On newsstands: This story appeared in the April 2022 print edition of The Eagle. You can find the digital version here.
Clothes play a major role in people’s lives, but behind rose-tinted sunglasses there is systemic issues in the fashion industry, such as cultural appropriation and the minimal presence of people of color in leadership positions.
Fashion is a “top-down” industry that allows corporations and designers in high places to control who they don’t hire, the standard of work practices, and the designs of their clothing. Simultaneously, the monopolization of this space is reserved for the wealthy and the big names, often excluding local minority-owned businesses.
In recent years, major fashion houses have been accused of exploiting the styles, patterns and materials of marginalized and religious communities in society without giving credit or context to the original designs and their significance. In 2019, Gucci apologized after making white models wear turbans, a move that drew backlash from the Sikh community. In 2018, Dolce and Gabbana used Chinese stereotypes in their advertisements for a fashion show held in China. Prada for promoting a design similar to a 19th century Blackface character.
Yet there are campaigns and movements founded by people in the industry who want to see these issues changed. In July 2020, Teen Vogue launched a “Black advice in fashionwhich represents and fights for the advancement of black designers. The models also took inspiration of the Black Lives Matter movement and incorporated symbols to protest. Iindigenous designers reclaim their culture by offering fashion lines that reflect their indigenous tribe. Model Jeannie Jay Park wore only fashion brands owned by AAPI and POC for a week.
On the American University campus, the struggle to make the fashion world more inclusive is a microcosm of societal discussions.
UA’s fashion company, Revolution, tries to educate people about these flaws and make an impact that speaks to the entire UA student body.
On their instagram page, you can find posts about events like a sustainable fashion panel and conversations with professionals. Their blog coverage has included DC Fashion Week and an Instagram photo series, “Quad of the Week”, which features UA student outfits.
“[We had] guest speaker events where people of color come and talk about what it’s like to be a black woman in fashion and the roles they have and the struggles they have too. It was about educating the public by hearing about the experiences of others,” said Julia Smith, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and blog writer for Revolution.
According to Co-Chair Natalie Senft, a senior at the Kogod School of Business, Revolution tries to promote social change through events.
“We try to make sure that we organize representative events and discuss relevant issues,” Senft said. “I think we need to work harder to collaborate with as many other organizations as possible and engage those diverse voices.”
Still, Michayla Harris T., a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, said the club needed to speak out and reach out to voices that weren’t heard in mainstream society, especially because the UA is a predominantly white institution.
“Even for me as a black student, it’s hard because people of color are either forced to assimilate or hide in a small group,” Harris said. “The goal is to create a conversation and promote diversity within it and different kinds of perspectives from different kinds of people.”
Regarding the recruitment of new members, co-president Rachel Lee, a senior from Kogod, said the club was trying to be “intentional and not forceful”.
“The whole point of diversity is that you want to raise your voices and not because you feel you have to,” Lee said. “So it’s not that we don’t do things, we would like to be recognized for what we did because of course it’s not perfect, but we try.”
Revolution blog writer Nairobi Toombs, a freshman at Kogod, hopes to see more action from Revolution to elevate designers on campus and that creativity, as well as using social media to show how DC, Maryland and Virginia’s fashion scene is, and how it is a predominantly black space. Black-owned businesses are an important part of the retail economy in the DMV area.
“Through our articles, we try to uplift everyone,” Toombs said. “We hold DEI events to ensure everyone is included and different voices are heard in our media.”
Part of the challenge of expanding Revolution’s reach as a club comes from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the role of the AU Club Council. The club tried to transition from an event-based club to a community club, but ran into obstacles.
According to Lee and Senft, because the club was founded in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, it was difficult to recruit people.
“Natalie and I had very ambitious goals for what we want to be able to do,” Lee said. “AUCC is very chaotic, and I understand that we have a lot of hurdles to go through…Of course, we could always do more, but it is the bureaucratic side of AUCC that is not in able to organize events quickly.”
AUCC did not respond to The Eagle’s request for comment.
One of their ideas was to hold inclusive bi-weekly meetings to discuss current issues in the fashion industry, Lee said.
“I think Rachel and I really want to promote inclusion and make people feel welcome in our environment,” Senft said. “When Rachel and I came to AU, we were really looking for a space and we couldn’t find a fashion at AU. We just hope everyone feels welcome and doesn’t have to change who they are or fashion that interests him to be part of our organization.