How the Fashion Industry Can Design a More Inclusive Future
This past year has indeed been transformative as the world confronted racism, hoping to break the systemic oppression experienced by underrepresented and underserved communities. At the same time, the wide-reaching and disproportionate impacts of the pandemic underscored the vulnerability of these communities. This has been a time of reckoning for corporate America. Industries have had to look in the mirror and face the lack of representation, opportunities, and support for minorities in their ranks. The fashion industry was no exception.
Fashion is a high-visibility business that may influence popular culture but has historically missed the mark in representing the country’s diversity at all levels of its workforce.
I have led the Council of Fashion Designers of America since 2006, currently serving as its CEO. Before, my work was specific to HIV programming with MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation and the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. As a gay college student mapping out my future career, I deliberately chose not to work in corporate America. Rather, I pursued work in nonprofit organizations where I thought my values and personality would be better aligned.
While I found a place of belonging, mentors, and allies along the way, no matter the work environment, I still found myself working alongside others unlike me. At each stage, there were situations where I experienced a lack of respect and acceptance because I was gay. Whether it was vendors, donors, or colleagues in the C-suite, I needed to focus on my self-confidence. It was a reminder that my contributions mattered and were equal to those of heterosexuals. It also required businesses and individuals to support, accept, and value people different from them.
At CFDA, I have begun to witness a long-overdue change in fashion. People at all levels of the industry are increasingly tuned in to the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion. We need to ensure a work environment of different cultures, values, and experiences, with guaranteed seats at the table for those unheard.
Much of the movement on equality centers on race and gender, and rightfully so. The CFDA and PVH Corp. recently released a report, “The State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Fashion.” The study found that 60 percent of respondents thought their employers had implemented measurable actions to be more inclusive. Four out of five believed these actions to be nonperformative. Interestingly, though, 26 percent of people of color still thought their race prevented career advancement. As suspected, at the C-suite level, over half of executive roles and just under three out of four board positions are occupied by white men. People of color fill only 16 percent of executive functions and 15 percent of board seats.
CFDA is working to change that with IMPACT, a new program that identifies, connects, supports, and nurtures Black and brown creatives and professionals in fashion. The program furthers CFDA’s mission to advance American fashion by including diverse talent in every facet of the industry’s ecosystem. A fundamental component of IMPACT is a talent directory powered by the job platform Creatively.
Despite the stereotypes of fashion as inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees (especially cisgender gay men), the data from the CFDA and PVH report found otherwise: 18 percent of LGBTQ+ employees report that they would not recommend that others like them apply for a job in the fashion industry. LGBTQ+ employees say there is greater inaccessibility to the fashion industry for them than for straight employees.
LGBTQ+ employees report a high rate (65 percent) of experiencing microaggressions. These include the questioning of their competence, hearing insulting or disrespectful remarks about them or people they like, and feeling like they can’t talk about their lives outside of work.
There are multiple types of barriers for LGBTQ+ team members. A Black lesbian, for example, has fewer opportunities available to her than a white male counterpart. Layer in her sexual identity, and she must work even harder to succeed. Intersectionality holds for many queer people working in fashion.
Firsthand, I have seen gay colleagues in fashion dismissed as unserious and called frivolous because of the way they dress. I have heard comments from fashion leaders disparaging trans designers as “not real designers” or claiming collections should be divided by gender and that nonbinary collections are irrelevant. (Read More on OUT
Wrangler Parent CEO Says Apparel Industry Should Prepare for ‘Global Casualization’
Corporate dress codes, whether written or unwritten, are changing. Look at places like fast-food restaurants and airlines, which have traded one-size-fits-all uniform policies for more flexible options that allow employees to purchase different pieces to create more original outfits that still fit within the company’s branding.
For office workers, the pandemic has caused a tremendous change in the way we dress. A year or more of working from home has changed the way we think about dressing for work, shifting the workplace attire norms to be more casual.
Scott Baxter, president, and CEO of Kontoor Brands, the parent company of Lee and Wrangler jeans, said that this “global casualization” is here to stay, and apparel companies need to pay attention.
“People are going to dress more casual and comfortable,” Baxter told CNBC
. “They’re very confident in denim and T-shirts, and they feel like it’s an expression, too. After being home for a year and a half, nobody wants to update their wardrobe to a really high-dress wardrobe.”
During the height of the pandemic, athleisure products like sweatpants and yoga pants were in high demand. For promotional products, companies went all-in on loungewear and things to get comfy in.
For the return to the office, whenever that happens, obviously sweatpants likely still won’t fly, but jeans and T-shirts are becoming more acceptable as workwear, as we rethink the formal nature of going to work.
“We did a survey of a bunch of our consumers, and found that 84% of the people are going to upgrade their wardrobe, and a lot of that is going to be in the casual sector,” Baxter said. “Denim is going to actually be a big winner there, but so will T-shirts and some more different apparel likings from a casual standpoint. We’re positioned really, really well with that casualization globally.”
That casualization isn’t fully the result of the pandemic. You don’t see people wearing suits to baseball games anymore, after all. But it did act as a catalyst to maybe speed things up to an inevitable ending where T-shirts and jeans are in even higher demand as clothes for both work and play.
And while work-from-home policies are still in place, casual apparel companies are going even more casual. Levi’s, for example, recently announced that it is acquiring yoga apparel brand Beyond Yoga. Levi’s hopes the move will bring in more than $100 million in total sales revenue for the 2022 fiscal year, according to Quartz
Beyond T-shirts, jeans, and yoga pants, companies that might have required shirts and ties might now allow polo shirts, half-zip fleece jackets, or short-sleeve button-ups. For companies still requiring collared shirts, maybe they now allow shirts meant to be worn untucked. All of these casual options still have space for branding to fit in with corporate aesthetics. (Read More on Promo Marketing