A CULTURAL lag refers to the phenomenon where cultural advances lag behind technological progresses. When it comes to the fashion industry, however, there is a different yet equally troubling phenomenon: a fashion lag. While racial discrimination has been steadily dismantling across society, the industry that claims to be trend-leaders has been slow on the uptake with repeated occurrences of blatant racism in recent years. It is time that the fashion world is given a stern talking on how artistic expression needs to coexist with racial diversity.
Racism in fashion power houses
In September 2018, major outbursts of anger swept through China. This was in response to a highly racist advertisement by Dolce and Gabbana, where an Asian woman was featured struggling to eat pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks. The red outfit and backdrop identified the woman as Chinese, and the voiceover mocked the Chinese by portraying them as uncultured. Chinese celebrities promptly called for a boycott on the Italian luxury brand, and the November Dolce and Gabbana Shanghai Fashion Show got cancelled when the internet blew up in a frenzy.
While this was one of the more recent incidents that sparked controversy, fashion brands such as ZARA, H&M, Prada, and Chanel was met with disgust by the public due to their racially insensitive products.For instance,Prada was publicly disgraced after customers pointed out that one of its animal charms resembled blackface, the practice of non-black individuals putting makeup to resemble a black person. Similarly, in the 2018 F/W Runway, Gucci featured a black turtleneck that, when pulled up to cover one's chin, made models seem like they had thick red lips—a distinct feature of blackface. Since the debacle, both Prada and Gucci apologized for their offensive designs and removed all products in question from shelves. They also created diversity councils and education programs to prevent future racist incidents. Although the effect of these programs is yet to be seen, such changes are welcome all the same.
Why is the fashion industry racist?
In such a "politically correct" 21st century, how could these incidents occur? Is it because the fashion industry is inherently racist? The answer is more complicated than that. For one thing, the fashion industry has a stronger dictatorship atmosphere than other industries: a single designer governs the entire operation for the season and the employees are hired to facilitate under this iron-fist leadership. This top-down system makes it difficult for employees to question the design choices of their superiors.
Furthermore, the fashion industry has been, and is still Caucasian-centric. According to Business of Fashion, 80% of all models featured in the 2016 Spring Fashion Show were white. Moreover, the top-tier jobs such as designers and directors are also predominantly white, as proved by the fact that only 10% of the designers in the 2018 New York Fashion Week were black. The biggest problem with this phenomenon is that having a predominant race at work makes it difficult to register racial insensitivity. This is not to say that all white employees are racist. Rather, there is a clear divide between recognizing that something is racist in the position of an outsider and feeling that something is racist when one is part of the said race.
For instance, the Vogue 2017 March edition crew may have intended to revere Japanese culture by featuring the white skinned, and usually blonde Karlie Kloss posing in black hair and Keisha makeup. But to readers in the Asian community, the shoot was just another tiresome display of cultural appropriation and Orientalism. If more employees from Asian backgrounds had been involved in the decision-making, they could have recommended featuring an actual Asian, or even better, a Japanese model in the spotlight, eliminating the sense of cultural exploitation.
What it means to be true trend-setters
For too long, the fashion business relied heavily on the vagueness of artistic expression as an excuse to produce “creative” yet offensive products. Indeed, this lenient attitude has caused the fashion industry to lag in racial sensitivity. Fashion brands need to get a grip on themselves and make changes from the inside out. While clothing brands start with simply designing attire, in the end, their role doesn’t stop there. They ultimately take on the responsibility of producing and showcasing an individual’s personal statement. Thus, brands have to strive towards products worthy of becoming a part of the wearer’s identity.
Though ultimately, the main stakeholders are not the executives in the “c-suite.” It is the customers who yield the power when it comes to fashion, an industry built up on popular opinion. In this sense, consumers need to follow the footsteps of the Chinese who continue to rebel against Dolce and Gabbana. Pinpointing racism and using financial retaliations are ways to upend the unfair displays within the fashion world. Through such rebellion, consumers will successfully be able to yank the “fashion lag” to a pace that is worthy of 2019.