Faltering on the Front Row


The fashion industry lacks diversity in the corporate sector, the retail sector, the media sector and on the front row of major runways.

I’ll admit there has been a little improvement when it comes to the diversity of models being hired and appearing on the covers of beloved magazines. However, that doesn’t change the rigidity of the rest of the industry, the oh-so-white dominated culture. In many runways shows, diversity rarely exists on the front row, even though changes are occurring on the runways themselves. It would be too generous, though, to say that significant change is occurring on those runways.

The fashion, style and beauty industries are struggling to understand the concept of inclusivity. If you look at the uppermost senior ranks of these industries, these positions are held by the same and very white people, and it plagues other sectors of these industries. The majority of entry-level jobs go unadvertised, nor are they well-paid, so the majority of people who enter these industries are coming from privileged backgrounds. These jobs are offered to people of similar economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds that already exist in the industry. There has been a growth in influencers becoming more diversified on the front row, but these opportunities are viewed as tokenism from brands, meaning there is little fundamental change occurring behind the scenes of these shows.

The Current Level of Diversity

According to The Fashion Spot in their annual ‘Runway Diversity Report’, the number of non-white models on New York, London, Milan and Paris runways has double since 2015 to 38.8%. There has been a much similar increase with people of colour featuring on major fashion magazine covers at 37.7%. Unfortunately, the fashion industry has only strived to make changes that satiate public desire for diversity and have failed to incorporate that same progress behind-the-scenes. If you’re looking for high-level appointments that have the same level of progress on runways, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them, with Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton being the exception rather than the rule. This extends to the front row which hasn’t transformed alongside the runways they are next to. The people on the front row illustrate the fundamental issue with the industry and who it allows in – those with cultural clout or those with seniority in the fashion industry.

The Runway Isn’t Just a Runway

The problem with the front row is what it is representative of. It’s regularly used to illustrate a brand’s image and what they represent. Their advertising campaigns can showcase one thing, while their runways convey another moment of diversity, but the makeup of the front row highlights who the brand truly wants as their consumers and supporters. You want to entirety of the fashion show to look good, in turn, the people who attend must look white good. It’s easier to think of the front row as another board room in the fashion industry which is composed of very non-diverse boardrooms. The people who are sat on the front row determine how the brand is perceived and how they are spoken about. These sits aren’t the only area in which you require exclusive access to as this issue branches throughout all aspects of the industry.

Influencers in Fashion

There is a clear pecking order in place for who sits where at these shows. It’s fundamentally about seniority, and while designers and publicists can opt for who sits in the front row, not many take the opportunity to take the inclusivity from the runway by bringing it to the front row. With a brand’s public audience watching the front row even more, they now need to place the personalities audiences want on to see on the front row, and advertising the fact that they have been invited to the show.

Rickey Thompson is one of those influencers that were front row at New York Fashion Week for the Coach and Brandon Maxwell shows. These brands cannot afford to ignore inclusivity any longer because they will be alienating their younger customers. Gen Z are asking for transparency, inclusivity and equality from the fashion industry. We will be quick to cancel the brand and refuse to shop from them if they cannot implement change and actually bring diversity into the industry.

The case doesn’t need to be made for brands to become more inclusive. There is so much money in these neglected markets that don’t make it to the front row or in upper ranks of the industry. By ignoring people of colour, they may as well ignore the billions of pounds that can be found in that market, so this industry should start respecting everyone’s money. It’s not just the people on the runway who determine the definitions of beauty, but everything else that surrounds it, and audiences want to see where they fit into the industry that is shamelessly asking for their money.

It gets repetitive, especially with recent politics, but consumers want more than a hashtag. The change does need to be reflected in advertising and marketing, more so, it needs to occur in a brand’s central ethos. You can step up your campaigns by making them more diverse and inclusive, however, it would help and become much easier if that change occurred at the conception for these brands.

Changing the Face of Editorial

Edward Enninful became the first black editor of a Vogue, in fact of any major fashion magazine, in 2017. There is an issue when it comes to entering the fashion industry, in particular, fashion journalism. I have that access through a university magazine, others have that through social media, but the majority of stylists and journalists come to this industry via traditional means. The feeder schools themselves lack diversity in terms of ethnicity and class-background. For example, the majority of UK/EU undergraduates at the University of Arts London (UAL) are from white backgrounds, especially at the London College of Fashion (LCF) and Central Saint Martins (CSM).

The problem with the fashion industry, even more so in fashion journalism, is that you need to be able to afford that financial struggle for a while. It’s a systemic and structural issue. This is a race and ethnicity issue because many of us cannot genuinely afford to struggle since there are people who are dependent on our success. There also isn’t the safety net of generational wealth to catch us if we fall.

If you take a cursory glance at the industry, fashion media staffers on the traditional route usually come from similar socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The majority of editorial roles don’t pay well, or at all, so the qualified candidates who don’t benefit from generational wealth cannot afford those positions. Another major problem is that the opportunities for hiring are often nepotistic or based on personal relationships. These companies are hiring people from the same economic, cultural and ethnic groups. Ultimately, fashion media needs to be more active in how they recruit diverse journalists, first by actually finding the money to pay each of them. These changes have never occurred organically, so it’s time to do a little more diversity workshops, and actually get to hiring and pushing forward voices.

It’s okay to celebrate the diversified nature of the Autumn/Winter 2019 runways, but that’s where the industry needs to stop patting themselves on the back, because fashion has a long road ahead of itself for the front row and behind the scenes. You can see the dichotomy between the front row and the runway. The industry wants you to buy these clothes, they just don’t want to see it made by you or advertised and sold by you. The celebrity guests have never been the problem here. It’s the very structure of the industry itself from the bottom to the top: the retailers, editors and decision makers.

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