Leaders in the fashion world have pledged to address racism in their business. But to determine whether anything is improving, reporters for The New York Times felt they needed a concrete set of data about the current state of Black representation in the industry.
Reporters asked prominent brands, stores and publications to provide information about the number of Black employees and executives in their ranks — including those who design, make and sell products; walk runways; appear in ad campaigns and on magazine covers; and sit on corporate boards. But of the 64 companies contacted, only four responded fully to a short set of questions.
In a recent article, a team of reporters published the responses from the companies, along with personal comments from Black stylists, editors and publicists. Below is an edited conversation with those journalists: Vanessa Friedman, Salamishah Tillet, Elizabeth Paton, Jessica Testa and Evan Nicole Brown.
What was the biggest challenge in telling this story?
VANESSA FRIEDMAN The absolute lack of consistency. You’re dealing with global organizations that speak to a variety of markets, tapping into a whole bunch of different kinds of cultural areas. They’re headquartered in different countries with different demographics, different histories, different issues with racism and different laws. We had one set of very simple questions, less than 10, that felt like the most basic, obvious things everyone could answer. But only four companies out of 64 answered completely.
When did you realize the inability to answer the questions was the story?
FRIEDMAN You write what you find, and we felt that it was important to get across that if you have that level of chaos in the basic information, until you can make that into a clearer picture, you can’t actually know when progress is happening.
Why weren’t the companies able to answer these questions?
ELIZABETH PATON Every company had its own reservations and issues and reasons. I think, to a degree, it had to do with culture. For example, how the Italian brands perceived what we were trying to do was different than the Americans. I mean, legal reasons were part of it, but the American companies notably provided more information than the European companies did. I actually think that America is in a slightly different place in its conversation about race at the moment.
JESSICA TESTA It was almost surprising how reluctant some of the magazines were about participating because their numbers were the ones that were actually going to reflect well on them. I do feel like we were getting resistance from all sides, but one thing we did hear was, “I’ll be interested in participating next time.”
What has the response been like to the story?
PATON The majority of brands do understand the work that we’re doing, even if they found the questions really uncomfortable. A couple of brands were disappointed that their efforts were not more recognized, even if they hadn’t given us full answers. I haven’t heard any brand telling us that we made a mistake in trying to undertake this project. They recognize they need this scrutiny to change.
You also interviewed people about their experience working in the industry. What did you take away from that?
EVAN NICOLE BROWN It was important to me to find the intersections, but also the differences, in what Black professionals in this space felt. Sometimes people in the past have been asked to comment on things, and there has been a fear that might work against them, or their concerns would be misunderstood, but I feel like this project did a really good job at making people feel comfortable to speak. I think that this platform was appreciated, and it felt like there was no fear in terms of just sharing those really honest experiences, which definitely helped the piece and helped confirm the data or lack thereof.
What questions remain really interesting to you?
SALAMISHAH TILLET For me, how do you continue to diversify the leadership at the top? And then what are the structures and what are the assumptions that happen in those spaces that prevent that leadership from becoming more and more diverse? Because we would like to continue to change all aspects of the industry and all levers of the industry, but if the top remains monolithic, then really they’re the ones who are determining how the other aspects of the industry are also changing alongside it.
BROWN I was really interested in the tension of where classism comes up in this conversation as it relates to representation. Even if representation in the fashion industry improves on the race front, there’s still work to be done on the socioeconomic front. Through this reporting, that was illuminated more for me — which communities are being reached and what the ideal consumer is for so many of these places we’re discussing.
What do you want readers to take away?
FRIEDMAN I think we learned a lot about where the sticking points are and the need for a clear picture of what is going on. You cannot move forward until you know where you are. And it is just time for us all to know where we are with this industry.