Over the past few weeks, fashion companies have been called out for creating a culture that marginalizes Black employees. But the problem goes much deeper, and up until now, these brands have had little accountability.
The Black in Fashion Council, founded by prominent Black fashion leaders, wants to change that by harnessing this moment and creating long-term change. The Council will serve as a kind of industry watchdog that keeps brands accountable for their behavior and gives them tools to create more inclusive workplaces.
The Council is the brainchild of Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles, a PR consultant who has worked with brands like Ivy Park and Reebok. The executive board includes more than 20 people across different sectors and includes people like Brandice Daniel, the founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, and the Nikki Ogunnaike, the deputy fashion director of GQ.
The Council, which has been in the works since early June, will create a set of benchmarks for corporate policies and practices that are inclusive of Black employees, such as requiring all hiring managers to take part in antibias training. Companies will be asked to sign a three-year commitment and share information on Black representation at all levels of the organization. Every year, starting in June 2021, they will receive an “equality index” score, which will be published in an annual report. “We want to make a streamlined, productive plan about what we collectively believe needs to change,” says Peoples Wagner. She adds that since there are so many different job functions in fashion, from editor to stylist to photographer, the Council will need to hear from many voices to ensure that policies serve the needs of Black people across the industry. The Council will also create a directory of Black professionals that companies can hire.
Peoples Wagner and Charles worked with the Human Rights Campaign, which has experience creating corporate equality indexes for the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities. The founders and the board are already talking to hundreds of brands and individuals who want to be involved, and they hope that partnering with The Council will become the norm. “We have to do it in such a way that a people don’t feel shamed into participating, but really want to rise to the occasion,” Wagner says. “It has to be a two-way street to discuss how to use inclusivity as a lens through which you see everything—as a brand, as a company, as an industry. This does not come naturally to a lot of people.”
Peoples Wagner has explored these issues in the past. In a 2018 story for The Cut, she spoke with 100 Black individuals in the fashion industry, revealing how hard it is for them to break into the field, then move up in a sector rife with microaggressions and racism.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests have reignited conversations about systemic racism in fashion. This week, an anonymous group of former Everlane employees took to Instagram to decry the company’s toxic culture. In early June, meanwhile, a former Reformation employee described a biased and racially insensitive workplace. Vogue and Refinery 29, among other companies, have also been called out.
Many fashion labels—including Everlane and Reformation—have donated money to anti-racist charities and vowed to become more inclusive, but there is currently no mechanism to hold these brands accountable if they fail to keep their promises. The Council wants to change this. “We don’t want to keep having this conversation six months from now or a year from now,” says Peoples Wagner. “This is about accountability culture, not cancel culture.”
Over the past few weeks, there have been other efforts to address systemic racism in the industry. The Council of Fashion Designers of America announced a program devoted to hiring more Black talent across every part of the industry. A group of 250 Black designers said these efforts weren’t comprehensive enough and, in response, launched the Kelly Initiative, named for the groundbreaking Black designer Patrick Kelly. They asked the CFDA to conduct a census of the industry, publicly disclose the racial make-up of employees at member organizations, and ensure that hiring managers at those organizations took part in antibias training. Fashion designer Aurora James also launched the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which asks retailers to devote 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. (Sephora and Rent the Runway have both signed on already.)
Peoples Wagner and Charles are optimistic that the Council could create real change in the industry. “So far, we’ve found that a variety of fashion and beauty brands are engaging in this opportunity to change,” Charles says. “I hope we’re going to see a more diverse group of people at every category in our industry.”