Well, here we are. We’ve somehow crossed the finish line at the marathon of chaos known as 2020 — the year when “unprecedented times” simply became The Times We Live In — and reached 2021. Over the last twelve months, we’ve canceled plans, trips and celebrities. And just when we thought things couldn’t get any more bizarre, they always found a way to meet that challenge.
The coronavirus pandemic upended every aspect of daily life, including the way people create — and consume — media. Beginning in March, when the first wave of lockdowns occurred throughout the United States, many publications were forced to revisit their production process: Overnight, editorial teams were tasked with producing entire issues virtually, with pitch meetings happening through Zoom and photo shoots orchestrated over FaceTime. But that wasn’t the only obstacle they faced.
On May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer, who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd’s death sparked global outrage, resulting in protests and calls to action. Activists were demanding justice not only for Floyd and the countless Black people who have been killed by police, but also accountability — specifically as it relates to diversity and inclusion — across industries. Fashion media was no exception.
When Instagram feeds were inundated with black squares in June in a move that quickly became synonymous with performative activism, many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) said it was too little, too late.
“It’s performative if your diversity ends at Instagram,” says Michelle Lee, editor-in-chief of Allure. “Hire more BIPOC people, in particular in decision-making roles. Give them the resources they need to succeed — very important.”
The people in charge need to be “humble enough,” explains Lee, to realize they don’t know everything and that everyone still has blind spots: “Hire people who are smarter than you and who open your eyes to different cultures, genders, abilities, etc.”
Fashion, in particular, has had a diversity problem for decades — and has been slow to actually do anything about it. Just look at the covers of magazines year after year. In 2020, despite setbacks caused by the pandemic (from reduced frequencies to skipped or combined months), BIPOC and Latinx representation on covers was generally up, according to a report by The Fashion Spot. It helped that some titles released multiple cover stars per month and/or did separate digital and print covers. And it’s worth noting that the bulk of covers that put the spotlight on BIPOC and Latinx folks happened after June.
Some notable cover newcomers included Jihyo of Twice and JB of GOT7, featured on the May print and digital covers of Allure, respectively; Munroe Bergdorf and Jari Jones on the September split cover of Teen Vogue; and Aurora James, founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, on the September cover of Vogue.
So, in short, there were significant strides taken in 2020. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the road in front of us remains long. And many BIPOC who work in fashion want that to be the one takeaway for industry leaders and decision-makers, no matter how inconvenient of a truth it may be.
“Creating lasting change is not about crossing off a number of action items each year,” says Tiffany Reid, vice president of fashion at Bustle Digital Group. “It’s not a simple KPI that can be quantified. Inclusion is a state of mind and the responsibility of every single person in this industry.”
Reid — who wrote an op-ed for Business of Fashion earlier this year detailing a racist incident she experienced at Paris Fashion Week — is cautiously optimistic about the state of diversity in fashion. She has been encouraged by the number of racial equity measures that have been introduced and implemented in recent months, including James’ 15 Percent Pledge and the Black in Fashion Council, founded by Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and PR executive Sandrine Charles, for which Reid is a board member.
“Its goal is to create a numerical rating system that reflects the degree to which a company is inclusive,” Reid says of the Black in Fashion Council. “As a board member, I’m excited about how much industry support we have had thus far. I admire the mission of the 15 Percent Pledge, which is helping to transform the industry in positive ways. BDG has since adopted a similar 15% pledge across our lifestyle sites — NYLON, The Zoe Report, Bustle, and Elite Daily — from a content, talent and creative standpoint.” (InStyle and Vogue U.S. have also officially signed onto the Pledge; Fashionista commits to having at least 15% of products featured in our fashion and beauty market roundups to be from Black-owned, -founded or -designed brands.)
Lee echoes Reid’s sentiment that diversity is not merely about metrics, but about consciousness in action. She points to Allure’s continued prioritization of diversity in not only casting, but in hiring writers and photographers as well.
“We’re also really committed to working with cosmetic chemists and dermatologists of color, which people don’t always think about,” Lee explains. “This year, Billy Porter became the first man on the cover of Allure. We had Hunter Schafer on our September cover, and in December, we rolled out our digital series, The Beauty of Accessibility, with Ellie Goldstein, the 18-year-old British model with Down Syndrome, on the cover.”
On the talent front, Ali Bird, partner and managing director of The Wall Group (which represents artists across wardrobe, hair, makeup and more), says that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the agency’s creative team guided leadership toward leveraging their digital platforms to “foster conversations about racial inequity in fashion and beauty.”
One of the tangible outcomes of this effort is the TWG Incubator, which aims to help emerging artists from underrepresented backgrounds elevate their craft, build their networks, and establish successful careers in the fashion and beauty industry. The six-month multidisciplinary program pairs six up-and-coming creatives with six top Wall Group artists, offering educational programming and industry access through our leadership team, clients, and partners. (Reid is represented by The Wall Group and a mentor participating in the TWG Incubator.)
“Inclusion must become the lens through which we view and review every business decision from here forward,” Bird says. “Whether we as talent agencies are reevaluating recruitment and hiring, succession planning, talent discovery or client representation practices, we must all continue to consider how the systemic oppression of diverse groups are reflected in those processes, then seek to address those barriers. If we maintain our focus and ‘do the work’ every day, in every interaction, we can hope to see a much more inclusive industry with time.”
InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown has also partnered with the TWG Incubator to give mentees hands-on experience. She argues that fashion media is currently in the position it’s in because the industry has been “guilty of complacency.”
“Which is ironic for journalism,” Brown notes. “If you’re curious and a journalist, it should not be a stretch for you. In the essence of what we do, we are supposed to be interested in all these different people — different melanin counts, different body shapes, different sexualities.”
She references InStyle’s September cover, which starred Zendaya, was styled by Law Roach and was photographed by Ahmad Barber and Donté Maurice. “It was an all-Black team — I’m happy to talk about it, but I prefer if we didn’t have to, and it would just be a given. Your team is a given. Your work is a given. Your percentage is a given,” she says.
It was the young editors on her fashion team that led InStyle to join the 15 Percent Pledge, according to Brown. And she’d like to see more of her peers follow suit: “I’m looking at other magazines and wondering who else is gonna join. I think people make it harder for themselves. They get scared: ‘Oh, my God, I can’t possibly talk about this.’ But why? ‘Cause it’s something that you’re not proud of obviously.”
For Reid, accountability and authenticity are essential in ensuring that any form of activism is effective, both in the short and long term. “We are challenging brands and companies to stop sharing empty promises,” she says. “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and uphold our pledge and commitment as agents of change. Happy the conversation has started, but we must all acknowledge there is a tremendous amount of work ahead.”
If 2020 underscored anything, it’s that people are tired. And when they’re tired, they’re less patient. Marginalized communities have been waiting far too long for mere slivers of representation in the media they consume. At the very least, 2020 can be remembered as the year when people stopped asking politely and began seizing their place in the spotlight, whether that’s on magazine covers, Instagram feeds, store shelves and beyond.