Before attending London College of Fashion’s “Better Lives: Racism in Fashion” seminar, I caught up with Caryn Franklin, co-founder of All Walks: Beyond the Catwalk. The organisation campaigns for age, race and size representation and diversity within the fashion industry. I took the opportunity to talk to her about fashion’s preoccupation with the young, tall and slim Caucasian model:
Firstly, what’s your relationship with London College of Fashion?
I’ve been an external examiner, I’ve been a visiting lecturer, and I’ve been an honouree fellow here. However, next September I want to start a course on the Applied Psychology of Fashion, which Carolyn Mair is doing, so I’ll be coming in for that.
After researching what All Walks: Beyond the Catwalk does, I was wondering if you’ve ever been into London College of Fashion to talk to the design students about using a greater variety of tailor dummy forms?
We’ve done lectures here, and we’ve worked with Rob Phillips (Creative Director at London College of Fashion). In our lecture with design students we flag-up whether using a size eight bust stand for their designs, and then transferring it to a size eight, very tall, thin model is suitable training for empathising with the female body. Baring in mind that the model isn’t paid to provide feedback and the bust stand capable of commenting.
All we really do, to a certain extent, is raise these issues. In many cases we’ve found that colleges have agreed with us. They’ve wanted to do projects where they’ve brought in a range of bodies and allowed the students to partake in the Diversity Now project (http://www.artsthread.com/diversity-now/). Thus, students make clothes for the end user, not the catwalk model. I think that is one of the problems, fashion students often disassociate themselves with the end user.
At London College of Fashion there’s a noticeable disparity and disengagement between the fashion design students and the theory students. For example, at the “Better Lives” lecture tonight there won’t be many design students, whereas most of the students on my course (MA History and Culture of Fashion) will be attending. Really shouldn’t we all be attending?
One of the hardest things for the design students is that they have been sold an ideal by their own industry, which they are attempting to uphold, even though it doesn’t make sense. So a lot of the time when we lecture we ask students to ‘turn up the volume’ on their own personal response. A lot of the time, if you’ve grown up in an advertising culture, you’ve realistically wanted to go: ‘Hold on a minute, why are you showing me an anti-wrinkle cream on a twenty-year-old. Why aren’t I seeing a fifty-year-old woman, and a fifty-year-old face? Oh, she is fifty. She’s just been post produced to look like a twenty-year-old woman’. If the brain had to have those conversations all the time it would be exhausting. So what a lot of people choose to do is to turn the volume down so they can’t hear it. They just receive the information and passively engage with it, and that’s what a lot of designers do.
How do you think students, like me, can get people, who don’t normally think about what they’re looking at in advertisements, to not just accept what they see as real?
I don’t think there is a magic wand; nothing will cure everything with a sprinkle of fairy dust. To a certain extent, it’s sitting down and having one-on-one conversations. When someone is conscious, and wide awake, they receive that sort of stuff. They are able to say, ‘I’m not buying this because…’, and their friends listen. Their friends could respond negatively, and say, ‘I don’t want to be around it because it interferes with my world view’.
However, the best way All Walks has found to spread this message is to broadcast what we think to classes of up to one hundred future creatives. We are certainly not hoping to convert everyone but we hope, for some, we’ve actually made an impact. These individuals move forward thinking differently. In some way that’s all we can hope for. What we know is that we’re reaching people who are the future creatives, so they will create messages that reach consumers en masse.
What role do you think social media plays in changing people’s viewpoints and raising awareness of the lack of diversity within the fashion industry?
I think it can play a huge role in linking up like-minded thinkers,and allowing transparency; for example, being able to talk to a brand when you’re not happy about something. However, a lot of people don’t. The advertising standards committee can act on a handful of complaints, so if you see a beauty campaign were they’ve used a fifty-year-old woman, but they’ve made her look twenty-five in post production because they’re trying to sell a product, that is false advertisement.
Unfortunately, most people don’t complain. We’re so used to it we accept it. Beauty companies rely on us being passive consumers. Being able to use our voices, whether it is in direct action, complaint, or keeping the debate alive on social networking websites, is really important so we all find our own platform to have debate.
On our course we’re all in agreement that the lack of diversity is a huge problem. Would you say that the changes need to come from the top (trickle down), or do they start from grass roots and work their way up (trickle up)?
I’m highly dubious that it will ever come from the top, because the top just wants, year on year, to increase their profit. It doesn’t have a directive to engage and bolster the self-esteem of its consumers; that doesn’t lead to profit. The change has to come from the ground, where consumers stop being willing and compliant. I’m always shocked at the success a company like American Apparel, where the CEO creates highly objectified, sexualised, undermining images of women, yet there are an enormous amount of women who buy his products. What we can see from this example is that there are an awful lot of consumers who are willing to settle for very little. However, there is also a growing band of consumers – and that’s what we all are – who choose where we put our money. Knowing that you’ve got the choice, and that you can make a difference, is all we can hope for. But actually, if people were more discerning they would stop supporting toxic brands, and start supporting emotionally stable, ethical companies, and it would change quite remarkably.
It’s widely considered in the fashion industry that if you put a black person on the cover of a magazine that it won’t sell. However, when Vogue Italia did, for their ‘Black Issue’, it sold out in the UK. It also sold a record number of copies worldwide, what would you say to that?
Great, I didn’t know that. It is the perceived wisdom that white people, of which there are many more in this country, want to buy into their own likeness. We’re told that Caucasian people can’t make an aspirational connection with a black person, and that’s what a lot of CEOs hide behind. So it’s great that there is research to show that, basically, a lot of readers, most of them Caucasian, were moved to buy this ‘Black issue’ of Vogue Italia, rather than other issues. I love that. It goes against everything, against all the perceived wisdoms. What happened after this issue?
Vogue Italia went back to all white models. However, they now have a ‘black section’ on their website…
What’s weird is that this truly goes against what businesses normally do. They couldn’t care less about editorial content, as long as they’re selling more magazines. That goes against their ‘holy grail’, which is to increase sales.
A theory that’s been discussed is that the success of Vogue Italia’s ‘Black Issue’ was down to the novelty factor. It’s now a collector’s item because it was a one-off
What normally happens is that they say, ‘Yes, it’s a novelty factor, but it didn’t sell very well so we’re not going to integrate it’. So that’s what I don’t understand. It’s like a designer who creates a really successful bag then deciding they aren’t going to carry on making bags anymore. It just doesn’t make sense.
At the end of 2013, our university held a conference about non-Western fashion. There was a lot of debate around ‘otherness’, and that the terminology we use can actually reinforce the idea of ‘otherness’. For example, with the use of the word ‘non-Western’ it means that they’re not one of ‘us’. How would you get around the terminology and reinforcing it further? Is there a word you think we can use?
I think to a certain extent there always is, and currently are, questions around this. It’s often the dominant culture that develops the language. Others receive it, and are not happy with their positioning. For instance, I would love if there were another word that would give me a shortcut to the word ‘disabled’. However, I haven’t found it. I’ve asked people with disabilities how they would like to be described, and I think that’s part of it. One word says so much, and people all agree that it does the job best.
Ideally, we’d have a situation in which there was collective vote, that went out globally, like a referendum, and on that day everyone picked their favourite word. From that day forward we used that word. Other than that, I don’t know how you move out of that space. Interestingly, I learnt, one of the best changes was from a group of students. Instead of using the word ‘plus-sized’, they gave me ‘life-sized’. Although, when you say to people we’re working with ‘life-sized’ models, people can’t place it, so the term needs to be explained. Whereas, if you say we’re working with ‘plus-sized’ models they know exactly what that means. ‘Life-sized’ has so much more vitality to it and it’s a much more authentic description, but it’s reframing it. I think it was Plato who said – I’m paraphrasing – ‘tell the history, own the story, ’ therefore, beginning to reinvent words so that people feel they’re stakeholders in their own label.
To learn more about All Walks: Beyond the Catwalk, visit their website