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Will Fashion Struggle to Recruit and Retain Diverse Leaders?

Though fashion’s black Instagram squares have now been buried by more quotidian posts, most statements made a month back included promises to hire more people of color.

The question now, however, as an already paltry pool of Black and Latinx leaders in particular seems to be growing smaller rather than expanding, is: will fashion be able to attract the diverse candidates it has vowed to bring on?

The answer, it seems, is maybe, maybe not.

Many of fashion’s leading brands have stepped into tone-deaf territory in recent weeks, asserting their commitments to support Black lives while coming from companies with all-, or near all-white leadership. For some consumers of color or potential candidates for employment, the responses have left a sour taste in their mouths. Others may be more inclined to help companies make the changes they’ve pledged and carry fashion forward into a more inclusive future.

“There are some companies that have reserved millions of dollars to invest in Black companies and to invest in Black companies’ growth and that’s good and I love it,” said Mizzen + Main  sourcing and design director Gus Harris, speaking on a panel of all-Black industry leaders during the Functional Fabric Fair’s Expert Talks this week. “But what’s happening internally? What are we doing for the growth of African Americans in key positions being included in key decisions…that affect what your company looks like facing the world?”

The industry’s biggest lack lies at the corporate level, and though some companies tout diversity numbers that fold in retail and warehouse staff where representation across ethnicities tends to expand, more needs to be done about positioning people of color in decision-making roles and recognizing they have talent to share that could bring better balance to product, positioning and promotion.

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“A lot of people aren’t going to think there’s a place for them because they don’t see people [like themselves] making it,” said Tricia Langman, co-founder and design director at textile print design studio Spoogi. “One of the key things that’s missing from the process is the educational recruiting into industry.”

For Langman, who’s also an educator working with diverse students, the education component should have two sides. First, it will take educating students about what their opportunities are in fashion and equipping them with the tools to go about realizing them, but it’s also about leaders in the fashion industry going out and recruiting people from diverse populations and then supporting their climb up the ranks.

“If you’re going to say that you are here to be an ally, you’re here to support, you’re here to help move us forward, I think that you can’t just always think about ‘well, what’s in it for me?” Brittany Sierra, founder of the Sustainable Fashion Forum, said. “I think sometimes you have to be able to be that stepping stone for someone.”

Companies should be investing in developing their in-house talent, prioritizing them for promotions and considering listening to their existing staff of color about how they feel at the company and what they may want to see change, rather than forcing an impersonal unconscious bias training that often passes by as another workplace task rather than resonating the way human stories of challenges related to racism might.

In her own conversations surrounding the movement, Sierra said brands have asked whether they’ll risk looking like they’re just taking action to improve diversity and inclusion now because the climate demands it.

“The answer is yes, it will look like that,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t change what’s going on in your company because you don’t want to look a certain way. The way to get around that is to do it and continue to do it and continue to do it and continue to do it, and make it a part of your actual company ethos.”

Some people of color may still not want to work for certain brands because of how they have—or haven’t—responded to the fight against racism, but the fight to recruit by all means possible should press on.

“It’s important to recognize and accept and allow people to feel how they feel right now,” Sierra said. “If someone doesn’t want to work with you because of something you’ve previously done, it doesn’t mean stop, it means keep looking. I’m sure there are tons of people—even if you have a bad track record—I’m sure there are tons of people who would welcome that opportunity to help a company change and also to have an opportunity for themselves.”

Above all else, recruiting and retaining diverse people will mean fashion has to go deeper than black squares and further than summer 2020.

“This is not a publicity stunt,” Sierra said. “This shouldn’t be something that you do just so that you don’t get cancelled or so that people don’t call you out. It should be something that lives longer than this moment.”