Luxury has long had race issues. Saks was accused of discrimination against its black employees in 2018, LVMH only recently appointed its first black woman creative director, in 2019, and Salvatore Ferragamo received a flashback for showing allegedly inauthentic support for the black community in 2020.
The string of luxury fashion diversity and inclusion hires over the past few years has shown that the industry’s perspective is slowly changing on the matter. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go yet. The use of DE&I departments was seen as the end of a culturally insensitive scandal rather than the start of a new system.
This approach has the effect of creating a system in which DE&I exists only to protect the brand from another scandal rather than actually introducing internal change. So how does luxury fashion work to change that?
According to Renée E. Tirado, who was hired by Gucci in July 2019 before leaving to found her own consulting firm in July 2020, there are common problems within the current system. “The main hurdles are financial investment, holistic implementation and prioritization,” she said, adding that “brand preservation trumps everything.”
A key point mentioned by Tirado is responsibility, saying, “Who really owns luxury fashion – [or] any industry, for that matter – responsible? And without real and official accountability, DE&I will depend on the companies themselves to provide an enabling environment.
If companies do not provide this environment, they will be at a disadvantage when setting up DE&I. Tirado said that working in an unfavorable environment makes change “not impossible, but infinitely more difficult and much slower, and the payoffs are small”.
“In these environments, victories will be tiny and [will] primarily serve to provide emotional and community support to various employees, ”she said. “While important, these are smaller gains that do not have enough impact on culture change.”
Tirado said the one-off events did not result in a significant change, although she did not mention any particular brand. The Italian brand recruited filmmaker Ava DuVernay for a newly created diversity council in 2019, after her 2018 storefront scandal. Soon after, the brand launched Prada Mode, a unique event hosted by black artist Theaster Gates. However, it was not until October 2020 that the the brand has hired a DE&I director to Malika Savell, who previously worked at LVMH.
Advertising expert Kai Lawson said that in order to make real change, you need to imprint diversity from the start. “Most of us who focus on marketing and inclusion try to make people understand the importance of incorporating inclusive thinking as soon as you get the idea,” she said.
“When it comes to a brief, it’s time to start talking about inclusion,” she said. “Everything that follows is too responsive.” For Lawson, this subtle change is how you end up with just damage control instead of internal change. “Instead of having conversations about how to be inclusive, you end up having questions like, ‘Is this offensive?’ And by then, it is too late.
But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. Tirado said that “the addition of dedicated staff has had a huge impact”. Previously, the work of DE&I fell to POC employees, who leads to burnout as they worked to secure inclusion in addition to their usual roles. But there is still more to do.
Tirado said a key change for luxury fashion would be to “treat DE&I as a change management program”. This would see brands “providing DE&I departments with substantial budgets that thoughtfully invest in diverse talent, are linked to metrics, and grow with the business.”
This would also come with education for management. “Leadership must have the know-how to manage, develop and grow diverse talent, knowing how to recognize their inherent biases and how they manifest.”
But perhaps the most important change for luxury fashion would be to fundamentally change the way it looks at DE&I. As it stands, this remains an initiative you would use to put a band-aid on a recent racism scandal. Gucci hired Tirado after being accused of black face and offending Sikh culture.
“Avoid seeing DE&I as an ‘initiative’ and treat it as an ongoing business imperative,” Tirado said. “An initiative has a time stamp; the health of the business is not. “