Why fashion could do with some introspection

Aishwarya Tyagi
Filed on June 18, 2020

The industry is being called to account for exploiting Black culture for profit. Reform is the only way forward

By Aishwarya Tyagi

Visually, the past six months have been filled with some of the most painful visuals. We saw the helplessly injured koala bears in the Australian bush fires, the eerie images of the city of Wuhan warning us of a global pandemic and then came the 8-minute-46-seconds-long footage that left us shattered.

The video of George Floyd in the last minutes of his life, begging for air to breathe, was one that was filled with too many visual metaphors for black injustices, police brutality, and the absolute disregard for black lives. Which is why, today, we're witnessing worldwide protests of young and old, small and big voices coming together to let authorities know that they matter.

#BlackLivesMatter, which has been trying to gain the support of multinational corporations since 2013, is finally getting its due as the number one trending topic on Twitter and Instagram. Naturally, right on schedule, the fashion industry has been quick to get on board.

While a number of retail and luxury fashion brands faced the brunt of the situation, and were called out for racist behaviour and ignorance, their knee-jerk response to BLM has been just what was expected. We're now suddenly seeing an overflow of beautiful black models taking over the social pages of big brands, all-black screens with white quotes about justice and equality and representation, and an occasional post about their absolutely abysmal diversity in the C-suite.

Post the wokeness of BLM, black and POC models are still being relegated to a token status, much like an aspirin that masks the pain of a pounding headache.

How the fashion and beauty industry has capitalised on black lives for more than 100 years is pretty well-documented in magazines, fashion films, runways, catalogues and advertisements. Not only have they excluded minorities, they have exploited their mannerisms and identity in the name of 'exotic fashion', and appropriated their culture in more ways than we can put in words.

An American fashion magazine, considered the bible for the industry, has consistently appropriated black culture, using them as 'props' or caricatures of themselves - like the time it published some very on-the-nose racist images of LeBron James, one of the greatest NBA stars, as an angry primate next to a very delicate, very white model.

Last week, the headmistress of this school of appropriation apologised for the "mistakes" made in her 32-year tenure for not doing enough to elevate black voices on her staff and running images and stories that have been racially and culturally "hurtful or intolerant".

It took 32 years and a very visual atrocity to get an apology out of a legendary editor. I'd call that a small step in the right direction. For there is no denying the massive and long-lasting impact these images have had on our collective psyche.

Fashion's genuine support to the BLM movement, and its efforts to equally represent minorities, has the potential to change the way the next generation of men and women see themselves. Having said that, I'd like to point out that though white people are a global minority, they are still heavily over-represented in fashion media. And images matter. Black images matter, and equal representation matters.
What we're seeing all over social media and news channels right now - images of distraught people of colour protesting the very systemic racism - is powerful. Fashion needs to introspect its role in this movement and change its character to an ally, and use its visual monopoly to support black talent, instead of robbing them of their place in the industry.

What the fashion industry can do to help is to take their knee off the excellence of black beauty and let it breathe.