Racism in the Fashion Industry

Illustrated and written by Deborah Anderson

This year has been a powerful year and one that we will never forget for so many reasons. It was the year where we learned lots of different things, from crocheting and baking to really getting to know ourselves a lot better. But 2020 has been a steep learning curve for white people especially. Since the murder of George Floyd by white police officers back in May, white people are finally realising the extent to which racism is intrinsically entwined into the everyday lives of people of colour. The overdue prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the mainstream media has started important conversations about the discrimination faced by non-white people all over the world. As a white person, I am continuously recognising my own privilege. It’s so important to look for racism across all parts of life and industries so that we can become stronger allies.

The fashion industry is one of the largest industries in the world - after all, whether we’re Bratz doll wannabes or not, we all wear clothes. I knew that the fashion industry was damaging when it came to the environment but until this year, and even writing this blog post, I had no idea just how much systemic racism there is in the industry. Let me count the ways…

‘Cheap labour’ – We’re probably all aware of (and sadly used to) the idea of garment workers in developing countries with little pay and even less rights, most of them making clothing and accessories for western fashion brands, to be sold for way more than they will get paid. Most of them are underpaid and overworked, often in unsafe working conditions. This problem is clouded in mystery as many brands are not transparent about their manufacturers, but how can fair wages be paid when brands like Pretty Little Thing can discount prices by 99% for Black Friday (and still make a profit)? We know this is a human rights issue but how much have we actually considered it to be a race issue? The very nature of brands choosing factories in these countries because they are cheap is based on the exploitation of black and brown workers. There are 74 million textile workers worldwide and 80% of them are women of colour. Often they have no worker’s rights or job security. This has been shown during the pandemic with the Pay Up movement. Fast fashion brands like Forever 21, Urban Outfitters and Topshop placed orders with overseas factories but due to the pandemic and a lack of sales, have yet to pay the factories for the clothing produced. This online campaign is amazing as it puts pressure on these brands (as well as others unfortunately) to pay their manufacturers, however, would it be necessary if the garment workers were western/white?

Lack of representation – People of colour, for the most part, aren’t well represented in the fashion industry, across all sectors. Diversity has been a buzzword for the last few years but is usually just referring to models. We don’t just need diversity on billboards or glossy magazine adverts, we need it behind the scenes too, from designers to hair stylists. Although, the number of black models on the runway has increased in recent years, it seems to be a common problem that hair stylists don’t know how to style the models’ natural, afro hair so it’s easy to see this “progress” as a marketing ploy.

Cultural appropriation – Due to the lack of representation in design departments (and ignorance), cultural appropriation happens. Many designer brands have been accused of this over the years when using elements of various cultures for their fashion collections, without recognising where the inspiration came from and getting the credit. Sadly, there are so many examples of this. In 2019, Comme Des Garçons sent their models down the runway wearing cornrow wigs when a lot of the models were white. Victoria’s Secret have sent their models down catwalks wearing Native American headdresses that are sacred to those indigenous communities, all in the name of fashion. Sometimes brands are just plain insensitive too. Last year Gucci sold a turtleneck jumper that resembled blackface. The fact that no one saw a problem with this product shows the deep-rooted and unconscious bias, as well as the lack of diversity within the industry.

These problems aren’t going to go away overnight but as consumers, we hold a great deal of power. It doesn’t matter what skin colour we have or what gender we are, we can still make a difference. Boycotting brands, campaigning, signing petitions, writing to our MPs and calling out racist brands on social media are all things we should continue to do. Especially as white people, we need to listen to people of colour. We have a responsibility to help create this change. It is all our fight. Research brands and see what their stance is on racism – have they made any statements? What are they actively doing to ensure that they have a more diverse team? Get behind activists and groups such as Fashion Revolution and as brands “who made my clothes?” We need to start looking for even the most subtle micro-aggressions in everyday life but from brands too. We need to call them out, hold them accountable, change their ways and make better purchasing decisions that bring about the much-needed race equilibrium.

Buying from black-owned business is one of the best ways to encourage this. You can find lists of them on sites like Black Book Direct or UK Black Owned, or Etsy. Take part in Black Pound Day (which is today!) and support these brands! Tell your friends about them, spread the word and most importantly, the love! As a black-owned business, One Wear Freedom is proud to be part of the movement. It’s important to us to represent other cultures in our collections. We appreciate not appropriate! A lot of our rental pieces are handmade by traditional artisans from all over the world including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, India, South Africa, Georgia and Afghanistan and we give credit to these origins on every listing. You can rent these beautiful clothes, as well as many other styles here and support us by giving us a cheeky follow on Instagram. Check out our EPIC winter collection that has freshly dropped here. Get it while it’s hot!


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