Arun Venugopal: Arun Venugopal, in for can Tanzina Vega, this is The Takeaway. As protests against police brutality spread across the US this summer, major fashion brands and companies expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter through black squares on social media posts, public statements, and commitments to, "Do better." Some brands like Japanese retailer Uniqlo and Nike pledged to donate $100,000 to organizations that support Black Lives Matter. Others like Gucci, which has its own history with racism, published a letter stating its commitment to, "Fight to end systematic racism, bigotry, police violence, and oppression."
As fashion month begins physically and virtually around the world and here in New York City next week, the spotlight is off the runway and onto the business side of the industry, but can these gestures translate into real structural changes across the fashion world? For more on this, we turn to Robin Givhan, Washington Post fashion critic, and fashion designer, Tracy Reese, who is the founder and creative director of Hope for Flowers. Robin, Tracy, so glad to have you with us.
Robin Givhan: Hi, thanks for having us.
Tracy Reese: Great to be here.
Arun: Robin, before we get into structural changes, please help catch us up on fashion weeks, which are going on all this month, what does it look like this year?
Robin: Well, it looks a lot like a lot of people around the world sitting in front of a computer, watching live streams, videos, and Zoom news conferences. It's quite virtual. There will be some live events actually or, at least, are planned for this season. Essentially, it's a really big moment of reset for a fashion industry that, like so many businesses, is in upheaval.
Arun: How would you characterize, overall, the response to the industry to what has happened this summer?
Robin: It's been a pretty fast build-up, actually. It started out with a lot of companies and individuals posting notes of solidarity on social media, and it very quickly ramped up, in part, because it seemed that a lot of people within the industry, a lot of Black people within the industry, had quite simply just lost patience with notes of solidarity. There were demands for actual changes that could be measured, from getting more products from Black-owned companies on store shelves, to opening the doors to more Black photographers to shoot cover stories, to changes in boardrooms and in the design at ateliers themselves.
Arun: Tracy, do you worry that this is just another trend at least for some brands?
Tracy: There's every chance that that could happen. It's up to us, as Black people in this industry, to make sure that it isn't a passing trend or a phase. We have to do the work. We have to make sure our voices are heard. We have to keep the pressure on. We have to hold brands and all these organizations accountable and make sure they follow through with all the pledges that have been made and take it even further.
Arun: One would think that the extent to which change is possible depends on the number of people who are Black in a given organization or in the industry, overall. Robin, has that change enough that you think there is a critical mass?
Robin: Yes and no. On the one hand, there's been a lot of attention paid to the models that are on the runway, that are in advertising campaigns, in part, because they are the most visible part of the industry for so many people, and over the last few years, that has changed dramatically. Now, when you go look at a runway show or you look at an advertising campaign, the company that doesn't have diversity in those images is really sort of the odd company out.
That said, Gucci had a significant problem with a sweater that gave the appearance of someone wearing blackface, and that sweater caused a stir on social media. It was the impetus for Gucci taking a really long hard look at his corporate culture, and part of the reason for that is because Gucci has a very diverse workforce in the US. Something close to 15% of its workforce in the US is Black, and that reflects the population in the US. Yet, despite having a diverse workforce, that sweater went from a design concept to product on store shelves without anyone speaking up and even suggesting that it was problematic, which left both the president of Gucci and the chairman of its corporate parent saying, "Why didn't anyone speak up? Why didn't people feel that, one, if they did speak up, they would be heard or, two, that they could even step out and say something?"
Arun: This episode makes me think that this idea of reflection, introspection, and having transparency in terms of how huge corporation actually operates, that this is all contrary to the nature of fashion, which is built around a certain kind of mystique and particularly crafted image. Is it especially hard for companies like this to do the necessary work?
Robin: That's a nice out for the fashion industry, in some ways. Yes, there is this element of each designer having this vision of who the person is that they're dressing, and certainly, as you get higher and higher and higher on the fashion pyramid to evermore exclusive brands, the audience narrows simply by nature of the financial wealth that's required to indulge in those brands, but fashion is also-- It operates in the real world. It is sensitive to and touched by all the same issues that affect every other industry, so the idea that it would be either immune or be able to rise above is something that the industry has cultivated, but clearly, isn't really true.
Arun: Tracy, give us some insight into how you've navigated the industry over the course of your career.
Tracy: That's a good question. As all this has been unfolding these last few months, I've thought about it a lot. There's certainly some huge generational changes that we're seeing. I've said this a few times, my generation was the first generation to go to college with a full ride, and among our families and friends, it was a big deal. We had a choice of where we wanted to go. All of our parents work their way through college and scrimped and saved and somehow made it through, but they were able to send their children to the colleges of their choices. It was a huge deal, and it was a big responsibility for each of us who got that opportunity to find a way to be successful and to make great use of it.
Our generation was all about, figure it out, find a way to succeed. If you have to work around the system because the system is not welcoming to you, then, find another way. If a door closes, a window opens, but bear down, work hard, and find a way. That's the story of my career, where a lot of times people will ask me, "Did you experience racism?" It's like, "Of course, I did, but I did not have time for it." I did not have time to stop and, and feel bad about it or complain about it. I don't think my complaints would have been heard or appreciated. It didn't matter. It was just like, "Find another way to make your dreams come true." That was the story of my generation and the story of my career.
Of course, there were roadblocks and barriers, but I pushed through. It was really about the work and working hard and showing up and finding a way to be accepted, getting your foot in the door any way that you could even if you didn't feel welcome. Times are so different now, and I'm glad of it. Today's generation, that's not good enough. It's not good enough to get your foot in the door. If the establishment doesn't welcome you, then, create your own establishment. It's a very different time, a different industry. I think the feeling among young creatives is completely different, and I'm energized by that.
Arun: You're on the board of one of the biggest organizations in fashion, Tracy, that the Council of Fashion Designers of America, how have they been thinking about this moment?
Tracy: It's been huge at CFDA. CFDA has been called out from every direction because it's a symbol of the fashion establishment, especially in this country. There are plenty of people at CFDA, and I'm not saying necessarily organizationally but membership-wise too, who would love to keep the status quo because it's worked to their advantage. CFDA is recognized as the governing body for fashion in the US, so it has to break that chain of racism that many people feel is prevalent within the organization and the industry. CFDA has to assert its leadership on this as it does in many other roles in the industry. We're really bearing down, working hard, and trying to attack this from every level, and also, work on it in partnership with a lot of the organizations that have been formed these last few months, including Black in fashion.
Arun: Now, we've been talking about how models on runways are the most visible sign of change or lack of change, but behind the scenes often has to do with access to investors or industry resources, is it too soon to say whether that is changing, Tracy?
Tracy: It is too soon. I think that that's obviously the biggest hurdle. When we talk about wealth and we talk about having a stake in the foundation of this industry, Black people don't have the stake that white people do or even Asians because Asians are very much involved in manufacturing and also design, and they have a different stake in this industry. We don't have a financial stake in this industry. We're relying on financing from the white establishment to fund our businesses or we have to find a way to self-fund, which means we're going to be starting much more slowly with a lot less capital, and it's a long road.
When we speak to young Black designers, I help mentor a group of young Black designers at CFDA, and capital is the biggest challenge. Most of them are working full-time jobs and trying to run their own businesses on their own at night, and they have their own direct-to-consumer channels. They're doing double duty trying to launch their brands or maintain their brands, and it's super challenging. Of course, in this climate, ready money, ready capital is not really available. To be honest, walking into a bank or a factor, as a Black creative, is not an easy thing to do. They're not looking at you the same as they would a white man or someone who has their family wealth or connections. It's very lonely trying to launch a brand with very little capital. It's very challenging.
Arun: Robin, given all that is happening in the world, why do you think this matters?
Robin: It matters because, one, the fashion industry is an enormous global business that we all participate in. It matters because fashion is also a business that very directly shapes our ideas about who people are. It helps shape who we believe ourselves to be and how we want other people to perceive us. Also, it's an industry that really is about creativity and about innovation and entrepreneurship.
It remains one of the few industries where, despite all of the hurdles, financial and otherwise, it's still accessible for someone with, as cliché as it might sound, an idea and a dream to actually make something of it. Just fundamentally, it is an industry that continues to be alive and well in the US, and particularly for smaller designers, a lot of the manufacturing that they do happens in the US. As much as we talk about the importance of made in America and supporting American industry, this is an American industry that should be, would be better the more open and supportive it was of designers and creative folks of all colors.
Arun: Robin Givhan is the Washington Post fashion critic, and Tracy Reese is a fashion designer and founder and creative director of Hope for Flowers. Robin, Tracy, thanks so much.
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