Diversity and representation have been a more and more important part of the conversation in the world of fashion with countless articles published every fashion week on the diversity of models on the runway. According to critics, the last two fashion week season was the most diverse – especially in New York and London, less so in Paris and Milan. We saw more women of color (28% overall, up to 36% at NYFW SS2018), plus-size models (0.43%), women over 50 (0.29), transgender women (0.17%) and – perhaps best of all – random everyday people walk down the catwalk, making it easier for an audience of consumers to relate.
In spite of many voices raising the issue of inclusion in fashion, and some houses making a statement by only selecting models of color (Marc Jacobs and Kanye West’s Yeezy among the most renowned), tokenism and indifference remains prevalent overall, especially in houses such as Chocheng, Comme des Garçons, Undercover and Junya Watanabe who either paraded only one woman of color in a vague attempt to avoid criticism or sent only white women down the runway.
When a majority has the control of the narrative, they get to decide – consciously or not – to maintain the status quo.
The first time I was exposed to the issue of representation in the fashion industry, I had just moved to the US and my roommate was venting about magazines and runways only selecting women with a European physique: “they cast black women with caucasian features!”. I must admit on the spot I didn’t get what the big deal was: where I come from, it wasn’t even a conversation. In spite of the “all different, all equal” t-shirts we were given in fourth grade to supposedly fight racism, celebrating diversity, alterity, individuality has never been a high priority on the French agenda. For Christ’s sake, we are still debating if women wearing the headscarf should be allowed on the beach!
Eventually I realized that I had been so conditioned by the media, school and antagonistic political discourse that I had accepted that fair representation was not something to expect. When a majority has the control of the narrative, they get to decide – consciously or not – to maintain the status quo. In France, it’s safe to assume it was a conscious choice: for decades, the Superior Council of Audiovisual media (CSA) has been calling out the lack of representation and diversity throughout all media outlets but has consistently refused to enforce any concrete measures, such as using quotas, to change the status quo.
The reason why we keep bringing up the issue of representation, the reason why it matters, is that fashion is intrinsically connected to identity: our identity as an individual, as a member of a community and of society as a whole. One of the earliest definition of fashion defines it as “a collective manner of living, of thinking specific to a country, to an era”. If so, excluding minorities from the podiums, the magazines, the ads and even the e-shop is in fact excluding them from the collective narrative of what our community or our country looks like, and what we aspire it to look like. In fine, minorities are excluded of what we identify as “the norm” and instead become anomalies, weirdoes, aliens or worse: subordinates.
Fashion codes and conventions have historically served to assert social and economic hierarchy. In that sense, not only the clothes we make, but who we choose to wear them have the power to perpetuate or question the status quo: the idea that non-white people are not worth seeing, and that is the crux of the matter.
When I was a child, I had a dream: to identify with someone.
Last September, an interview with Olivier Rousteing, the Creative Director at Maison Balmain, in the late night show On n’est pas couché (we’re not asleep) epitomized the problem of diversity and representation both in the media and in the fashion industry: the majority doesn’t even see that there is a problem to begin with.
During the interview, Rousteing – who was adopted and raised by a white family – explained his difficulties to relate to others: “I was born in 1985, and at that time race was taboo. I was born anonymously, in a town that was somewhat closed minded: […] when my parents came to the orphanage, the social workers asked them is they were sure they wanted a black child. […] The main obstacle for me, of course, was my skin, because obviously when you enter an established system and circles, and at a young age, you’re not welcome, you have to prove yourself even more, and that’s what I tried to do.”
But while he tells his story, the journalists on set mock his relationship with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, judging the couple’s intellectual value. They can’t understand the need to relate, to identify with someone who looks like you, who proves it’s possible to do more than what you’re told you can hope for. “When I was a child, I had a dream: to identify with someone. And to me, Kim, being Armenian American, married to a black man, with mixed-race children shows a new kind of ideal family.”
When high street fashion brands favor inclusion over exclusion, they both claim and give power.
This year though, fashion week told a different story. For the first time we saw pioneers such as Halima Aden – the first Muslim model wearing the headscarf to walk down the catwalk or make magazine covers – break all expectations of what a model is or should be. The fact that Aden rocked high fashion runways and magazine covers from Max Mara and Kanye West’s Yeezy fashion shows to Vogue and Haper’s Bazaar covers showed a change of attitude in the industry.
For years, the headscarf – or hijab – has been and still is described as an instrument of oppression of women. To the point that, paradoxically in countries like France and Belgium, women who chose to wear it have been ostracized from society: they’re expelled from school, fired from work and banned from public spaces. Under cover of protecting their freedom, the law and the state institutionalized the ostracization of women for their difference, their individuality and ultimately castrated their agency.
When high street fashion brands favor inclusion over exclusion, they both claim and give power. They claim the power to reshape the status quo, to contradict racism, sexism and classism, to put society back in its place by confronting it to its multiplicity. And then they give the power to believe in one’s potential, reach for more, look for opportunities and ultimately reclaim one’s freedom.
Perhaps for this exact reason, Rousteing and Kanye’s Wolves music video and Balmain commercial reflects a choice to change our collective representation of what fashion is. And because fashion captures the image that society has of itself, it also dares us to change our collective representation of who we are as a society. As Jamel Debbouze, a famous French Moroccan comedian once said, “it’s not my role to integrate myself. It’s up to you to integrate the fact that I’m here.”
Let’s rise to the occasion.