Are Consumers Responsible for the Lack of Diversity in Fashion?

Are Consumers Responsible for the Lack of Diversity in Fashion?

The issue of diversity isn’t new. Endless essays have been written on the subject covering everything from race to disability representation. The consensus amongst writers seems to be that the fault lies with the industry itself. Now obviously, the individuals behind fashion brands, editorials, campaigns and beauty shoots should be held to account for the work and message they put out, but, aren’t consumers equally responsible for what they buy?  

After Trump’s election and buoyed by a wave of righteous indignation, Shannon Coulter was quick to start a database of all Trump related companies to enable consumers to #grabyourwallet and #boycotttrump. This included everything from brands that actively funded his election to brands that stocked any items from his offspring’s numerous offerings. Soon after this and following a drop in sales, stores such as Gilt, and Nordstrom dropped the Ivanka Trump brand. Even Neiman Marcus succumbed to the pressure. The point is that consumers know the value of a dollar (or pound as the case may be) and the strength in coming together and putting your money where your mouth is. However, when it comes to diversity issues, there appears to be a ‘tweet it and leave it’ approach. Consumers will express – often very loudly- their disappointment in brands whenever there is a failure to offer a range of products for all of their target market but then leave it at that. There is no follow through to effect change.

One glaring example of this is Zara. In the past year alone Zara has been faced with numerous accusations of consumer insensitivity regarding their ‘Love your curves’ campaign that featured what appeared to be size 2 models. They have also faced allegations of racism following the release of skirts featuring ‘Pepe the Frog’, a character widely associated with white supremacist hate groups. At this point, the brand has violated just about every good faith and social responsibility clause available and yet their profits remain untouched.

Of course, there are limitations to the extent that individuals can actively back their social and moral stances. For some, the lack of options figures as their main reason for continuing to buy into brands that do not represent them. Though plus-sized consumers are being relegated to online shopping by brands like H&M and New Look – their choices are painfully limited should they choose to boycott these brands. For others, a designer ‘inspired’ piece from Zara is the closest they can currently get to being part of an advertised lifestyle. With most people under 30 unable to afford a house, it’s not hard to see why financial restrictions are usually the most referenced reasons for inaction. What then is the explanation for the continued support and reverence for luxury brands that are unrepresentative?

Chanel for one has mostly stayed loyal to its portrayal of slim, able-bodied, white women as the epitome of grace and style on its runways as well as in its predominantly white seasonal campaigns. However, this has had no effect on the sales of the Chanel 2.55 classic flap bag as a holy grail status symbol, with Bag Hunter publishing a study showing that demand increased the value of the medium sized bag by 70% in the period between 2010 – 2016. While we might again excuse consumers for their attachment to the long-standing heritage brand as a luxury symbol, the problem rears its head again when we examine the seemingly overnight success of the brand Vetements. For a brand so heralded for its innovative and boundary pushing satirical view of the fashion industry, Vetement has also been criticised for its white-only runway shows. Surely for a modern brand so forward thinking, diversity in representation should be expected and demanded by consumers, especially as it is currently a well-discussed issue in relation to the industry? Unfortunately, all that Vetements’ success implies is that consumers are all too willing to sacrifice their stance on representation and diversity in order to buy into a lifestyle.

So is it that we are more interested in looking like we care about issues than caring about the issues themselves? Professors Frederic Godart and Reina Lewis, suggest that the reason behind this loyalty to luxury brands is that consumers view European heritage as the pinnacle of luxury and success. While the luxury consumer demographic has changed, luxury houses supposedly still market to their historically ‘white’ consumers and thus “the conceptualisation of whiteness as a quality of the beautiful body has remained constant.So perhaps this idea of social elevation by association is what encourages individuals to continue to pour into brands that don’t represent them.

Consumers it seems want something to aspire to, a dream if you will, however unhealthy and unrepresentative it may be. It’s part of the reason why the underserved south of industrial towns in America voted for an unscrupulous billionaire. It’s because they too want to be billionaires and hope that when they achieve that dream- by taking advantage of lax laws – you will show them the same kindness in judgement. And it’s not hard to see why consumers accept what they are sold; the world is in a state of repair and we have trained ourselves to see consumerism as comfort: break up = ice cream, bad day = shopping spree.  We buy into brands that offer us an alternate reality, which is perfectly fine as long as that reality is not a delusion. As long as that reality does not imply that we are not worthy of representation. Whatever the reason behind our continued patronage, we must hold ourselves, where possible, to the same standards we hold the brands we criticise. After all, we keep them in business.


Written by Weruzochi Chinasa

Fashion Editor