Luxury has long had issues around race. Saks was accused of discriminating against its Black employees in 2018, LVMH only recently named its first Black woman creative director, in 2019, and Salvatore Ferragamo received blowback for showing allegedly inauthentic support of the Black community in 2020.
The raft of diversity and inclusion hires in luxury fashion over the last few years has shown the industry’s slowly shifting viewpoint on the matter. But that’s not to say that there still isn’t a long way to go. The use of DE&I departments has been viewed as the end of a culturally insensitive scandal instead of the beginning of a new system.
This approach has the knock-on effect of creating a system where DE&I exists solely to protect the brand from another scandal rather than truly introducing internal change. So how does luxury fashion work to change this?
According to Renée E. Tirado, who was hired by Gucci in July 2019 before leaving to found her own consultancy in July 2020, there are common issues within the current system. “Major roadblocks are financial investment, holistic implementation and prioritization,” she said, adding that “brand preservation trumps all things.”
A key point that Tirado mentioned is responsibility, saying, “Who is really holding luxury fashion — [or] any industry, for that matter — accountable?” And without true and official accountability, DE&I will be dependent on the companies themselves to provide a supportive environment.
If companies don’t provide this environment, then they’ll be at a disadvantage in establishing DE&I. Tirado said that working within an unsupportive framework makes change “not impossible, but infinitely harder and much slower, and gains are small.”
“In these environments, the wins will be minuscule and [will] mostly serve to provide emotional support and community for diverse employees,” she said. “While important, these are softer wins that do not sufficiently impact culture change.”
Tirado said that one-off events don’t result in meaningful change, though she didn’t mention any one brand specifically. Italian brand recruited the likes of filmmaker Ava DuVernay for a newly created diversity council in 2019, after its storefront scandal of 2018. Soon, after the brand launched Prada Mode, a one-off event curated by Black artist Theaster Gates. However, it was only in October 2020 that the brand hired a chief DE&I officer in Malika Savell, who’d previously worked at LVMH.
Gucci released a statement to Glossy, stating that, since Tirado’s move to consultancy, “DE&I responsibilities at Gucci are now managed by the Gucci Equity Board,” going onto state that Bethann Hardison had also been moved to the brand’s global equity board as an executive adviser for global equity and culture engagement.
Advertising expert Kai Lawson said that, to bring about true change, you have to imprint diversity from the beginning. “Most of us who focus on marketing and inclusion are trying to impress upon people the importance of incorporating inclusive thinking as soon as you have the idea,” she said.
“At the time of a brief, that’s the time to start talking about inclusion,” she said. “Anything after that is too reactive.” For Lawson, this subtle shift is how you end up with only damage limitation instead of internal change. “Instead of having conversations about how to be inclusive, you end up having questions saying, ‘Is this offensive?’ And by that time, it’s too late.”
But that’s not to say that there hasn’t been progress. Tirado said that “the addition of dedicated staff has been hugely impactful.” Previously, the job of DE&I fell upon POC employees, which led to burnout as they worked to fix inclusion on top of their regular roles. But there’s still more that can be done.
Tirado said that a key change for luxury fashion would be to “treat DE&I as a change management agenda.” This would see brands “providing DE&I departments substantive budgets that invest in diverse talent thoughtfully, are tied to metrics and evolve with the business.”
This would also come with education for management. “Leadership needs to have the know-how to manage, develop and grow diverse talent, by knowing how to recognize their inherent biases and how they show up.”
But perhaps the most important shift for luxury fashion would be to fundamentally change how it views DE&I. In its current state, it remains an initiative you’d use to put a Band-Aid over a recent racism scandal. Gucci hired Tirado after being accused of blackface and offending Sikh culture.
“Move away from looking at DE&I as an ‘initiative,’ and treat it as an ongoing business imperative,” said Tirado. “An initiative has a timestamp; the health of the business does not.”