The world has witnessed a wave of protests since the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, along with recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, which highlighted the racial injustices affecting the Black community in America and elsewhere. Protesters are calling for real change to the justice system and law enforcement, as well as in politics, employment, housing and education. The fashion industry has also come under the spotlight.
It’s fair to say that fashion has been disappointingly slow to react. Floyd’s murder was recorded on May 25th, yet until recently some brands made no reference to the incident or subsequent unrest, and a few remain silent still. Speaking on divisive political and social issues is a calculated risk, and some businesses have been accused of avoiding the topic in fear of alienating some of their customers.
At times, the fashion industry has openly engaged with the world’s problems, even in the presence of controversy. Recent government policy on the pandemic, for example, resulted in widespread protests in America. Nonetheless, the marketing efforts of most fashion brands included quips about ‘staycation outfits’, ‘quarantine style’ and ‘serving home looks’. Designers have frequently referenced political protests -Vivienne Westwood, Dior, Jeremy Scott, Henry Holland and countless others are no stranger to a slogan tee. So, why the sudden silence on racism?
Whatever the reason, activists are having none of it. The Black community and its white allies have heavily criticised fashion businesses for their absence, with some positive effects. A few brands moved quickly to show support at the end of last week, with the Instagram accounts of Nike, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton uploading photographs, artwork and videos declaring solidarity with the cause. Now, with public demands for justice impossible to ignore, the majority of the fashion industry has reached the conclusion that remaining silent is more deafening than becoming vocal.
As of yesterday’s #BlackOutTuesday, most brands have aligned themselves with protesters by sharing educational resources, donating money and pledging to bring internal changes. While an admirable start, the last thing this movement needs is performative activism or token gestures. Change must be real, tangible and long-lasting. For fashion, this means greater inclusivity of Black employees within senior leadership, better racial representation by engaging more with Black models and influencers, and addressing the racism that underlies poor working conditions and pay for factory workers.
By Rebecca Taylor