CFDA Launches Plans to Make Fashion More Racially Balanced

Rosemary Feitelberg

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Diversity is not a new agenda for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, but the organization has ramped up its efforts significantly to try to make the fashion industry more racially balanced.

After a week that has been filled with many peaceful protests and massive civic unrest in several major cities, including the CFDA’s home base of New York City, the organization unveiled a multitiered plan that includes job placement, mentorships and apprenticeships for black creatives.

For years, the fashion industry has been criticized for its lack of support for black designers, and at times black models. The absence of black executives in major roles in both fashion and retail companies has also been noticeable. Despite various efforts in the past to improve diversity, the majority of executives at leading companies are white, and often male. There is also a dearth of black designers in senior positions at leading brands.

Of the CFDA’s 477 members, only 19 members identify as black, representing 4 percent of the group’s total base.

Educational programs about inclusivity and diversity is another component of the CFDA’s new efforts that were revealed in a letter from chairman Tom Ford. Acknowledging the “deplorable acts of racism and violence that we have seen play out in our country over the past week,” he wrote, “Black people in this country are reeling from years of injustice stemming from institutional constructs such as slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality and economic and voter suppression.”

The CFDA is creating an in-house employment placement program to place more black talent in all sectors of the fashion industry. There is also a mentorship and internship program being set up to place students and recent graduates with established companies in the fashion sector. Following Thursday’s announcement, the CFDA received “an outpouring of offers from people who are looking to be involved or to help, including Krewe’s Stirling Barrett and Bibhu Mohapatra, said CFDA president and chief executive officer Steven Kolb. “There is a lot of expertise and resources that we can tap into.”

As for the challenges given the current state of the country, Kolb said, ”We’re in a fragile time. We’re an industry that is still recovering, still dealing with COVID-19. There’s a lot of unemployment right now. A lot of people have been furloughed. What are the jobs that are really going to be available? The economic turmoil that we’re in, in terms of unemployment and companies’ budget issues, are going to be a challenge. But that is not a deterrent or something that is going to stop us.”

Emphasizing the need for such a program, he said, “Hopefully, as the economy improves and begins to return to better levels of employment, we’re going to be ready to make sure that we’re connecting that talent.”

Kolb cited the diversity and inclusion report that the CFDA released early last year with PVH Corp. as an example of the group’s previous efforts, adding that diversity is part of the CFDA’s mentoring group sessions and development programs. Diversity is also embedded in the CFDA’s existing programs, such as its awards and scholarship programs, Kolb said.

Some of the CFDA’s new plans touch upon what brands and companies should be doing, such as hiring a higher percentage of diverse employees — both executives and creatives. Getting retailers to have more real estate for black-owned businesses is another priority.

A five-person team at the CFDA has been formed to identify the talents and work in the community to help get the employment and internship programs up-and-running. Much like the CFDA/Vogue’s “A Common Thread” grants, which were created quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CFDA is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to its diversity plans, Kolb said. “This is something that we will be working on all summer and we certainly hope to have this actively up-and-running in the fall,” he said.

As for how many people the CFDA may be able to help initially with job placement, Kolb said, “It’s really going to depend on who we can enlist from the corporate side to want to be part of this. I think words are empty if there’s no action. I know we’re going to work very hard. And we wanted this statement to be more than just a statement of solidarity so there was some action connected to it. We’re going to work very hard to enlist as many people in as many companies as possible into our work.”

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