How the fashion industry have commercialised black culture

In tribute to George Floyd, prominent brands among the fashion industry took to social media to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement on ‘#blackouttuesday’. However, critics fear that this display of solidarity was merely lip service. The fashion industry does not have the best reputation for encouraging diversity or for being representative of the BAME population. Despite the influence of black culture in fashion, the industry has neglected those who have made it into what it is today.

The fashion industry as we know it has been largely influenced by trends which were popularised by black culture. In a long list of looks we can thank black culture for introducing us to; hoop earrings/chunky jewellery, bucket hats, nail art, box braids, logo mania, streetwear, velour tracksuits, bandanas, nameplate jewellery and statement sunglasses, are just a few.

The influences of the Motown Era and the black power movement in 1960’s America popularised some of the trends and styles fashionable today. The style’s we see now resemble those of activists and artists such as Angela Davis, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, who embraced their clothes and accessories as a way of owning their identity and representing Afrocentric style. The birth of hip hop and rap culture in the early 90’s and 2000’s shaped the fashion scene once again. Artists like Tupac, Jay-Z and Kanye West popularised the streetwear culture that is now reflected in brands such as Fendi and Prada, among others. 

Despite owing many of its runway looks and trends to the influences of black culture, has the industry always treated black people with due respect? In recent years, brands at the top of the industry have faced criticism for some serious errors in judgement and for being ignorant towards their own racially offensive products and styles.

 May we be reminded of the Gucci blackface scandal? At the centre of which was a black balaclava-style jumper with a cut-out at the mouth surrounded by oversized red lips. At the hefty price of $890 (£688) the jumper was removed from Gucci stores for resembling blackface. High street fashion label, H&M also came under fire for its controversial monkey hoodie. Modelled by a black child, the jumper read: ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’. The company axed the product and was forced to hire a global diversity leader. Luxury fashion brand, Prada was also criticised for its insensitive red-lipped monkey dolls, which echoed racist “Sambo” imagery.

Does the fashion industry have a cultural appropriation problem? It has not been uncommon in recent years for fashion houses to appropriate and commercialise typically ‘black’ trends and customs. In 2018, Vogue was accused of cultural appropriation for a shoot showing Kendall Jenner with an “afro”. Similarly, Marc Jacobs was criticised for racial insensitivity when he styled his mainly white models in dreadlocks on catwalk.  

However, it is the millions of black and Asian people making our clothes in factories thousands of miles away who arguably face the worst treatment from the industry. Of the 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are women of black and Asian backgrounds. Fast fashion is reliant on the exploitation of garment workers, and now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, brands are refusing to pay for billions of pounds worth of orders they had already placed with suppliers in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia. These manufacturers are now stuck with heaps of unwanted clothes and unable to pay their workers. Hundreds of thousands of garment workers will lose their jobs because of this refusal to pay up.

With accusations of a lack of racial inclusivity in the industry, small steps have been made to increase diversity and equality, as people of colour made up 47% of the models at New York’s most recent fashion week. However, there is still a long way to go. Equal racial representation is not only needed on runways and on magazine covers, but at board level, across management and in the creative studios. Following ‘#blackouttuesday’ the industry has been challenged to do more than post a black square and instead transform all aspects and levels of the industry into living showcases of diversity.

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