Olivier Rousteing, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Zerina Akers and More Discuss the State of Diversity in Fashion

Shannon Adducci
·4 min read

A year into the pandemic and more than nine months since the racial reckoning propelled by the killing of George Floyd in 2020, the fashion world is still trying to assess what a more equitable future actually looks like.

While the gears of change have been put in motion by some power players and brands, remnants of inequity highlight the inertia of creating lasting change. Most recently, the silence and lack of public stance from many big brands in the wake of an increase in Asian-directed hate crimes has reignited a conversation on fashion’s role as a mouth piece in social justice issues.

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To parse out the current state of the industry and what work is still needed to be done, the New York Times convened Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing, Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, Black Owned Everything founder and stylist Zerina Akers and Depop chief executive Maria Raga for a conversation with NYT Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman. Called “Beyond the Runway: Changemakers, Social Justice & What Comes Next,” the event (which aired Thursday as part of the “On The Runway” series) had the group discussing at length where diversity in fashion stands now.

Rousteing recalled his first years at Balmain as a young designer in his early twenties.

“The French don’t like to mention the word ‘diversity.’ At the time there were people in the French fashion crowd that didn’t value (it), they didn’t associate it with luxury. The problem was trying to explain that a color is not going to define a level of chic or not chic.” The designer pointed to social media and the resulting direct line between designer and consumer as the impetus for brands to be less insular and start paying more attention to the outside world.

“If it’s not part of who you are and your values, it’s actually hard to do something meaningful,” said Raga, who spoke at length about the company’s Gen Z activist consumer, whose identity is shifting from previous generations. “We realized that just sponsoring Black-owned businesses was not enough. We needed to really showcase more of the journey and create role models to feel inclusive.”

Akers applauded recent efforts at diversity, equity and inclusion in the fashion industry. Her social media and now e-commerce platform Black Owned Everything has been a driving force for Black designers. But the stylist also pointed to independent talents as another way to push equity.

“I get to contribute to a large platform in my work with Beyoncé,” said Akers longtime stylist to the star and a frequent collaborator with independent designers. “A lot of the focus has been on Black-owned brands, when (we also want) to shift the power back into independent designers. We get used to going on Amazon and buying our things and we forget about these creators as mom-and-pop shops, in a way. A lot of these younger creatives have pretty much been forgotten.”

Piccioli, meanwhile, spoke of the power of image in fashion as conveying new attitudes: “Passion doesn’t have to just speak in words, it can be in images. For me, it was a challenge because Valentino was brand very well known for exclusivity and a certain kind of lifestyle. The real challenge was to move this brand to embrace a new world,” said the designer. “As a designer and as a person, I want to tell my values through the job I do.”

The creative director revealed that in the past, Valentino had not lent samples to Black magazines such as Ebony or Jet, but he has worked to change that. He also recalled the vision behind his haute couture collection from two years ago, in which he cast with 43 Black models, with Naomi Campbell at the lead, to show couture in a new light. “It was a statement of image,” he said. “I wanted to update the idea of couture as something relevant for a new world.”

To hear more from the NYT talk, click here.

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