Report: Fashion industry suffers from diversity and inclusion issues

While it services people of all abilities, gender identities, sexualities and ethnicities, its workforce does not always fully represent those customers.

There’s a great scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” where Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly gives Anne Hathaway’s Andy an earful about what fashion means to the world:

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says,” … but what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue. It’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, and then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent who showed cerulean military jackets, and then cerulean quickly shot up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through department stores, and then trickled on down onto some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.”

This to-the-point monologue distills, in a few sentences, how central fashion is to our lives. At least most of us wear clothes on a daily basis. Those of us who do would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t believe the shirt on our backs wasn’t informed by a bigwig designer, even if we purchased it on super sale at Target.

But the fashion industry has a problem — while it services people of all abilities, gender identities, sexualities and ethnicities, its workforce does not always fully represent those customers. And though its most fervent clients are women, its leaders often are not.

This may come as a surprise because so many of the major names in fashion belong to women Think Coco Chanel, Kate Spade, or Vera Wang. But behind the scenes, women don’t always play a prominent role.

In 2017, 85% of students enrolled at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology were women. But when fashion news publication The Business of Fashion (BOF) assessed 371 designers during fashion weeks for spring/summer 2017 collections, only 40.2% of the designers making clothes for women were female themselves. A year before that, BOF found that only 14% of 50 major fashion brands were run by women.

To understand some of these gaping inconsistencies (and to promote a more diverse and inclusive industry), The Council of Fashion Designers of America and PVH Corp. held a leadership forum on October 29, 2018, and published an affiliated briefing this January. The report’s authors found that fashion suffers from an inclusivity issue that keeps important voices out of the discussion.

Researchers defined “diversity” as “the mix, simply a measure of difference” and “inclusion” as “a climate in which diverse individuals come together to form a collective whole, enabling and empowering individuals to make contributions consistent with their beliefs and backgrounds.”

Before the October forum, researchers sent executive-level attendees a questionnaire about their company’s practices. 41% ranked their business a 3 out of 5 in terms of diversity, while 36% said the same of inclusion at their companies. Though the data was self-reported, it indicates that people at higher levels of fashion organizations feel as though the industry performs average when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

The report claims that “these statistics are simply not enough. ”

Researchers further broke people in the fashion industry into two groups: The “insiders” and “outsiders.” Insiders don’t necessarily know they’re setting the norms or benefitting from unconscious biases, though they are. Meanwhile, outsiders are more aware that they’re conforming to the norms, and their contributions are often overlooked.

“The important perspectives brought by outsiders, which are often central to creativity and innovation, can be lost,” the report found.

The fashion industry may on paper appear one of the last places where diversity of leadership is a problem, at least in terms of gender. But even in one of the most liberal, female-leaning professions, it appears that women and minorities have trouble ascending to the top rungs.

“We recognize that there is still a lot of work to do to make the fashion industry more diverse and inclusive,” Jason Kass, associate dean of the school of fashion at Parsons School of Design, said in the report. “This means not shying away from difficult discussions and recognizing historical and ongoing imbalances in terms of who is seen, heard, and designed for.”

That doesn’t mean that the sector is at a standstill — in fact, it seems that fashion is finally waking up to its shortcomings.

“Diversity and inclusion in fashion is shifting in a more positive and progressive way,” Shanel Campbell, a womenswear designer, said in the report. “Although the rate has been slow, I can still appreciate the fashion industry’s acknowledgment for change and the necessity of inclusion. I have been seeing a more diverse range of people behind the scenes and within positions of power that then can inform critical decisions around creating diverse narratives and visuals throughout fashion.”

Alexandra Villarreal|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at avillarreal@theladders.com.