In March, it was announced that Virgil Abloh was appointed as the new artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton, making him the third black designer ever to head a French fashion house.
The appointment was celebrated by many as a landmark moment for racial equality in fashion, but some creatives in the industry are pumping the brakes. They’re making the case that the hiring also highlights just how far the fashion world still has to go when it comes to fixing its long-standing racism issues. Hypebeast has published an article titled Why Virgil at Vuitton Only Begins to Combat Industry Racism that argues, “The hire is not a sign of systematic change.”
British fashion designer Joe Casely-Hayford points out that Abloh and other black designers are only being appointed to positions in certain realms of the industry. He explains, “Black designers have only been accepted in very narrow and predetermined roles: street style, sportswear, and afro-fetishism are the main, easy to digest categories.”
Laura Harris, a professor in African Studies at Pizer College, adds, “Generally speaking, blackness and some of its attendant vernaculars of representation have been white-washed, then made highly visible in serving to enhance mainstream fashion styles with a ‘street’ or ‘urban’ or ‘ghetto (fabulous)’ avant-garde edgy lefty revolutionary ethnic aesthetic.”
Hypebeast writer Jason Dike notes that the fashion world has improved in recent years when it comes to diversity on the runway, but behind-the-scenes positions continue to reflect the white-dominated industry.
“You’re totally fine to be on moodboards, perform at the latest Milan shows after party or maybe be in a campaign,” explains Joshua Kissi, founder of creative agency TONL. “But as far as to ideate and create based on the legacy of a 100 plus year luxury brand, that’s where it gets complicated.”
Dike argues that the appointment was a safe move for Louis Vuitton, in part because of Abloh’s reluctance to speak on race or politics. He writes, “That two of the three black designers to hold a French luxury design position stray away from openly discussing social issues is more an indication of the racism that fills the industry than a reason to question the designers’ morale.”
While Abloh’s new role should be applauded, Dike and others contend that the industry has a long way to go and would benefit from being forward-thinking thought leaders.
“The industry must move towards fully embracing and supporting talent, without bias,” says designer Victor Glemaud. “Without inclusion, collectively, especially from the behind the scenes, a glass ceiling will remain for independent entrepreneurs and designers who are black.” He adds, “Fashion, much like Hollywood, is insular and slow moving. Fashion brands must not only adapt but be forward-thinking leaders or they will become passé.”