NEW YORK –
Forget the #10yearchallenge and let’s focus on some sobering realities about how far fashion has come in one. One year ago, I had the privilege of hearing designers Stephen Burrows and Jeffrey Banks share their experiences presented by non-profit, Fashion For All Foundation (FFA). This year, a rainy and cold evening in Brooklyn didn’t stop an audience from gathering to hear CEO and President of The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Steven Kolb, in candid conversation with FFA directors Hannah Stoudemire and Ali Richmond as a part of their guest speaker series.
The talk wasn’t the first time these organizations with social education initiatives overlapped. In 2016, FFA’s Stoudemire organized a peaceful protest outside in the summer heat in Soho while Fashion Week runway shows took place inside. Her “hands up, don’t shoot” photo that day was posted to Instagram by the CFDA with the caption: “An important reminder no matter how busy the week. #blacklivesmatter “ –a public acknowledgement from a gatekeeper on the inside of fashion when outsiders know all too well the complicit silence (rather than support) of their peers.
Steven Kolb expressed, “With social media, fashion has experienced a phenomenon” placing it at the threshold of global leadership. Ali Richmond reinforced that notion of the industry’s ability to set societal trends. “Fashion has the ability to lead. It’s everywhere. It’s in art, film, music, pop culture…” The parallels were chilling. It’s undeniable that what one wears can have ripple effects beyond red carpet knock-offs, including the assaulting power of a red MAGA hat. It can make identifying allies as simple as black and white.
“Doing the right thing and being business-minded do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they can work in ways that are mutually reinforcing.”
-- INSIDER/ OUTSIDER REPORT 2019, CFDA
At American Fashion’s non-profit helm, the self-disclosed introvert Kolb is more than an ally. For all his initial biographical answers nodding to his personal experiences of otherness, he’s a responsible leader of action committed to positive change and fighting the good fight for fashion to be more than beautiful.
Indeed, the CFDA has made foundational strides with many initiatives for social progress including race, size, disability, sustainability, immigration, and gender wage gaps. They released the Insider/Outsider Report last month compiling statistics on diversity and inclusion. Kolb advocates the CFDA’s commitment “both as the governing body of American fashion and as an employer, with the mission to create an industry that is diverse, inclusive, and equitable.”
That awareness converts to action: In 2018, the CFDA crowned Pyer Moss with the coveted Vogue Fashion Fund Award. It has supported brands like Chromat celebrating positive body image. Even Kolb sharing his need to wear a hearing aid resonated with the Occupational Therapist and me who collaborated in the design education fellowship at Parson’s non-profit, Open Style Lab designing for disability (coincidentally, we had attended the Burrows/ Banks talk last year together too).
If only Fashion could mandate who gets to play in its pool and intellectual property protection for brave swimmers in its competitive waters. Kolb spoke to the difficulty the CFDA encountered in Washington D.C. citing a hurdle in convincing our leaders to see the global reach of an industry from the most remote artisan villages to powerful manufacturing hubs. Hopefully with more than a hundred Congresswomen paying homage to their cultural identities and the Women’s Suffrage movement in unapologetic style, that understanding of fashion’s power will improve. Until then, Kolb expresses gratitude for whistleblowers, such as Diet Prada who, “use shame and call that shit out.”
When audience Q&A followed the talk, a designer shared her own story of “mistaken identity”. Having been contacted to bring her garments to be reviewed in person, she arrived early. After being made to wait two hours for her interview, she was finally greeted with, “Oh, you’re black” and her portfolio subsequently questioned for plagiarism. It is a story known all too well: anecdotes collected from colleagues of being mistaken for the assistant, thrown under the bus at work as an affirmative action scapegoat, their presence required yet unacknowledged in department meetings, opinions ignored, and work summarily dismissed. It is a repertoire of painfully identical stories of disrespect both intentional and ignorant, but always absentmindedly said. It begs the question: Where’s the motivating prompt to participate inside this industry for those on the outside when this shameless behavior takes place?
The acknowledgement from Kolb without, as he said devolving into “drama”, what I would call the trap of Oppression Olympics, was the most poignant moment of the talk. His posture straightened on the stool to emphasize his belief: not only should companies seek out diverse talent and representation but it’s incumbent upon them to create environments that are sought out because they are truly welcoming and not passively tolerant. The CFDA is examining not necessarily who is included, but how those different price points and influence of respective brands at every level can be included. It’s demonstrating there is a place for anyone and everyone who makes fashion their vocation.