A letter to the fashion industry: what you need to do to go beyond performative allyship
Model and activist Ashley Chew pens a public letter urging the industry to do better
She has graced countless magazine covers, posters, merchandise and even face masks. Her smile was always accompanied by short face-framing curls or deep polished waves. Headlines across the world ran images of the 26-year old African-American woman. Her name was Breonna Taylor.
In early summer 2020, our Instagram newsfeeds were flooded with black squares, captioned with statements such as “we stand with you” or “we love diversity”. Some companies embarrassingly posted nothing at all. The murder of George Floyd reached the fashion industry in the most complex of ways. It seemed trivial for us to post our new haircuts, DIY at-home spa treatments or sponsored content. I cringed at so many tone-deaf companies and even unfollowed their accounts.
Performative activism contributes to the problem, and what I mean by that is sharing an Instagram post about the importance of racial equality without diversifying staff, castings and content. It means nothing to talk the talk unless you are prepared to do the work, to act and do better. For two weeks straight I scrolled past black squares. After a while, I didn’t even care about them anymore. I wanted to know what was going to happen within you, the industry, afterwards, how you would go beyond Instagram statements and implement meaningful change.
In 2015, I started the #BlackModelsMatter movement. The hashtag is currently trending at 83,000 on Instagram. At the time, New York Fashion Week catwalks featured less than 10 per cent models of colour. In 2019, there was at least one model of colour in every single runway show and diversity now stands at 43 per cent.
Beyond the hashtag, I worked vigorously for the phrase not to become trendy – the fight for better Black representation in fashion is not a trend. I’ve spoken for The New York Times, Columbia University, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, magazine panels and even an event in Lagos, Nigeria. I served on The Model Alliance Advisory Board and have sat in with The Humans Of Fashion Foundation. I have poked microphones directly in designers’ faces backstage at Fashion Week asking what more can be done.
” Performative activism contributes to the problem ”
Performative activism does not go to these lengths. Performative activism posts a graphic online, and goes about their Zoom meetings while their African-American colleagues are on the receiving end heartbroken. Performative activism says, “we value diversity”, yet allows racism to manifest itself within meetings, editing, casting rooms, and on set. Allyship is not confined to a Black square on social media. Allyship requires honesty, responsibility and accountability.
As a working African-American model and visual artist, I have been well-equipped for racism; I have the choice about who I choose to champion. During New York Fashion Week, I don’t attend shows that do not cast Black models. On social media, I do not follow brands that don’t reflect society.
Your attention is your highest currency. Brands like Telfar, Fenty, Aerie, Pacifica, Christian Siriano, and Pyer Moss have my full support. These brands undoubtedly have shown diversity in race, age, gender and body positivity long before Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. If every company took similar initiatives, some rooms in the industry wouldn’t be so unbearable, unwelcoming, and uncomfortable.
” What good is using Black culture if Black people aren’t allowed in the room? ”
I still have hope for the future of fashion, but there must be accountability. As a society we are so pressured into making the next thing, buying more things, and being the next big thing. It is essential for us to care about the people that contribute to those exact things. “Never let them convince you that broken glass or property is violence,” said Marc Jacobs in response to the damage done to his Soho location in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests. “Property can be replaced, human lives cannot.”
I am relieved that activism is not taboo anymore. Activism can happen anytime, anywhere by anyone. Five years ago, I was a liability. People in this industry were afraid to exercise their freedom of speech in fear of being blacklisted or even fired. But what you, the fashion world, needs to know is this: caring about people shouldn’t be a liability. What good is using Black culture if Black people aren’t allowed in the room? There is no one better to tell Black stories than Black people. Black editors matter, Black designers matter, Black directors matter, Black models matter, Black creatives matter, Black lives matter.
This article originally appeared on Harpers Bazaar