The lack of representation of different cultures, ethnicities, religions and all other facets of humanity in fashion and advertising at large has never bothered me. It’s not because I was born into a life of racial privilege—I’m a Malay-Muslim minority living in a Chinese-majority country—but I have never thought or perceived visuals through a coloured lens. I guess, in today’s age, I’m not as woke as I should be.
This has never stopped me from buying fashion. I have never caught myself thinking that an item wouldn’t look good on me because I’m not the “suggested” tall, skinny white male. I have, however, stopped myself from buying items that don’t look good against my skin tone or wouldn’t make sense proportionally. But it has never been because I couldn’t fit into a certain ideal; sometimes, some things just don’t suit you and that’s totally fine.
It wasn’t until the fanfare of Somali-American Halima Aden’s entry into the Miss Minnesota USA pageant that I noticed how representation matters. It might not have affected me personally, but the idea that someone’s presence has the power to influence change for the better is inspiring. This is the core of what diversity representation is all about; to make the world as inclusive as it ought to be.
It has never been because I couldn’t fit into a certain ideal; sometimes, some things just don’t suit you and that’s totally fine.
Fashion brands have obviously noticed the shift. Online fashion media The Fashion Spot began charting diversity representation for women in 2014 and has since reported significant improvements on seasonal runways, advertising campaigns and magazine covers in general. But representation for representation’s sake is not entirely ideal too. There has to be a certain level of authenticity attached to it.
It’s not enough to have a non-Caucasian personality featured on the cover of a magazine only when it’s felt to be timely. A Singaporean shouldn’t be on the cover just because it’s for the month of August and it’s the ‘Singaporean issue’, only to have the rest of the issues for the year fronted by racially ambiguous faces (read: Caucasian with Asian features). Don’t misunderstand me; there’s certainly nothing wrong with featuring models of European descent because clearly the global population is made up of more than just one type. But highlighting minorities only when it’s convenient and makes marketing sense is sheer tokenism. If the decision to cast a model is based on ethnicity, sexual identity, size or any other opportunistic agenda of the moment, and not on skill and merit, that’s discriminatory. It’s the equivalent of telling someone that they’re hired because their looks are only suited for this particular job on this very particular day. But for anything else? Not so much.
Hype is the key operative word in fashion these days. Hiring the first <insert minority here> model creates that viral buzz that marketing executives live for and brands profit from. In turn, any self-respecting journalist would want to draw attention to it because their job is to have their fingers on the pulse of the industry. It’s what happens once the buzz dies down that matters most in this shift towards a more diverse representation. It shouldn’t be as fleeting as a news piece.
If the decision to cast a model is based on ethnicity, sexual identity, size or any other opportunistic agenda of the moment, and not on skill and merit, that’s discriminatory.
Fashion brands need to be consistent in representing minorities. Gucci’s fully non-white cast for its pre-autumn 2017 campaign was a first for the Italian fashion house, but has been followed by a steadily diverse model casting for subsequent runway shows and campaigns. The same goes for Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga, just to name a few.
Is featuring a diverse cast of models now used as a marketing tool? Yes, evidently, it is. But it’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s a sign that fashion brands are listening and feeling the pressures of a more self-aware and tuned-in society. However, we need to be able to voice our displeasure when what’s being presented at face value doesn’t translate consistently to every facet of the brand. It shouldn’t be a case of false advertising. If a plus-sized model is featured in an advertising campaign, the size range of clothes in stores should at the very least be true to what is portrayed.
If not, a tip to @diet_prada on Instagram should call quick attention to the trickery, as they have successfully proven to date. Stay woke, fam.
This article was originally published in the May issue of Esquire Singapore.