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Facing up to fashion industry racism (or let's just sweep it under the carpet!)

David Watts
23 January 2016

What is institutional racism?

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.”

Whether you agree or not that the above definition is appropriate for the fashion industry here in London, it’s hard to ignore the facts. Take a look around the London fashion scene (PR, designers, events, model agencies), as it would appear there is a definite lack of black and ethnic faces, at almost every level of fashion.

From the fashion designer perspective, it would seem that many students face increasingly difficult times in education, with cost savings, increased university fees and competition for places in the best design schools, many less advantaged people are being excluded. Add to this, in urban and less affluent inner-city schools, art and creative outlets are further eroded by cost cuts.

If young people want to explore art or any creative endeavour at school, then they need exposure to it from a early age. If not, we see that any hope of studying art and fashion design at college level soon vanishes. Additionally, if students at second-level education even have a desire to study fashion, they have not had sufficient training or assistance to create a portfolio, meaning they are already hampered from applying for design courses.

So you begin to see that why fewer Black and ethic background designers coming to the fore in fashion today.  It begs the question, "should there be positive discrimination"? Aren't we all created equal? (Just some more equal than others!)

Most people I encounter in fashion would not consider themselves overtly "racist", but do we harbour subconscious hardwired prejudices based on what we are programmed to understand as the norm? It would appear that most fashion (and fashion-related) businesses in London have adopted some subliminal filters when it comes to hiring black employees, but does that make them racist?

Having spent my adult life working in the fashion industry, I have never personally been faced with overt racism, but I do believe that I have not been considered for certain roles because my "face didn’t fit".  I have also held senior positions in my professional life, whereby I was the only face of colour in an entire organisation.

I also note that at major events, whether press launches or other high-profile industry events that the number of black faces in attendance can be counted on one hand! Ironic, since London is considered to be one of the most culturally diverse capitals in the world and from a fashion standpoint one that supposedly embraces the "different", but in fact it seems "different" is less likely to be black. If this seems harsh, then how many black CEOs, MDs and creative directors can you name in fashion in London?

The fashion model issue continues to remain in the forefront of the media and even then, the numbers seem at odds to those of real culturally diverse populations. You can actually count the number of black and ethnic faces seen on the catwalks on international fashion weeks. Would that have anything to do with the fact that there are very few, high-profile or influential black fashion editors in publishing - and once again we should ask the question "why is that"?

So the fashion industry isn't institutionally racist!

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