflect that from top to bottom. You will end up with better product, ideas, and execution.

I have no idea why the boards of young fashion businesses are predominantly made up of middle-aged white men. We have now entered the age of the relevant CEO.


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