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Diversity in fashion: why it is often fake and who suffers from it

Diversity has become a buzzword, but what about serious efforts to drive change? And why does the fashion and media industry often not make it beyond mere visibility? The industry needs change from within – one comment.

When we talk about diversity in the fashion industry or in general, it is important to evaluate the here and now as well as the complex context. Because in the current remix culture, in which the most diverse people meet, the questions “what is okay?” and what not?" much more complex than they already were. I notice that in myself, but also in conversations that I keep having as a mixed person of color: “Tell me, why is that like that? Is it okay for designers to process attributes of other cultures without giving credit? Is it okay for the Kardashians to wear cornrows and identify with a certain image of 'blackness'? Often I take the time to explain, but other days I'd like to just answer with "Ask Google" or "Educate Yourself".

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One thing is for sure: everyone is confused or unsure and in some situations I find it very difficult to explain why I don’t find things appropriate – another buzzword in the context of diversity that is terribly difficult to grasp, as the answer varies from person to person would be different. Because what might be within the limits or acceptable for me, someone else sees as an absolute no-go – simply because the socialization process was different and you learned different tolerance limits through your environment. So we are in a collective “cultural confusion”. It always arises where several cultures meet and increasingly come together to form a unit. So beautiful, so utopian, but it's not quite that simple.

The problem with (fake) diversity in fashion

A lack of diversity and inclusion in fashion (and in general) are structural problems that cannot simply be compensated for by suddenly showing a representative person everywhere. Of course, visibility is incredibly important. But it shouldn't stop there. Especially in the fashion and media industry, there is a tendency to create an illusion of diversity, which is also commonly known as “woke washing”: a practice that is similar to the “greenwashing” known from sustainability, based on just cleaning things up to do for image reasons. So it's no wonder that so many BIPoC (Black Indigenous People of Color) or members of other communities feel they are being misused as a token – a kind of joker used to say to be able to: Look here, this is a BIPoC, nobody can accuse us of not being diverse!

Diversity in fashion: why it is often fake and who suffers from it

And while every single performance and success of a non-white person feels like a shared win for the greater good, it leaves a bitter taste. I always ask myself: Do you really give various people the opportunity to have a say in decisions or are they only used as a figurehead? Because that is exactly what can often be observed when the same representatives are always shown. What emerges from this is precisely that apparent diversity that only depicts a certain spectrum – nothing all-encompassing. The goal should be to rethink style and fashion and – ultimately – to achieve a status quo in which diversity is normal.

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We need multiple facets, even outside of the diversity on social media

Unfortunately, there is still a lot to do on this point – especially in fashion. Because as inclusive and ambivalent as this cosmos likes to present itself, the gatekeepers who decide what is in and out are linear. If you look behind the scenes, the structures of the brands do not reflect the multiple facets of the diverse society that some social media bubbles suggest to us.

Personally, I'm a fan of Instagram and the internet itself because it opens up a whole new world of opportunities to find people who look like you. People you can relate to, especially when you're young. Which brings us back to the topic of visibility: for my part, when I was a teenager it would have meant the world to me to have more role models with potential for identification, so that I could experiment more with my own style and feel seen. There was Rihanna and Beyoncé, but neither wore an afro. And that's exactly what I mean when I say that diversity in fashion, media and the entertainment industry only happens in a certain grid. One that makes only a few stereotypes a one-dimensional measure of diversity.

The diversity of modernity only wants to deal superficially with other realities of life

But wait a minute, it's 2022 and a lot has happened in fashion too, that's going to be the first objection. But if you look at it from an insider's perspective (that of a diverse person in our white society), I don't quite agree. Because what has changed? Diversity is still not standard and too often the same discussions are held about how diverse one MUST be and whether “the bare minimum” shouldn’t be enough. And, no, it's not enough to orientate yourself on percentages, because in the end it's about people who, by not being included and not being visible, are given the feeling of not having a place in society. Instead of involving those affected in important decisions, these are made on the basis of assumptions by third parties.

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Of course things move. Not least after initiatives like Black Lives Matter have grown or Instagram accounts like Diet Prada or cultural critics like Louis Pisano use their reach to draw attention to precisely such abuses. But that also proves: It is not enough to just be visually diverse – it is only really authentic if something is actively contributed. In this respect, the social networks are more democratic in contrast to long-established fashion systems or corporate structures – even if the filter bubble effect naturally comes into play here. Because at the end of the day, representation happens there in an organic way, doesn't need to be negotiated; and users can specifically determine how diverse their window into the world (wide web) looks by following certain people.

So how can we be less fake and more authentically diverse?

By staying critical, questioning and everyone starting where there is a need to fill gaps in knowledge. But it also means not taking explanations and corrections personally and accepting the attitude of those affected – without constantly questioning them. This implies multi-layered thinking that takes place outside of "isms" (e.g. ableism, ageism or lookism), because people are so much more than their skin colour, culture or gender. Which also means dealing specifically with the personalities behind it: Does the image shown in the media or the fashion industry do justice to reality? Are campaigns addressing more than just one target group and where are there clichés that should not be replicated?

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Personally, I wish that at some point representation and diversity will no longer be just one person, but a whole group – which will actively help to decide and shape the future of the fashion and media industry. Not from the outside, but from the inside. That no matter which room you enter, you see faces that don't all look the same. Because in order to really drive change forward, you need people who raise awareness of YOUR issues. People who help to shape a reality in which everyone is included and in which spaces without cultural barriers are accessible: Because there are no "isms" lurking and enough people "of everything" are visible who represent the multiple facets of our society.

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