After two years, London Fashion Week is back with crowds, front rows, and shows. And the welcome strut of models on the catwalk brings with it the potential for great strides forward in making the industry more representative of society.
The British fashion industry has taken up a diversity initiative born in the BBC’s London newsroom but made it their own. Indeed, they’ve innovated in ways that could be trendsetting for newsrooms, content teams, and the fashion publications devoted to their work.
The partnership with the BBC’s 50:50 Project began that to the BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity June Sarpong joined the BFC’s Council. In September 2020, she became part of a newly formed BFC diversity and inclusion steering committee, which initiated the discussions of how 50:50 could be used to collect representation for the fashion industry.
Twenty design businesses signed up to use the 50:50’s data collection model at this September’s London Fashion Week. They were asked to collect diversity data from their teams represented at the event, which the BFC will collate. The results will be fed back to designers to support their future decision-making.
Katie Rawle, the BFC’s Senior Business Development Manager and co-lead for the Council’s 50:50 initiative, said, “Our initial thoughts about taking on 50:50 was how it could be empowering for designers. We’re empowering them to add further consideration to their decisions based on the data sets we give back to them.”
Sarpong believes that the success 50:50 has had within the BBC (and elsewhere) will positively impact London Fashion Week. According to Sarpong, “50:50 encourages all businesses to make more conscious choices around their teams from full time employees to the freelancers employed at shows, from models, to stylists, hair and make-up artists, communications and production teams.”
The BFC’s program adheres to the 50:50’s core principles: Collect data to effect change, measure what you control, never compromise on quality. These are the same cornerstones used by more than 100 partner organizations across the globe.
As Rawle said, collecting data to effect change for the fashion industry is all about informing designers’ future decision-making. September’s London Fashion Week will set the benchmark for them and the industry at the tri-annual event and they will then seek to improve their previous performance where necessary. The BFC has pledged to publish the industry’s data after 18-months. Critically, this aligns with the 50:50 ethos: Change not only happens – but is seen to happen.
Beyond a superficial makeover
The fashion industry has advanced the “traditional” 50-50 model in that the design businesses also collect data on their behind-the-scenes staff. This includes everyone from the design teams themselves to hair and make-up, models, production, and communications.
Yvie Hutton, the BFC’s Director of Membership and co-50:50 lead, said the decision to use 50:50 for off-camera contributors was inspired by an improvement in the editorial sphere over the last five years. She believes a similar evolution is happening behind the scenes in the world of fashion – but would like to confirm it in numbers. And if it turns out more change needs to happen, transparency can only help.
“50:50 is such a great way to look at all the different sort of stakeholders that make up the industry and come together for a major event,” she explained. “It will give us a better understanding of whether people’s perceptions match the reality.”
So how does the BFC’s adapted version of 50:50 work? Most of the 50:50 media partners monitor their content through perception and collecting that data on aggregating spreadsheets. This allows daily output that is simple, fast and can fit into a content-makers’ workflow. However, London Fashion Week is collecting its data through QR-codes.
Hutton explained that any contributor could simply scan the QR code on their phone and fill in a self-declaration survey there and then. She says that this method of data collection fits better with the industry’s current practices and for capturing off-catwalk representation. As with the media’s approach, it also allows data to be collated quickly and fed back to designers to support short-term and future decision-making.
Newsrooms looking to garner more actual data – as opposed to audience perception data – may want to consider the QR collection method. Sending it to a contributor before transmission or publication will allow them to use the data in real-time, which could be quite powerful.
A deeper look
In addition to extending the data collection on the who, the BFC have also widened the scope of what characteristics they are monitoring. They’re examining not just what the audience can see but those behind the scenes.
Rawle explained that, as with 50:50, they are monitoring gender, disability and ethnicity However, they have also included socioeconomic diversity (SED). Fashion, like the media and other creative industries in the UK, has been identified as lacking employees from working-class backgrounds.
“There’s this idea about creative industries that they’re a meritocracy and that you just work hard and you can make it and that isn’t the case,” she said. “I think we have to acknowledge that and that was one of the things that came out of the 50:50 pilot [at June’s London Fashion Week]. People were keen for us to capture it socioeconomic diversity, as well as the other characteristics.”
A recent report on social mobility in the creative economy highlighted how what Rawle describes here mirrored in the media. According to the research by PEC, 28% of those in film, TV, video and photography are from working-class backgrounds, while 41% come from what they describe as “privileged backgrounds.”
At the very least the partnership forged between the media and the fashion industry through 50:50 is a powerful one. We share a common goal to create products that better reflect our world. And, as we see through each of our partnerships, there is much to be done, and much to learn.
In the case of the BFC’s approach to 50:50, they added in the element of class and economic diversity. To date, 50:50 has not been used to understand class as it is impossible to accurately perceive. It is interesting to consider the possibility of the BFC’s simple QR survey offering a means to capture this or other diversity dynamics.
We will be watching the BFC’s progress with interest, especially the BBC’s 50:50 external partners lead Miranda Holt. She has been working closely with the BFC and hopes their work will have an impact on representation within the media in the long-term from a different angle.
“At 50:50 we talk about how the media alone can’t change the representation our audiences see, hear and read,” she said. “Our pool of experts, spokespeople and contributors come from across a multitude of industries and sectors. If those people are not reflecting society, then it impacts our ability as content-makers to represent all. So, when industries – such as fashion – take steps to ensure their sector is representative it will have an impact for us. It will mean the media’s coverage of fashion can also better reflect our world.”
The emphasis, believes, Holt is on long-term. And Hutton agreed, pointing out that the British fashion industry’s 50:50 journey is just beginning, and that it will take time to create the change to which they aspire. There is no shortage of ambition. In two years’ time, she hopes the work being done now – not only with 50:50 but with other commitments on diversity and representation – will result in an industry that is not elite, but genuinely open to all.
“We’re playing a long game here and we all appreciate that this is an ongoing conversation,” Hutton said. “It’s not going to be an overnight success. It feels like it’s the very beginning of something that could be significant and it’s exciting to be part of it – to be at the forefront.”
Opening art credit: palmer//harding AW2120 (British Fashion Council)