Performative Diversity & Fashion

By Tash Soodeen


Like minimalist designs and earth tone colours, inclusivity and diversity is ‘trending’ in the fashion industry. Like the physicality of ticking a box of multiculturalism in the workplace, the fashion industry ‘ticks’ ethnic boxes of inclusivity through advertising. Whilst diversity is vital in marketing and fashion in order to depict the cultural hybridity society represents; there is something discerning amidst the falsity of performative illusion many campaigns present.

The front-facing diversity of photo shoots, magazine covers and brand image reveals a certain deceit which overpowers authentic inclusive intentions. Models of ethnic minorities are emerging as the projected image of our favourite brands and companies, yet why are the vast majority of brand owners, directors and behind the scenes teams and employees white? If brands and corporations were concerned with the structural implementation of diversity and inclusivity, this paradigm would be embodied in the framework and institutional makeup of a company.

Do brands genuinely care about inclusivity or do they merely aim to maximise audiences through the projection of diversity? In modelling and fashion, image is marketed regardless but it is unsettling to consider that race is valued as singular through market value and unimportant to a company behind the illusion of diversity.

This ‘trend’ began through the exhibition of ‘The guy with an Afro’ in advertising and marketing. Casting directors wanted mixed race men with long Afro hair in their campaigns and advertisements. Afros are perceived as palatable and supposedly contribute to an ‘energetic and fun’ illustration. In actuality, Afro hair is a hair texture common in black and minority ethnic groups as opposed to an accessory. Furthermore, the archetypical ‘Guy with an Afro’ is predominantly of a lighter complexion appealing to an acceptable representation of ethnic minorities within European beauty standards.

Diversity is important to any brand or company. But where is the demand behind the image? Where is the demand for employees of ethnic minorities in these companies that desire so inherently to represent diversity? Moreover, many brands have just got it so wrong. Perhaps if they did have employees of diverse ethnicities, such negligence would be drastically reduced. With many brands accused of racially charged microaggressions such as cultural appropriation, inclusive campaigns are like sticking a band aid on deep-rooted institutional issues.

One particular luxury well-known brand which I will not name for legal reasons has recently been praised for diversity following a fashion show revealing their latest collection. The runway show features a group of models from various ethnicities and was initially praised and perceived as inclusive. However, an image surfaced revealing the team behind this collection as predominantly white. This highlights the conception that the only diverse aspect of the company was public image. This illusion is the problem.

So what are brands supposed to do? Well, as stated racial diversity is vital to any brand or company with diverse minds fuelling the greatest innovations of our generation. But shallow, surface level diversity does little but fuel unequal power dynamics. If brands genuinely want diversity, start with your staff and foundations, not your image.