Diversity and Representation on the Red Carpet
NEW YORK, United States - In a (very) recent period lauding black talents throughout the entertainment industry, a shining light has turned to the image-makers responsible for dressing these celebrities. Few contexts are as powerful as Hollywood where red carpet season seems to extend all year round with boundless opportunities to shape the image of celebrities known not only for their style, but also for their craft.
PROTOChic sat in on a dynamic conversation with a rather influential group of such image makers on the road to greater inclusion and representation on the red carpet. Speakers included image architect Law Roach behind Zendaya and Tiffany Haddish, first-generation Nigerian stylist Ade Samuel behind Michael B. Jordan, Leticia Wright, and Kofi Siroboe, and costume designer-cum-consultant Joan Reidy who has lent her editorial eye to styling runway shows during Lagos Fashion & Design Week.
The issues of diversity, inclusion, and representation tend to be conflated. Diversity can be defined across varied axes including gender, sexual orientation, socially-constructed race, age, socio-economic status, etc. while inclusion and representation speak to the structural inadequacies that keep under-represented groups out of participating within an ecosystem, and in particular, fashion’s ecosystem that consistently leverages the culture of under-represented communities with little to any credence.
Our team tackled these questions in our curatorial debut last year The Age of the Black Model in part to address the challenges of inclusion and representation in consumer-facing spaces, but the behind-the-scenes players including thinkers, executives, and creative directors face far greater complications to equitable inclusion and representation in the fashion industry due to lower levels of visibility and limited short-term fixes than say models. Recent errors by major luxury players (D&G, Prada, Gucci, Burberry) have certainly re-ignited the dialogue to improve the internal machinations of the industry to better reflect society, but as the forthcoming conversation below will detail, what is direly needed is action.
DIVERSITY AS A CALL TO ACTION
Joan Reidy: From when I first started my career, the fact that we are having a conversation about diversity is a huge change. When I started, it wasn’t even a part of the equation. For diversity, there are a couple ways to attack it. On one level, you have people from different backgrounds - whether it’s gender, social-economic, cultural identity, or race; the more diversity you have, that is a situation across your organization that can evoke change and creativity. Diversity is very contextually-based as well. What we consider diversity here in New York is different than in Jakarta, Lagos, or Los Angeles. It’s a constant evolving conversation. It is not just about optics. It is not a trend.
Ade Samuel: Diversity for me means having a voice for everyone - finding a way to have a voice for everyone across different social classes, race, and gender. When I started in this industry, there weren’t a lot of black editors. I started out in magazines and I remember exactly who they were - Kahlana [Barfield-Brown] or Shioni Turini, who existed in the world I was in and who I was inspired by to follow their suit. The conversation on diversity now is exciting as it is something we have been waiting for. We are hoping to get to a place where it becomes normal and we no longer continue to have the conversation of ‘what is diversity.’
Law Roach: For me, I’m just worried that it’s just a conversation in some ways. I am really excited to see what comes forth from all of the conversations. Diversity and inclusion are such big hot topics right now. When things get to a corporate level and corporations are talking about diversity and inclusion, how real is it? It is important for us to champion [diversity] not just being a conversation, but as a call to action. I look at the landscape of our industry and it still doesn’t feel diverse to me.
CORE VALUES AND BURDENS TO CARRY
Roach: I wake up every day and I have this burden I’m happy to carry, to show this industry that people who look like me can work at a certain level. I still feel like I’m proving to other people, brands, and corporations that it’s okay to let a brown boy do the same job as a white woman. I’m still in these places and situations where I’m the first and the only. For me, that has become hard. I don’t want to be the only one.
I’ve started this little hashtag #morethanone meaning there has to be more than one of me in the room, and I also have to be comfortable with not being the only one. I still get the compliment like ‘your team is so professional’ or ‘I heard you on the call and you are so articulate’ and it’s 2019 and I am still getting these [expletive omitted] back-handed compliments. I am holding this burden to prove to these people that we are worthy. How do we change the perception of who is worthy and who is able? It’s not about me anymore. As a stylist, I’ve done everything I want to do. Now it’s about the people who are coming up behind me, and making sure they get these opportunities.
Samuel: When I am trying to work with someone, what is most important is respect; respect of the work and an understanding of what I am here to do. My job is to create this world for you in fashion and an opportunity to understand branding from a bigger point of view than just clothes. If you are bringing someone like me who is a black girl, then you understand that I come with experience and knowledge, enough for you to want to render me in this service of being your stylist. I am very keen on paying attention to who is around their team and how they treat them. You can’t say that you want to be inclusive, but when you look at your team, it doesn’t show inclusivity.
BLACK IS A TREND
Samuel: As a black woman, what I am afraid of is the trend. What I don’t want to happen is [black] becoming the trend as the reason why brands have become more open to models of color on the runway. Are we having the right conversations in this change? Yes, there has been a shift, but the shift has come in the way of models and photographers.
Roach: I do feel like black is a trend. This is one of the reasons why Zendaya and I decided to do the [Zendaya x Tommy Hilfiger] show in Paris where we only cast black girls of all ages and sizes. We flew 10 black curve models from New York to Paris because they had never had the opportunity to walk a show in Paris. We paid homage to black women who helped shape this industry and we would not be here without them. Beverly Johnson is the first black woman on the cover of Vogue. Zendaya has had a Vogue cover. Had there been no Beverly, there would be no Zendaya. Veronica Webb is the first black woman with a major cosmetics campaign. Zendaya is now the face of Lancome. Without Veronica, there would be no Zendaya. Without Grace Jones, there would be no Law - who is a constant and forever influence to me.
POWER AND RESPONSIBILITY
Roach: The sad part is that there were a lot of people who felt like that show shouldn’t have happened. I applaud Tommy Hilfiger and that brand for allowing this to happen as it was a controversial thing. We didn’t do it for controversy or for the politics, we did it out of love. We did it out of love and respect and paying homage to black women. I had started noticing the Claudia Schiffer’s and Shalom [Harlow’s] from this era were getting opportunities to walk these shows and being brought back into the industry, but that was not happening for our girls. Any time somebody puts me in a position of power, I’m going to do whatever I can to show for us to be represented. I’m at a place where I work because I want to, not because I have to. It is about giving opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have them.
Reidy: It’s not just about the optics, but it is also about the diversity in the merchants, the C-suite, and the business side of fashion.
CHAMPIONING EMERGING DESIGNERS
Samuel: It is our responsibility to champion emerging designers. We are the people in power to do that. There was a period where black talent was not wearing major designers. I recently did an article about all the NO’s I got when I started working in this Hollywood world. People would tell me she is not the right fit. I would question what is your criteria for this assessment that you are making. Continue to find these emerging designers and give them a voice because if we don’t, who else is? We have all been brainwashed to what the standard of this industry is, we are compelled to think the brands that matter are the Chanel, the Dior, and the Gucci. Unless we do something to change that idea, publicists and managers are going to continue to believe that their clients need to be in those brands in order to be successful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.