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How Long Will Fashion's Racial Reckoning Be In Style?

NOEL KING, HOST:

This year, a lot of fashion magazines are featuring Black models on the covers of their glossy fall issues. That is unusual. Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch podcast talked about this change to Robin Givhan of The Washington Post. Givhan, you may remember, won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about the fashion industry.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: You just finished this huge piece, just published this huge piece about fashion and race and a reckoning thereof for the Post. Why this, and why now?

ROBIN GIVHAN: Well, I think, like a lot of industries, the fashion industry was sort of feeling the overflow from the George Floyd protests and the rising awareness of racial injustice in so many corners of our culture. And I was also just really struck by the sheer number of different initiatives that were bubbling up in the fashion industry in response to those protests, in response to people in the industry speaking out.

BATES: It was weird because at one point a couple of months ago, you could not open a major newspaper or an online news site and not see ads from companies saying, we stand with you or even, Black Lives Matter - some pretty surprising places that you would think weren't all that interested to begin with but definitely were showing interest at that point. I'm wondering if you think this is sort of flash in the pan or whether there's some legs to this.

GIVHAN: Well, you know, both of the things that that you just mentioned, the fact that there were so many surprising places or so many surprising entities that were posting messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement certainly was noticed - that this was a very different kind of moment. But it was also all of those postings of we stand in solidarity that sort of raised the hackles of people who really felt that they had experienced injustice, or they had seen injustice. And so it was that combination of all of these sort of surprising sources and also this sense of, OK, what does it mean to say you stand in solidarity?

BATES: I want to ask you, though, how cyclical you think this is. Or maybe this is different from previous iterations of this. I mean, I can remember as far back as the '70s when there were people saying, we need more black models. So that part is cyclical, but this feels a lot bigger than just we need more black models.

GIVHAN: Yeah, I mean, I don't know the answer to the question of what sort of lasting changes that this moment might create. But I do know that for years, there has been a focus on a more diverse range of models, both on the runway and fashion editorials, as well as in advertising. And if you look at the changes in that particular area of the fashion industry over the last, you know, five to 10 years, it's dramatic. I think some would argue that now if you look at a runway show or an editorial that didn't have some element of diversity, it would be the odd duck out. If there's anything that does distinguish the many initiatives and the movement that has sort of overtaken the fashion industry, it is that all of them have some kind of metric attached to them. Now, whether or not the numbers will ultimately make the difference I think is a big question. In many ways, I think British Vogue has really been a leader in this regard.

BATES: Of course, British Vogue has a black editor-in-chief.

GIVHAN: Exactly. Edward Enniful has been at the helm of British Vogue now for, I think, about two years, something along those lines. And, you know, he went in - when he took on that position, the first man - the first black person to take on that role. He went in with a very intentional desire to make British Vogue more diverse. That was part of his mission statement. And also wrapped up in that was he wanted to maintain the same aspirational fantasy aspect of the magazine. He simply wanted to invite more people into that fantasy. And I do think that the successes that he has had with the covers from the very beginning did sort of spark a greater sense of diversity on the covers of other magazines.

BATES: I'm hoping this will last and expand, but I'm wondering if I might not be calling you five years from now saying, Robin, what happened? It started out so well.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: What do you think? Does this feel like this is sort of a turning point?

GIVHAN: So I do think that the companies that have really invested do recognise that this is not something that's going to be fixed lickety split, that it's going to take a lot of intentionality, and it's going to take a lot of long-term focus. Right now the initiatives that really seem to have taken hold are those that have been founded by people who are sort of part of the industry, who have reached out, you know, open-handedly across the void and said, we want to work with you to improve this industry that we all love. Standing in the wings, also, sort of pounding on the door are other initiatives that are much more confrontational. So I suspect that if the more diplomatic, kinder, gentler (laughter) version doesn't work, then there will be those ready to move forward who don't have such a gentle approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "TELL ME")

KING: Robin Givhan of The Washington Post talking to Karen Grigsby Bates. Our podcast Code Switch has a longer version of that interview, and you can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "TELL ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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