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What can we do about the fashion industry’s diversity problem?


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Although we may hear about diversity now more than ever in the media, the fashion industry is lagging behind in embracing the public conversation.

The Fashion Spot’s study on diversity in modelling has led to a disturbing suggestion that society is perhaps moving backwards in celebrating diverse advertisements in fashion.

The study of 236 different advertising campaigns is clear in its suggestion that the industry still has a long way to go. A further comparison, of its most recent study with past research, notes that in individual categories diversity seems to in fact be decreasing.

Transgender models dropped from 0.4% representation in autumn 2015 to 0% in spring 2016. Plus-sized models featured fell from 1.5% to 1.4%. Older models went from 3.1% to 1.2%.

Models of colour, the only category in which diversity increased, are still underrepresented, having gone from 15.3% representation to 21.8%.

These numbers represent one study over one sampling of data, but they reflect a much larger issue in the industry. Models simply do not represent today’s society.

According to a Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) study, the number of transgendered people in the UK in 2008 (the last time this sort of study has been done) could be as many as 300,000—about 0.46% of the total population (64.1 million in 2013).

By this standard, the autumn 2015 representation of 0.4% is nearly reflective of reality; the spring 2016 standard of 0% is certainly not.

According to The Guardian, the average woman in the UK is 5ft 3 in tall and a size 16. The minimum height for models, however, according to the British Association of Model Agents, is 5ft 8in. Despite this clear dissonance between image and reality, the infamous “size zero” is still treated as the coveted golden standard of model sizes.

Based on an Office for National Statistics study in 2014, 19% of the UK’s population is aged 0-15. 64% is aged 16-64, and 18% is aged 65 and over.

The percentage of “young people”— the first two columns, including both people aged 0-15 and 16-64, is projected to decrease over the next three decades, as the third column of people aged 65 and over is projected to increase. It seems more logical than ever to include older models in advertisements.

Racial diversity is the only category in which models seem to reflect the actual population in the UK. The 2011 UK census lists the overall population as 12.83% non-white — less than the 21.8% representation found by the study. However, it is as important as ever to increase racial diversity in fashion advertisements. Larger metropolitan cities within the UK, especially, have non-white populations over 20%.

Despite this data clearly indicating that a gap exists between the average person from the UK and the average UK model, the fashion industry continues to under-represent a diverse body of people.

So what’s the solution?

Some modelling agencies have taken the lead in focusing on recruiting a diverse set of models without concerning themselves with quotas or requirements—Lorde Inc, for example, is based in London and uses “street casting” to recruit non-white, non-traditional models.

Grey Model Agency, also London-based, exclusively hires models who are aged 35 or over. It is the only agency of its kind in the UK.

It is heartening to see large-scale, agency-based advocates for diversity, but one has to wonder just how far the reach of individual agencies can go. Models can be picked up by agencies without actually making much headway in being hired by designers. The Huffington Post, for example, has noted that the models of the Grey Model Agency have not had widespread commercial success.

In other cases, pushes for diversity have come from designer brands themselves. Well, not quite — in many cases, the designers have folded under pressure from activists pushing for diversity and finally relented in welcoming a more diverse body of men and women into their advertisements.

This may be effective for the time being, but it does raise questions. How long-term can success from this kind of change be? If pushes for more diverse models do not come from within, are the changes still meaningful?

No model wants to feel as though he or she was hired for a job simply so that his or her boss could check off a “diversity box.” Nobody wants to feel tokenized.

The one thing that seems to be steadily helping the fashion industry’s diversity problem? Talking about it. As conversation around the issue hits a new high, progress is palpable, albeit slow. Kanye West’s models at the most recent fashion week were 100% non-white. Zac Posen’s were 87%. Few designers are stepping up, but those who are doing so are making dramatic changes.

No progress can be made if people do not speak up and understand the problem. It is key that groups — fashion designers, models, agencies, and consumers alike—recognize their roles causing in this issue — and their roles in fixing it.


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