Virgil Abloh found himself at the center of a social media backlash late last week when pictures of Off-White™’s team dinner surfaced online, revealing Off-White™’s staff in attendance to be almost entirely white. While the criticism was initially dismissed by Abloh’s PR rep, the designer later released a statement when the story grew online outside of the usual fashion insider circles.
In an unusual move for Abloh, who typically ignores callouts of his brand, he took to Instagram stories to showcase the black people he works alongside, including Tremaine Emory and Acyde of No Vacancy Inn, and even Serena Williams. Abloh later released a statement, saying “My design team is diverse as the world is big.” The milquetoast response left a lot to be desired; it didn’t take long for people to point out that working with one of the world’s most famous athletes isn’t quite the same as hiring black people on his staff.
It’s also worth pointing out that most of the “outrage” was actually disappointment. It’s become easy to flatten anything that happens inside the walls of social media as a baying mob, desperate for blood. But most of what we saw was black people expressing sadness about a luxury black-led fashion brand actually appearing to just follow the industry’s status quo.
But this pushback has cast a light on a wider problem. Namely, why does it fall on people of color’s shoulders to fix an industry-wide problem? Diversity, and lack thereof, is an issue across the board in the upper echelons of fashion, but we rarely, if ever, see the same level of scrutiny that Abloh is currently under applied to his white peers.
Most recently, we saw Gucci face a similar collective criticism due to the brand’s blackface sweater debacle. While Gucci received backlash for the offending item, relatively little of it landed on Alessandro Michele. In fact, it was the brand’s CEO, Marco Bizzari, who first spoke publicly about it to WWD with Michele releasing a statement soon after, saying “the fact that, contrarily to my intentions, that turtle-neck jumper evoked a racist imagery causes me the greatest grief.”
Abloh’s appointment to Louis Vuitton is still used as a watershed moment in fashion and a sign that the industry was making a concerted change. But, as we noted at the time, his hire wasn’t a sign of systemic change but merely highlighted the issues that have always plagued fashion and other similar creative industries. Photos of Off-White™’s overwhelmingly white Milan team are proof that while it’s relatively easy to use streetwear and a host of young black influencers as a calling card, creating real change behind the scenes takes a lot more effort.
The backlash against Abloh is part of a wider trend that affects POC in industries that suffer from underrepresentation; it’s not merely the lack of inclusion, it’s the unspoken expectation that POC will be the ones to do the heavy lifting of fixing the industry’s biases. It’s what Van R. Newkirk II described as “diversity as a second job” for the Columbia Journalism Review, where he examined “the collection of unspoken responsibilities involving diversity, inclusion, and development” that POC are expected to take on in comparison to their white counterparts.
And this effort can end up being a double-edged sword for minorities. In a 2016 study in the Harvard Business Review, Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman discovered that “white and male executives aren’t rewarded, career-wise, for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior, and nonwhite and female executives actually get punished for it.”
People of color working in fashion are certainly aware of this. As Andre Walker told HYPEBEAST in 2018, “The industry has paid zero attention to diversity in executive and other leadership roles in fashion. It was shamed into diversifying the catwalk hopefully it won’t require the same outcry to change the boardroom.”
Victor Glemaud echoed that same feeling, also telling HYPEBEAST, “Without inclusion, collectively, especially from the behind the scene people i.e. high-level executives, jury panels, editors, investors, and PR/marketing execs, all of which play a critical role in the decision-making process, a glass ceiling will remain for independent entrepreneurs/designers who are black.”
POC across creative industries feel this burden. It’s a responsibility that writer and podcast host Tracy Clayton noted as well. In a Twitter thread, she revealed that BuzzFeed had asked its black employees to teach a workshop about race with no extra compensation, in response to the much pilloried “27 Questions Black People Have For Black People” video. In a 2016 panel, Black-ish actor Tracee Ellis Ross similarly pushed back against this extra labor, telling a reporter that they were only asking Black-ish about diversity without calling out the inequality in other much less inclusive shows.
Abloh rarely speaks explicitly about race, but he has clearly made pains to include black models in his imagery for both Off-White™ and Louis Vuitton. While this approach may have been seen as progressive in the past, audiences have become more savvy to the fact that the appearance of diversity is not the same as inclusion. Karen Brown, founder of diversity and inclusion management consulting firm Bridge Arrow explored this in a piece for the Harvard Business Review, noting that “employees who differ from most of their colleagues in religion, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and generation often hide important parts of themselves at work for fear of negative consequences.”
Many have pointed out that making tokenistic changes to a workforce won’t change what made the environment so uninviting to people of color in the first place, and yet those in powerful positions in fashion seem to lag behind in recognizing this phenomenon. But they need to catch up, as audiences are realizing that a diverse cast of runway models can often mask homogenous, mostly white teams behind the scenes.
Abloh may be the public face of Off-White™, but the company is 53.76% owned by New Guards Group, the Italian rising conglomerate founded by Marcelo Burlon and Davide De Giglio. Business of Fashion recently ran an extensive feature on De Giglio, where he revealed that he usually finds the teams Abloh works with.
And yet, New Guards Group has mostly escaped backlash about the diversity of Off-White™’s team. That may be due to the fact that the group is relatively unknown compared to similar conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering. But it’s also likely because of the lowered expectations for white people when it comes to diversity hiring practices. But this shouldn’t mean that De Giglio can’t speak out on the topic. That the task fell on Abloh while De Giglio stayed in the shadows highlights the root of the issue.
While Abloh initially shrugging off issues with his company’s racial makeup left a bad taste, the truly sour note was the silent assumption that fixing diversity and inclusion is solely the job of POC. Until white creatives are given the same level of scrutiny for inclusive hiring practices as POC, the system will remain the same.
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