Afterthoughts on The Wing’s ‘Diversity in Fashion’ panel
Like a happy hour for aspiring journalists and industry vets, a chic coterie of women gathered last Wednesday to discuss ‘Diversity in Fashion.’ Aptly hosted at The Wing – a new women’s workspace and social club – attendees schmoozed on pink couches ensconced in a library of ladybosses like Angela Davis, Edith Wharton and Diana Vreeland. The room abounded with female energy, eagerly awaiting the insightful commentary of 4 dynamic fashion forces: Julee Wilson – Fashion Director at Essence; Paloma Elsesser – curve model, writer and body image activist; Laurel Pantin – Editorial Director at The Coveteur; and Solange Franklin – freelance stylist. Moderated by Marjon Carlos – Vogue’s former Senior Fashion Writer – each woman brought unique perspectives to the discussion, yet echoed analogous frustrations within the industry.
The conversation started with what Marjon referred to as “Gucci Gate,” i.e. the digital fury post-Gucci’s blatant “swagger-jacking” of an iconic Dapper Dan piece. The “King of Hip-Hop Fashion” was a Harlem legend, dressing rappers, dealers and athletes alike in his “blackenized” takes on European logos. Julee wrote a piece that morning for Essence about said copycat, and was questioned by colleagues about “straining her relations with Gucci;” the unfortunate truth being she has no current relationship with the house. While formerly at Huffington Post Julee attended all the shows and could request pieces to no avail, yet upon moving to Essence – the “Black Girl Magic Headquarters” – she lost most of her PR ties. “We don’t represent any black designers,” the publicists would tell her, as if the entire race dressed exclusively in their own kind. She sees a clear disconnect between largely older white decision-makers and their diverse consumer audience, noting “there’s a huge learning curve the industry needs.”
Even the talents tapped to rep these billionaire brands experience the asinine oblivion. Paloma recalled a recent shoot with a “major design house” where she had to bring her own pants because the designer “didn’t have any.” Other anecdotes included creative directors asking her to look “ghetto,” “do J-LO,” and a general fetishizing of her brown girl beauty. She puts up with a lot of ignorance, to say the least, but with the utmost humility, she’s grateful “to be the role-model [she] never had growing up.” A voice of her generation, she attests her unapologetic authenticity to her success, and hopes for more jobs where she can “just be herself.”
“There’s a huge learning curve the industry needs.” – Julee Wilson
As a slender, bubbly blonde, Laurel Pantin admittedly epitomizes “the typical fashion girl.” Under her direction at The Coveteur, the diversity of editorial subjects has expanded greatly, but she admits the “moral dilemma of deciding what battles to fight when advertisers pay the bills.” In light of her relative ease in climbing the fashion ladder, she uses her higher power to “help people tell stories who might not otherwise have a platform.” The women unanimously agreed on their responsibility to give emerging talent opportunities and the importance of diversifying hiring and casting practices.
Solange Franklin’s experience resonates that ideology, and throughout her arduous trajectory from intern to Giovanna Battaglia’s 4-year assistant to being her own boss, she was “tired of drowning in other people’s privilege.” Rather than constantly complaining about the lack of diversity in the industry she loved, she opted to be solution oriented. Ongoing freelance she said, “[I] can establish a personal sphere of politics and accountability.” While there may be several people of color, trans and other minorities in the room, they rarely sit in the directorial roles.
These women exemplify a greater movement to use one’s voice to impact change and light a fire under peers to do the same. “We don’t have to hit the streets anymore to let people know we’re pissed,” Paloma noted of the tremendous power of social media. As a woman of color and budding journalist myself, I left feeling an increased responsibility in the conversations I provoke. In her final remarks, Marjon underscored the need “to reach the girls who wish they could be here, but don’t even know it exists.” My only hope is that this rising inclusivity isn’t just a trend of today’s clickbait-y political climate, but continues to inspire the peripheral eyes looking in.