The Fashion Industry's Racial Reckoning : Code Switch Fall is the time for glossy fashion magazines, full of dazzling looks and the seasons hottest looks. But this year, we noticed something unusual: The covers of a bunch of major magazines fashion magazines featured Black folks. So we called up fashion critic Robin Givhan to talk about fashion's racial reckoning...and how long before it goes out of style.
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A New Look For The Fashion Industry?

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A New Look For The Fashion Industry?

A New Look For The Fashion Industry?

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, sitting in for Shereen and Gene.

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BATES: We've had several months of protests for racial justice, and not just in the streets. If you've been looking at the fall fashion and lifestyle magazines that have been published over the past few weeks, you'll notice that a lot of the covers feature Black people.

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BATES: That, says Robin Givhan, the longtime fashion writer for The Washington Post and now a senior critic-at-large for the paper, is no coincidence.

So in the aftermath of a string of Black deaths - George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, to name just three - many parts of American society and its institutions are experiencing a reckoning on race, and so is the fashion world.

Conde Nast, the 800-pound gorilla of lifestyle and luxury publishing, was shaken several months ago when the editor of one of its flagship publications, Bon Appetit, stepped down after his staff accused him of racist and bullying behavior. Then it was Anna Wintour's turn. The editor-in-chief of Vogue is also artistic director of Conde Nast and responsible for the look and feel of its many magazines. She was taken to task for not being racially inclusive on her pages and with her staff. The luxury Italian fashion houses Gucci and Prada were criticized for producing designs that looked like hurtful racial stereotypes - and so on.

Recently, Robin Givhan wrote a long piece in The Washington Post's magazine looking at the intersection of fashion and race and at some of the initiatives that have been established to diversify fashion from the runway to the boardroom. I started our conversation by asking about all those Black covers, especially on magazines that don't normally do that.

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BATES: The September issues of fashion, and I would say a lot of the glossy magazines, even ones that aren't strictly fashion, have always been a big deal. We've always looked forward to them to see what was happening. Vogue this year had about two dozen different covers with two really beautiful ones by Black artists. There was a Kerry James Marshall painting and another one by Jordan Casteel. Vanity Fair had an Amy Sherald - is that right?

ROBIN GIVHAN: Yeah.

BATES: ...Painting of Breonna Taylor that had been commissioned especially for it. Oprah Winfrey used one of its last covers - 'cause as we all know, it's going to stop its print publication in December. So one of its four remaining covers was Breonna Taylor, a painting again. The current version of T, The New York Times fashion magazine, which comes out a few times a year, has a deeply, deeply brown woman on the cover and several very brown models on the inside.

What's happening here? It's like it feels like it's happening all at once from stem to stern. What do you think?

GIVHAN: Well, you know, you mentioned the British Vogue cover with multiple Black activists and agitators and prominent people. And in many ways, I think British Vogue has really been a leader in this regard.

BATES: Of course, British Vogue has a Black editor-in-chief.

GIVHAN: Exactly. Edward Enninful has been at the helm of British Vogue now for, I think, about two years - something along those lines. And when he took on that position - the first man, the first Black person to take on that role - he went in with a very intentional desire to make British Vogue more diverse. And, you know, that was part of his mission statement.

And also wrapped up in that was he wanted to maintain the same aspirational fantasy aspect of the magazine. He simply wanted to invite more people into that fantasy. And I do think that the successes that he has had with the covers from the very beginning did sort of spark a greater sense of diversity on the covers of other magazines and, you know, sister publications.

But I do think that we take what Edward was already doing, and then you couple it with the changing cultural ground today, and in many ways, it's almost sort of inconceivable that you would continue in the same old ways. You know, it seems like it would be an almost sort of aggressive denial of the way in which the world is changing not to reflect that on the covers of magazines.

You know, Harper's Bazaar just appointed its first Black woman as its editor-in-chief. InStyle magazine had Zendaya on the cover, who was styled by a Black stylist, Law Roach, who brought in, you know, a whole village of Black creatives to work with him on that cover.

And so I do think that it's a moment when the soil has really been tilled and it's this opportunity for these so many people who have always been there and who have always been working in fashion to step out of the chorus and take center stage, inshallah (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: I want to ask you, though, how cyclical do you think this is? Or maybe this is different from previous iterations of this. I mean, I can remember as far back as the '70s, when there were people saying, you know, we need more Black models. And then it would go away, and it would come back again, especially in those times when you would have designers whose entire lineup was pretty alabaster. The people were like, what? You know, this is - well, back then - the 20th century or the 21st century, and you're still doing this. So that part is cyclical. But this feels a lot bigger than just, we need more Black models.

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, I don't know the answer to the question of what sort of lasting changes that this moment might create, but I do know that for years, there has been a focus on a more diverse range of models both on the runway and in fashion editorials, as well as in advertising. And if you look at the changes in that particular area of the fashion industry over the last, you know, five to 10 years, it's dramatic. And, you know, I think some would argue that now, if you looked at a runway show or an editorial that didn't have some element of diversity, it would be the odd duck out. It would really - that runway show would stand out. It would be notable, and people would be talking about it.

This, I think, is moving beyond that to the parts of the fashion industry that the public doesn't really see but are arguably even more influential parts of the industry because it gets into who's in the atelier, who's in charge of the design aesthetic, who's in charge of the creative inspiration, who's in charge of the money and the financing, who sits on the boards of directors, who's writing the stories, who's taking the photographs, who's making the decisions.

BATES: Which must make magazines at least a little nervous at this point. I think some have been more visible in the callout for this than others. You know, Conde Nast is sort of the 800-pound gorilla in this, and Anna Wintour has certainly gotten her own share of attention for - how do I say this politely? - for the need for more diversity at Vogue, at Conde Nast. You spoke to her after this big callout. Did she have some sense that this was really - this change is inevitable and that she needs to be ahead of it rather than being pulled in its wake?

GIVHAN: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that at this point, she isn't ahead of it. You know, she really is, you know, trying to - she's playing catch-up. And this is someone who has been at the helm of Vogue for more than 30 years. She's artistic director of Conde Nast and is charged with overseeing a vast array of magazines.

I think that she certainly could've listened to some of the outpouring on social media and made an announcement that it was time for a new generation to step forward and she was stepping down from Vogue. But instead, she made the decision to sort of plant a flag and, you know, not let this sort of be the final chapter of her legacy.

But I will say that Anna does seem to be very aware that social media taketh and then social media taketh some more, right? I mean, social media does not say, oh, you know, that negative assessment that we had a year ago, you fixed it. Congratulations. It's all good. But I think she does realize that she's on the hot seat. And she said that if a year from now there's another conversation and there's no evidence of change or significant movement and progress, that she is responsible for that failure.

BATES: That's setting a pretty measurable deliverable for her.

GIVHAN: It is. I think, though, that there is a sense that that's the only option - that if there's anything that does distinguish the many initiatives and the movement that has sort of overtaken the fashion industry, it is that all of them have some kind of metric attached to them.

Now, whether or not, you know, the numbers will ultimately make the difference, I think, is a big question because diversity is numbers. And companies, like Gucci, that have had issues with, you know, racially insensitive products coming to market are companies that also had, you know, 15% of its U.S. employee base Black.

BATES: And let's tell people who aren't aware of what this is what the product in question was, because when I saw it, my eyes kind of popped out, said, you're kidding. They let this out in public? What?

GIVHAN: Yeah, it was a turtleneck sweater. It's black with a very exaggerated collar. So the collar came up over the wearer's nose. So there was then a cutout for where the mouth would be, and that was rimmed in red lips. So it looked like this sort of strange half-Blackface turtleneck.

And, you know, when you looked at it in - online, you know, as part of an e-commerce page, it was incredibly striking and startling, and you were left going, how did this happen? But then you also started thinking, OK, well, you know, the sweater probably came in different color stories, as they say in fashion. And perhaps, you know, people were looking at a version that was in a different color mix and it just - who knows?

You know, I think one of the important things that Gucci's president and also the chairman of Gucci's parent company said was, how did this offensive product go from conception to the marketplace, and no one in the U.S. said anything about it? None of that - none of the employees of color, of which there are a significant number, said anything. And that raises the question of either they did not feel comfortable being able to speak up or felt that if they did, their words would fall on deaf ears.

BATES: Some Black people - here, anyway - are not waiting for the fashion industry to get its act together. They're making demands of it, saying, if you can't figure it out, we are going to help you figure it out. No, we're going to figure it out for you. Talk a little bit. You mentioned the 15% rule. Tell us what it is, whose creation it was and how, in your estimation, it might manage to push the needle a little bit.

GIVHAN: The 15% pledge was created by Aurora James, who is also the founder of Brother Vellies, which is an accessories line, and she is Black. She grew up in Canada. And during that period when everyone was posting messages of solidarity on social media, she essentially said that as a Black business owner, her desire was to really put some meaning, some teeth behind these symbolic gestures. And so she chose 15% because it was sort of generally reflective of the percentage of Black people in the U.S.

And she - the pledge essentially asks major retailers to assess what percentage of their shelf space is given over to products from Black-owned companies. And she said that as a business person, she knew that that number was going to be in the single-digit percentages and to pledge to raise that to 15%. And she's been able to get brands like Sephora and West Elm to sign on. And she also has been able to get Vogue to sign on to pledge to raise the percentage of the freelancers that they're hiring - photographers, stylists - to 15% Black...

BATES: Wow, that's impressive.

GIVHAN: ...Which is a huge leap, considering that they've had exactly one Black photographer shoot the cover of Vogue...

BATES: Two years ago.

GIVHAN: ...In its more-than-100-year history, yeah.

BATES: Yeah, yeah. OK.

Finally, I'm hoping this will last and expand, but I'm wondering if I might not be calling you five years from now saying, Robin, what happened? It started out so well. What do you think? Does this feel like this is sort of a turning point and that moving forward, this is the way the world will work - until the next turning point, at least - but that we won't slide backwards into this kind of monochromatic vision of the industry and the aesthetic the industry celebrates - or celebrated, maybe - in the future?

GIVHAN: Well, just from the various folks that I've talked with, particularly from, you know, an academic, Kimberly Jenkins, who has worked with different companies within fashion, you know, she has underscored the fact that this is a long-term endeavor and that this requires a lot of learning and unlearning. And so I do think that the companies that have really invested do recognize that this is not something that's going to be fixed lickety-split, that it's going to take a lot of intentionality and it's going to take a lot of long-term focus.

I also think that, you know, right now, the initiatives that really seem to have taken hold are those that have been founded by people who are sort of part of the industry who have reached out, you know, open-handedly across the void and said, we want to work with you to improve this industry that we all love.

Standing in the wings also sort of pounding on the door, you know, is - are other initiatives that are much more confrontational, much more focused on these sort of - traditional monuments need to fall, and we need a totally new generation. So I suspect that if the more diplomatic, kinder, gentler (laughter) version doesn't work, then there will be those ready to move forward who don't have such a gentle approach.

BATES: Kind of like when Malcolm X said to someone, pointing to Dr. King, you'd better deal with him, 'cause if you don't, you're going to have to deal with me. So let's see what happens.

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BATES: Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic of The Washington Post, thank you very much for your time and for your analysis. I could talk to you all day, but you'll fall asleep and you have a life. You have to go off and do other things.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: So thanks very, very much.

GIVHAN: Thank you.

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BATES: And that's our show. As always, we want to hear from you. You can follow us on Twitter - @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow me - @karenbates. Subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter. This episode was produced by Jess Kung and edited by Steve Drummond and Leah Donnella. And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby, Kumari Devarajan, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Natalie Escobar and LA Johnson. Our intern is Alyssa Baheza. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See ya.

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