The shocking murder of unarmed African-American man George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked global anti-racism protests and led to a groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The fallout exposed the extent of racist discrimination, not only in the US but across the world, and in every industry – including fashion.
A period of long-overdue introspection ensued, during which the leaders of many fashion retailers and brands around the world vowed to address racism and promote greater diversity and inclusion within their businesses, and contribute to meaningful change across the industry as a whole.
Two years on, we speak to a mix of professionals – including black owners of fashion brands, CEOs and diversity leads at large high street retailers, and, for an overview, the CEO of the British Fashion Council – to find out what has changed, and what still needs to be done.
“There is a new sense of freedom to speak candidly and unapologetically about the black experience”
Leona Smith Diversity and inclusion lead, John Lewis Partnership
The tragic death of George Floyd led to an abrupt awakening – a new state of awareness of what it means to be black. As a black woman, I felt that change personally. There is a new sense of freedom to speak candidly and unapologetically
about the black experience.
Within the John Lewis Partnership we have taken time to look at ourselves, and have difficult conversations about what we need to do to reach our ambition to become the UK’s most inclusive business – my role and team was created in May 2021 as part of this.
We have looked at every avenue to see where should improve. We started with creating more ways for black partners to share their experiences. Then, with some other partners, I made a movie called It’s Not OK, which highlights some of the micro-aggressions faced by our black and ethnic minority partners. The movie was shown internally and on social media channels.
We ensure our Black Partner Advisory Group, set up in 2020, is involved in the creation of new propositions, policies and processes. We’re reviewing our recruitment processes to try to remove bias, and we’re creating a program to support ethnic minority partners with their career progression. And we’re connecting with more black businesses to make our product ranges more inclusive.
We all need to continue having uncomfortable conversations and challenging our biases.
“There is a sense of increasing accountability: brands are being pulled up over cultural appropriation”
Olivia Overton womenswear designer, AllSaints
AllSaints has always taken diversity and inclusion seriously, but the Black Lives Matter movement has been a catalyst for us to do even more. One of the changes has been the way we listen to – and learn from – our employees around the world. In the summer of 2020, I set up a diversity and inclusion working group, and an anti-racism platform for AllSaints colleagues.
We aim to share resources, have open conversations and be educated by each other. Through these channels we have been able to take actions and ensure everyone’s voice is heard – for example, we have monthly staff forums, and employee reference groups, including our anti-racism and LGBTQ+ communities – attended by a director to feed back to leadership – and a working parents’ group. Q&A sessions are run by employees to tackle “awkward” issues such as “how do I address a micro-aggression?” We provide spaces, support, time and resources, and listen to ensure all employees can contribute to our diversity agenda.
In the wider fashion industry, there is a sense of increasing accountability. A growing number of brands are being pulled up over matters of cultural appropriation and representation. There are some leading black creatives shaping our industry, such as [editor-in-chief of British Vogue] Edward Enninful, [fashion designer] Tolu Coker and [actor/director] Kelechi Okafor.
I hope this continues.
However, there is still much to do to ensure black and minority talent is represented at all levels, rather than only in certain roles. I want more brands to ensure barriers are dismantled, and the industry is made more accessible. Brands should use their platforms to collaborate with black influencers.
There is so much talent out there.
“Hire more black people in senior management positions to balance the gap between their white counterparts”
Foday Dumbuya Creative director, Labrum
The Black Lives Matter movement was a monumental moment. I was alongside the likes of [actor] John Boyega at the march in London [in 2020], he gave an incredible speech and really spoke of the emotion that is felt by us black people in this country and around the world. He also inspired me to stand up to what I believe to be true, and to fight for freedom.
With Labrum, I had been working on sharing the untold stories of West Africa for some time, and Black Lives Matter suddenly put a lot of eyes on us. People were open to learning about black history in a way that is not typically presented by the media and certainly not taught in schools.
In the aftermath, a lot of big brands jumped on board to support the movement and posted promises to be better. It’s interesting to see who has come through on those.
I would like more funding for educational programs and community development, and support for black-owned businesses. And hire more black people in senior management positions to address the gap with their white counterparts.
Steve Rowe CEO, Marks & Spencer
One of the most immediate responses to the murder of George Floyd was colleagues coming forward – many directly to me – to share their own personal experiences and determination to drive positive change as a result of this atrocity. Very quickly, I gained a heightened knowledge of the issues facing many of our black colleagues. For me, that was a moment of real reflection as a leader, considering what I had and hadn’t done to surface and address these issues over the years.
We took an honest look at our approach to diversity and inclusion, and identified where we could go further, from recruitment and training to our products and the charities we work with. This led us to support the 10,000 Black Interns initiative, which tackles the massive under-representation of black talent in every sector [M&S aims to create 2,000 internships a year to hit the target by 2027].
Being an inclusive business also means looking at what and how we sell to our customers. Our products need to truly reflect the diverse communities we serve and over the last year we have taken steps to address some of the shortfalls in our offer. For example, our lingerie team worked closely with our [internal] culture and heritage network to redefine “neutral” underwear, introducing a broader range available in five shades. We also expanded our beauty range so that our Autograph foundation now comes in 30 color options.
We know there is much more to be done. We need to continue to educate ourselves and learn from each other – and change starts at the top.
We are working towards having 50% women and 15% ethnic minority colleagues in senior management roles, but lack of representation is an issue the entire industry needs to be honest about. We need to work together to attract, support and develop diverse talent to deliver lasting change.
“This is not a temporary ‘worthy’ cause – we should all be entitled to equal opportunity”
René Macdonald founder, Lisou
One of the positives of the pandemic, especially in 2020, was that the world was under lockdown, so it was easier to focus on pressing issues. There was an absence of the usual level of noise, so it was easier to catch people’s attention and let them know the severity of the situation black people find themselves in.
Some retailers have now ringfenced a budget for [brands owned by] black and other ethnic minorities, which – although a little late in the day – is a welcome change. It has also been encouraging that those within the fashion industry have been made aware of the unjust system black designers find themselves in, especially black female entrepreneurs.
This is not a temporary “worthy” cause. We should all be entitled to equal opportunity. Doors must be flung open for all of us and the glass ceiling set for black designers must be eradicated. It is essential that we remember the lessons learned from [the death of] George Floyd and how long this journey to equality has been, and it is shameful that [racism] still exists. While I’m a realist, I am ever hopeful that this is just the start.
“It is critical that we ensure changes in attitudes and priorities continue to be translated into meaningful action”
Caroline Rush CEO, British Fashion Council
What the last two years made clear is that there were serious shortcomings and room for improvement in terms of diversity and inclusion within the fashion industry. These were very much brought to the forefront following the death of George Floyd, when outrage brought overwhelming evidence through personal narratives of racism and barriers to entry.
Many brands rightfully prioritized diversity within their campaigns and their external communications, but creating change with representation within head offices takes longer because of employment contracts. The industry realized that it needs to break down entry barriers that were in place for far too long, and that brands must include diversity and inclusion within their wider strategies, businesses and HR practices.
As an organization that represents the British fashion industry, we had to act. This is why we appointed new directors, including [television presenter] June Sarpong, [brand expert] Scott Morrison and [Roksanda CEO] Jamie Gill; we reviewed all of our programmes, from scholarships, talent support initiatives and fashion weeks to ensure all programs are fair and equitable for all; and developed initiatives to give all employees the opportunity to be part of the conversation.
In 2020 we set up a Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee made up of industry members to address challenges faced by different communities within the fashion industry. The committee works as part of our Institute of Positive Fashion to set the bar for accountability and best practice for all fashion businesses. Its priorities include stamping out racism and addressing the specific challenges each minority community faces within the fashion industry, across four work streams: education; business policy; talent identification and mentoring; and communications.
We are also taking part in the BBC’s 50:50 Equality Project [Drapers is also a partner] – a voluntary monitoring system that allows us to better understand the make-up of those working at London Fashion Week, both front and backstage. Later this year, we will publish a report on the C-level within the fashion industry led by [executive recruiter] MBS Group, that will kickstart work around benchmarking, and creating a more diverse and inclusive culture. It is critical that we ensure changes in attitudes and priorities continue to be translated into meaningful action. As an industry, it’s important that we continue to work to build a system we are proud of.