Refashioning the Fashion Industry

2020 was a tumultuous year for fashion, with the global pandemic and growing conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement forcing the industry to stop and take stock. Akilah Cohen Boadi, co-author of The Anti-Racism in Fashion 2020 Paper, shares her insight into how 2021 offers the possibility of re-imagining the fashion industry.

New Year’s Eve 2020, like most of the year, was unlike any other. In countries still battling rising numbers of Covid-19 there were no fireworks, no parties and no early morning taxis home. New Year’s resolutions were also noticeably absent. In fact, many of us shunned goal-setting in 2021, its predecessor having taught a universal lesson about expectation and the potential futility of human agency.

The year 2020 was a reckoning, and living through a global pandemic is proving to be much like riding a pendulum: a constant to-and-fro between restricted normality and outright quarantine. The only thing we are guaranteed is continued uncertainty. So much so that the Business of Fashion (BoF) has modeled two scenarios for economic recovery in the coming months, hedging their bets to allow for varied timelines. I am tempted to do away with predictions as many of us have done with resolutions, but the fashion industry is in the midst of a revolution and cannot afford to be so laissez-faire.

Alongside the demands of trading during a humanitarian crisis that quickly morphed into an economic nightmare. Fashion is facing increased scrutiny regarding non-sustainable manufacturing, exploitative employment practices and a woeful absence of diversity. With shoppers forced to stay home, we have more money to spend on retail and more screen time to study the nature of the brands we buy from. Industry commentators largely expect fashion retailers to make a significant shift to digital sales with increased value placed on ethical practice. Forbes has forecast a four-point makeover centred around data-led design, sustainable practice, online shopping and simplified seasons and processes – outcomes similar to those outlined by CBS and BoF. It seems 2021 is almost expected to be fashion’s own Arab Spring but, so far, there are too few greenshoots of change.

One such opportunity to impact change was created by NYC shoe atelier Aurora James. Her Fifteen Percent Pledge commits participating retailers to stock a minimum quantity of Black owned businesses. Just 12 brands have taken the pledge since its launch in June 2020. Such a low uptake is hard to align with the millions of black squares that flooded Instagram in support of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. Although not so hard to believe when you consider that Anna Wintour was named Condé Nast’s first ever Global Chief Content Officer in December 2020. A seminal promotion just months after she was forced to admit her own “intolerant” approach to inclusion in response to calls for her resignation as Editor-in Chief of Vogue US. In fact, senior fashion executives seem so oblivious to minority experiences that LVMH group announced its latest all white male leadership board just one day after the recent white-supremacist led terrorist attack on the Capitol in Washington DC. Sadly, the lack of positive action is not limited to issues surrounding race and gender. Accusations of sexual abuse by Alexander Wang have been largely ignored and discredited. While YSL continues to face criticism for a dogmatic commitment to the exclusive use of extremely slim models. So, it seems to me that we still have a long way to go.

Statistics taken from Pepper Your Talk’s Anti-Racism in Fashion 2020 Paper

In researching and writing an anti-racist toolkit in pursuit of true inclusion in the fashion industry, I became acutely aware that fashion needs a structural overhaul to be considered fit for purpose. It needs to formalise proactively inclusive hiring processes and retention schemes. It needs to dismantle workplace practices that are founded on and predominantly cater to white culture and experiences. Most importantly, brands must redefine their target audience to include traditionally marginalised groups, because in the pursuit of that spending power, businesses will naturally centre and value those people within their own organisations.

Fashion is an industry romanticised more than most and for good reason; it determines what is cool and what is not. From clashing colours to flouting the rules of gender, fashion transforms the unwanted into the most-wanted. This past year alone it has breathed new life into crocs and mullets. However we must remember that it is equal parts business and art. The current that directs this year’s industry predictions is not so much Coronavirus but the changes that the pandemic has made to consumer behaviour. The same direction of growth was expected in February 2020, when Covid-19 was barely a blip on the global radar. The journey to digital has been accelerated by a fight for survival during pandemic-induced declines in sales. If fashion is a sparkling moon that shifts tides, then profit is the sun that fashion orbits and the industry will direct itself wherever the gravitational pull is greatest. If we wish to see genuine and lasting change, there needs to be a seismic shift in consumer spending.

Rather than accept hollow platitudes or performative tokens of change, consumers must be intentional in what they buy. Personally, I will be looking for a wide range of models in both campaigns and ecommerce, as well as size and fit measurements for the full range of size, which will lead to fewer returns and therefore a reduction in waste materials. I expect to see more transparency around company demographics and pay. When it comes to gender-conformity I will no longer be appeased by non-descript capsule collections touted as ‘unisex’. Instead, I want clothing that is free from gender stereotypes; womenswear with more pockets and menswear not limited by traditional ideals of masculinity. I find it easy to identify what I want from fashion businesses, but I’m under no illusions that being conscious with my spending habits will be an easy task. Although a shift in consumer spending is key to re-imagining the fashion industry, we all want to buy what we like rather than what we should, and if 2020 has taught me anything it’s that you cannot predict the future.

For me, NYE 2019 was as normal as 2020 was irregular. As we ushered in a new decade I participated in the familiar act of thinking about what I wanted the next 12 months to be like. Looking for something tangible that would justify a feeling of optimism, I found in numerology something that resonated with my aspirations for the coming year. The websites informed me that 2020 was the dawn of a new era; a year of building the foundation for a new future that would be different in every way  and I was satisfied. I didn’t consider the violent turbulence that is often paired with a rebirth and I wasn’t prepared for a cataclysmic earthquake that would demolish existing structures to make way for new ones. We aren’t yet clear of the pandemic or its aftershocks but already there are murmurs of change and hopes for a better industry. The desire for change is heartening but it is educated and empowered shoppers who will be the cornerstone of a re-imagined fashion industry as it emerges from yesterday’s rubble.