What role does diversity play in the luxury fashion industry?

Fairchild Media Group recently hosted their ‘Fashioning Equity Forum’, featuring a high-profile international panel of speakers and diversity advocates. During a panel entitled “Abloh and Beyond: What Black Leadership and Legacy Means for Fashion,” Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, who is half Ethiopian, half Somali and was born in a French orphanage, noted that now, since the death of Virgil Abloh, , is again the only black fashion designer in a senior position at a luxury fashion house. Virgil Abloh was artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton until his untimely death last November. The 41-year-old designer will have a retrospective on his two-decade career at the Brooklyn Museum in July. It is titled Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech.

“People didn’t realize I was black until three or four years ago, but I’ve been with Balmain for more than ten years,” Rousteing said. “For a lot of my people in fashion, it was a non-issue because nobody gave me a chance to talk about it.” He described how he was fighting for more diverse casting, but just a decade ago there weren’t any models who were corresponded to this picture. Stylists and photographers rejected his proposals because he “didn’t respect French luxury,” he recalls.

Today, he describes as a cliché the standard of French fashion, a “whiteness”-based look that has been the same for centuries but was solidified in the ’70s and ’80s. Early in his career, particularly when he became Balmain’s creative director aged just 25, this cliché was used to limit his vision. He likens the old guard of high fashion to a monarchy: “There’s the queen, the king and the crowd.”

Brandice Daniel, chief executive officer and founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, pointed out that historically, Black creatives, such as designer Ann Lowe, who designed the wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier at her marriage to John F. Kennedy, have been referred to as “Black tailors :inside” were dismissed. A lack of recognition and belittling of talent has meant that the ivory towers of luxury fashion have remained out of reach for minority creatives.

The only way to open the closed doors is to make room for non-traditional talent instead of recruiting the same high-profile fashion programs, Daniel said, because untapped Black creatives with passion and talent are not found among the students. Abloh graduated with a master’s degree in architecture and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, but was also a DJ and product designer and fashion visionary, while Rousteing dropped out of fashion school after just five months. Still, both men rose to the top of the industry. The ongoing challenges of access, mentorship and funding often discourage minorities from considering a career in fashion, and parents can often afford the high tuition fees associated with sending their children to the best design schools not afford, the panel noted.

Black creatives thrive on their community and social media

With the demise of magazines and the gatekeepers who preside over them, creatives like Rousteing can more easily take the lead in the new digital era. In a short amount of time, he built a massive social media community of young people — just like Beyonce and Rihanna — who didn’t want to stick to the established codes of the old guard. His vision soon reached hundreds of thousands of people, instead of the 600 typically invited to a fashion show. Under his leadership, Balmain became the first French label to surpass one million followers on Instagram. Still, Rousteing said the company’s former president felt his presence on social media diminished the value of the brand.

“The difference today is that it is a collective we agrees,” agreed Haitian-American designer and CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund 2017 finalist Victor Glemaud, who used all Black models for his recent NYFW show. “In the ’90s there was one designer, one brand, now as Black creatives and entrepreneurs we are many.” In 2020, Glemaud launched ‘In The Blk’, a professional network to unite Black people in the global fashion industry , build solidarity and achieve economic independence. Abloh was one of the first to support him.

Togetherness is a theme taken up by Rousteing, upcoming guest designer at Jean Paul Gaultier Couture. He dreams that US designers and French houses could work together out of love and respect for each other. Traditionally, European and US brands have been distant and competitive, but if ever there was a creative who could make this possible, it has to be Rousteing. He therefore added a last hope: “For the next generation, my wish is that I will not be the only black designer in the French luxury sector.”

This article was previously published on FashionUnited.uk. Translation and editing: Barbara Russ.