The Creative Director Diversity Dilemma
Written by Tomi Otekunrin
Diversity and inclusion has always been a sensitive subject for luxury fashion houses. When anyone first becomes invested in fashion, the first place where they see a lack of representation is on the runway. Until recently, the models usually seen on the catwalks were tall, white and very slim. Now with consumers and models alike speaking up about the lack of diverse models at fashion shows, we’re definitely seeing more representation when it comes to ethnic minorities. According to a report by The Fashion Spot, Fall 2022 was one of the most racially diverse seasons ever. Across shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, 48.6% of the appearances were by models of colour.
Whilst we’ve seen more diversity on the runway, there’s still a lack of it in fashion jobs that operate behind the scenes. A New York Times report released in 2021, highlighted that the fashion industry’s commitments to being more diverse and inclusive were more talk than action. Out of 69 designers and creative directors that were reviewed, only four were Black. This number has shrunk even more with the passing of Virgil Abloh, founder of luxury brand Off-White and former artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear. The NYT also reported that from summer 2020 up until 2021, five top designer jobs became available and four of those spots went to white men, with the other role going to a woman.
Over the years, fashion fans have celebrated the increase in designers from ethnic minority backgrounds. We’ve seen the rise of talents like Bianca Saunders, Priya Ahluwalia and Chet Lo, just to name a few. However, there’s still a lack of ethnic minority designers sitting at the helm of luxury brands which don’t bear their namesake. Jeanie Annan-Lewin, a stylist and creative director at Perfect Magazine, explains why non-white designers get overlooked at the major fashion houses.
“I think fashion as an industry is very elitist. It requires a lot of money, a lot of patience and a lot of status,” she says. “I think socially and economically, it’s really hard for POC and Black people in particular to make it to the final stop. It’s getting better, but I can think of all the Black designers and count them on my hands. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Darren McKoy, Creative Director at British footwear brand Dr Martens, thinks that it’s the “responsibility of brands, who should be cultivating talent from black and brown communities at a grassroots level, and thinking about the evolution of these individuals through the business in order to prepare them for top level roles.” Outside of these roles being available, McKoy added that we “have to provide the right education, by looking at internships and young designers, and fundamentally building them up for the long term so that they’re ready.”
It’s not surprising that many fashion houses don’t do the groundwork to ensure that they are representative across the board. The fashion industry was, and still is, quite insular. It’s exclusive, male-dominated and very white. For a long time, luxury fashion houses have gotten away with tone-deaf campaigns and fashion shows that are littered with cultural appropriation designs. Now thanks to consumer activism and social media, they’re being called out like never before, and consumers are demanding they do better when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It’s forcing them to change at a quicker rate. Gucci was widely criticised online back in 2019 for selling a balaclava jumper that resembled blackface. In response to the backlash, Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri hired Renée Tirado as the brand’s first global head of diversity, equity and inclusion. Tirado has since left the post but continues to serve as diversity consultant to the brand. The brand also launched Gucci Changemakers North America, a social impact initiative that aims to increase inclusion and diversity within the fashion industry and across communities and cities. More fashion houses are starting to do the work, as shown by an increase in diversity schemes for underrepresented designers. Prada, who in recent years came under fire for ‘blackface’ merchandise, launched the Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab with artist Theaster Gates to help support and amplify the work of designers of colour. The programme has certainly increased the number of eyes on British-Nigerian fashion designer Tolu Coker, who was part of the 2022 cohort.
While programmes like the aforementioned can definitely increase the spotlight on ethnic minority designers, it doesn’t directly increase their chances of landing a creative director role at a major brand. To help with this, we also need luxury fashion houses to hire more diverse talent across leadership positions and also in their marketing, creative and PR departments. According to a report released by the British Fashion Council and the MBS Group in 2022, just over half (51%) of fashion businesses have a coordinated
D&I strategy. A further 21% of the industry are actively building a formal D&I strategy, indicating that more change is on the way. Schemes like The Outsiders Perspective, launched by Jamie Gill in partnership with Burberry, Deloitte, the Mayor of London, Karla Otto and Zalando, aim to bring minorities into operational roles in fashion. When you have more diverse staff across the board at major fashion labels, then ethnic minority designers’ names are more likely to be suggested when a top spot becomes available.
Fashion brands can no longer hide behind token diversity and performative acts, they need to hire more diverse talent and ensure their teams go through racial sensitivity training. Diversity schemes at luxury fashion houses need to make sure their application requirements are not restrictive when it comes to education and location, and judge more so off merit. Top media publications should be required to highlight a certain amount of ethnic minority designers in every issue. They should report on how many non-white designers and creators they platform annually. Luxury fashion houses should report on the percentage of their staff that are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Of course, if a brand refuses to do this then we know numbers can’t be good.What we need is data. That way consumers and other industry professionals know how much (or little) the fashion industry is doing when it comes to diversity and inclusion. This alone won’t eliminate all of the barriers that ethnic minority designers face, nor will it guarantee them being in the running for the top designer jobs at luxury brands, but it will undoubtedly open up the conversation.
Though change is slow, progress is being made. In early 2022, Swiss Luxury brand Bally appointed Filipino-American designer Rhuigi Villaseñor as its newest creative director. Villaseñor — who has amassed a legion of fans thanks to his cult streetwear label Rhude — has already injected a bold, new contemporary luxe feel to the Swiss brand that won over fashion enthusiasts during Bally’s SS23 presentation at Milan Fashion Week. British-Trinidadian Maximilian Davis is another ethnic minority designer ushering a new era at a luxury fashion house, after he was appointed as the creative director of Ferragamo back in March 2022. Davis’ attention to sensual, elegant silhouettes with sharp tailoring, love for textured fabrics, and influences from his Caribbean heritage has already brought a much-needed ‘freshness’ to Ferragamo.
Hopefully, the recent appointments of these talents will not be rare instances, but instead an encouraging sign of what’s to come in the world of fashion.