DIVERSITY AND REPRESENTATION – WHEN IS A FASHION BRAND BEING AUTHENTIC?
By Ellie Richards
In the past few months, worldwide we have seen surges in acts of dedication towards diversity inclusion and exclusion. Socially such as LGBTQ+ month parades and brand ambassadors, and politically with President Trump’s inhumane stance towards immigration. This has been an inspiration to fully question the extent to which the fashion community has integrated diversity into their campaigns and brand values as a representation and reaction of the social and political climate. The Oxford Dictionary describes ‘representation’ as: ‘A picture, model, or other depiction of someone or something’. It appears that there is a massive difference between representation, the abuse of diversity as a marketing/sales tool, and true diversity, based within the core values of a brand itself. Many of the brands and campaigns discussed cross over different forms of diversity, from body image, sexual orientation and ethnicity.
“For a brand to succeed it has to reflect the needs and the desires of a generation at a particular point in time. It has to be of the moment, but with eternal values that will always be recognised.” – Suzy Menkes, 2001
Scandals of discrimination within campaigns, editorials and runways is prevalent to this day within the fashion industry. Change is slow. So who have been the most recent offenders? Denim based fashion house Diesel released their newest campaign this year starring model Winnie Harlow, who’s condition of Vitiligo, causing de-pigmentation of her skin in patches, has made her an icon for diversity in the fashion community. Artistic director, Nicola Formichetti told E! News that “We believe in showing different types of body and beauty – celebrating uncommon beauties, this is what Diesel is and always has been about,”. In the campaign, Harlow is the only model in the group in just a bra, the rest of whom are fully clothed in denim jackets. It would seem that if a brand had diversity in the core of their company values, surely all of the models would be represented the same way? Harlow’s condition appears to be the main hook of the campaign, therefore using her as a marketing tool to appear “diverse”, rather than actually being so, becomes more apparent.
Concerning body positivity, fashion-bible Vogue was criticised last year for a cover shoot which featured models from a range of ethnicities and body types. One of the girls, Ashley Graham, is a dominant and inspirational figure in the plus-size community, and appeared to have been photoshopped to look thinner. It would seem while even the biggest brands in fashion are promoting inclusiveness, practises which 10 years ago wouldn’t have batted an eyelid (photoshop), will no longer be tolerated. Audiences want to see real women, real beauty, which represents all of us. While Vogue has often been praised for its inclusiveness, the “cult of skinny” has often been referenced alongside. The pace of diversity within fashion might be moving forward, but incredibly slowly.
However, through statistical analysis it would seem consumers are saying one thing and doing another, without even realising it. Statistically, online researchers have found that images of slim, caucasian models received 90% more clicks on e-commerce websites than that of larger, ethnic models. While the increased need for better representation for customers is growing, the ingrained habit of who you expect to see modelling clothes is still pushing sales. This may be why it’s taking brands longer to use a more representative set of models, and highlights the difference between marketing diversity and diversity as part of a brand’s values. Brands whom have these values often show them through the ‘trickle up’ effect, where brand builders will incorporate diversity into every campaign and runway, as a result of having built the brand based on strong, defined foundations as opposed to a reaction to a general social climate. This creates and reinforces authenticity.
An example of ingrained brand commitment to body diversity can be seen in the newest American Eagle x Aerie online shop. Underwear models can be seen with a variety of illnesses and disabilities, ranging from women with Vitiligo, Downs Syndrome and posing in a wheelchair. Jennifer Foyle, the brands president, commented that “now, more than ever, we want to encourage women everywhere to feel empowered to embrace their own unique qualities and beautiful real selves”. American Eagle with its AEO Foundation is helping to create positive change in areas that are important to both their customers and associates, including youth empowerment and education, environmental conservation, and young women’s health. As a big name internatioal brand, they are using their brand values to filter through every area of their business and create a wider impact, which is authentic and connects deeper with their customers and community.
Even larger, heavily publicised events, such as New York’s 2018 SS Fashion Week saw new records of diversity of models for both ethnicity and dress size. That season, every single runway included at least two women of colour, for the first time in NY fashion week history. While this does not seem like enough, the example NYFW sets for brands is influential, and is a massive step in the right direction. http://www.thefashionspot.com/runway-news/765783-diversity-report-every-new-york-fashion-week-spring-2018/
Previously mentioned plus-size model Ashley Graham was accompanied by Sabina Karlsson, a beautiful plus-sized model of Swedish/African descent walking the Michael Kors runway. Concerning body positivity, there was a mass of 90 plus size models gracing the runways this year at NYFW, a large improvement from AW 2017 where only 26 were seen. Considering that plus-size brands were responsible for 56 of the castings, this could have been more. We now know that statistically, almost 70% of women in America wear size 14 and over. Almost seventy percent!
Zalando’s 3rd year of their ‘Bread & Butter” fashion event, including pop up’s for many new and established brands saw celebrations of sexuality, body size and ethnicity. Endorsement from celebrity appearances and performances such as rapper ASAP Rocky encourages a global commitment to positive representation. Zalando is an online retailer of both high-street and high-end clothing, having always included plus sizes and non-white models, representing their consideration towards core brand values.
While many brands are sustaining the ethnic diversity of their campaigns, few have been as game changing and controversial as Benetton. Since the 80’s, the “United Colours of Benetton” campaigns have been influential with their inclusive and diverse casting from the get go, and statement campaigns often making onlookers uncomfortable with their societal commentary.
How can your brand replicate Bennetton’s successful campaigning?
- You can’t fake brand values. If authenticity and diversity are core values of your brand then its logical to start with this – if not, well, you might have to re-address your brand values, we can help with that.
- Be inclusive and diverse in all aspects of your company, from staffing to model casting. From the beginning this needs to be integrated; it shows your moral alignment and authenticity.
- This may slow down sales at first as you address a slightly different audience – but stick with it! You are the future of fashion. The inspiration for women everywhere that need to be represented.
- Be different, disruptive and controversial. You will be memorable, and stick out from the crowd of whitewashed runways and type-casting.
- Have fun with it, but be respectful! Often brands that incur backlash over controversial editorials have NOT got the authentic brand values or genuine need for diversity, therefore end up being inconsiderate to ideas which may be viewed in the wrong light.
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