By: Onyedikachukwu Peters
October 2nd, 2020. The second ever Savage X Fenty Show for Rihanna’s new lingerie line airs on Amazon Prime Video, and the reviews are stellar.
The show, as with all things Rihanna does, broke the internet, receiving praise from social media users everywhere for its diverse modeling cast. Rihanna proved, once again, that diversity in the fashion industry isn’t an impossible task, so how come, in 2020, is a fashion show like this not the norm? Why are we still praising fashion brands for including a wide range of races, genders, sizes and sexualities in their show when typically, in a world as diverse as ours, it should, be the norm? Why is diversity and inclusion such a big struggle for the fashion industry?
To answer this question, we must look to the runways of the western world, where although the people are as diverse as can be, this is rarely reflected in schools, the workplace and essentially, the runways. In 2018, Victoria Secret Exec, Ed Razek, explained why they didn’t use trans and plus size models.
“Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy,” he told Vogue in 2018. “It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”
His comments obviously received backlash from several people, but it revealed something, something behind the smoke and mirrors of the runway shows and picturesque model shoots. It revealed that, although times are changing, and even if people are becoming more accepting and inclusive, the fashion industry is constantly behind. Several stores still don’t offer plus sizing. Several runways still feature the same Eurocentric models and the same storyline or, “fantasy”. It’s such a big issue that it has seeped into other parts of the world.
Growing up, I didn’t see people that looked like me on the runways or modelling clothes. The only way I can describe it, is by quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk on the dangers of a single story; “Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things which I could not personally identify.”
Although she is speaking about books, the sentiment remains the same. I saw on screens and fashion shows, tall and slender white models with blond hair and blue eyes. I saw a world that was out of reach to me, a world I couldn’t enter, despite my love for all things clothing. Even in Nigerian storefronts, where more than 95% of the population was black, I’d see white girls with the European features everywhere. It had been so ingrained in me that that was what I deemed as perfection. That people who looked like me, or were from where I was from, couldn’t be seen as beautiful. I wasn’t the only one either. Bleaching cream is a profitable business in Nigeria. In places like India and Korea, skin lightening is a huge industry. Colorism runs rampant and people of a darker skin tone are pushed to the back and told they weren’t beautiful because they didn’t have those ideal features. They weren’t close to even being like those white models on the screen or the runways.
They didn’t fit the standard.
Even for men, it’s hard to see anything past the chiseled figure and sharp jawlines of the male models that line the underwear commercials and walk the runways. We never see plus-sized men as celebrated as they were on Rihanna’s stage. We never see the men who don’t have those buff arms and abs. These people are beautiful! They are just as gorgeous as the standard models. However, as Chimamanda would tell you, there’s a danger to a single story. To the black girl with the big nose and big lips that are only seen as beautiful when they are featured on her white counterparts. To the dark-skinned Indian girl who is pushed bleaching and skin lightening products from a young age. To the Japanese girl with mono lids and eyes that were once teased and have now become a trend. The fashion industry has woven a single story into the tapestry that is the self-esteem and confidence of people who don’t fit that standard. They have woven that one story, to say the standard is beautiful and anything outside of that is not. People are starting to see the cracks in the so-called “fantasy” that brands like Victoria Secret try to sell and are breaking those stereotypes and defeating, the “standard”.
People are creating their own spaces in the fashion industry and are forcing big brands to do the same. Victoria Secret’s stocks plummeted, while Savage X Fenty’s profits skyrocketed. Brands like Calvin Klein featured a plus-sized, black, trans model as the frontline for their pride campaign not just on social media, but on a life-sized billboard. 2019 featured brands like Dolce and Gabana, showcasing their most diverse cast of models yet. We are seeing models of various ages, sizes, races. We are seeing a world where there is no longer a “standard”.
The fashion industry is fuelled by what they think society wants. By the fact that front pages that feature white models sell more than any other POC model. By the fact that we still body shame men and women and push our idea of what beauty is on them. By the fact that what we “cancel” on the internet are the same things we do in private/behind closed doors. We are reforming the fashion industry by challenging our own biases on what beauty truly is. Beauty is subjective, but not when it’s because of things like race or size. The “standard” is being broken down, and new heights of diversity and inclusion are being reached.
October 2nd, 2020. Rihanna showed the world that it’s not hard to showcase beauty outside of the ideal. There is a fantasy, across the bridge, beyond the borders of the Eurocentric standard of beauty.
We just have to be willing to cross it.