The Global Fashion Brands: More than the Little Black Dress

Following the announcement of Leena Nair’s (no relation) appointment as CEO of Chanel last month, media and fans were quick to laud the announcement as a step forward in diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts by global brands given she would be one of the industry’s only women of colour in the exclusive ranks of leadership.

However, Ms Nair’s appointment as the first Indian woman to lead a Western luxury brand is a long overdue opportunity to reflect on the fact that D&I developments – even ones as seemingly significant as this – are still a means to camouflage the main issue at hand: that the global fashion industry still largely adheres to White Western prescriptions about beauty, aesthetic, and lifestyle, thereby reinforcing Western cultural superiority, which in turn furthers its economic dominance.

D&I has become a buzzword in the fashion industry in recent years and more so after the surge of wokeness triggered by the events of the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. Western firms are eager to showcase diversity to capitalise on the movement, and they are successful since many fashion consumers (both Western and non-Western) are oblivious to these motives and perceive D&I as a cause for celebration.

For example, Chanel is a brand most known for popularizing the ‘little black dress’, a garment that is seen as a fashion staple today. Yet its origins are nothing to celebrate: a uniform meant to hold women of colour in place to replace traditional and ethnic clothes, both in the West and across colonies. The appointment of a non-White CEO will not change that nor the more important issue, which is Chanel’s abiding philosophical primacy of promoting Western design and fashion sensibilities across the non-Western world.

As a global company, Chanel clearly has the right to influence markets across the world as it sees fit, but we should not be swayed by D&I developments that have been meticulously selected to fit into a politically acceptable framework that cannot be challenged. At the same time we should also confront the inconvenient truth that the promotion of D&I in the fashion industry enables Western-owned firms to blend fashion and culture in ways that many non-Whites do not notice, helping sustain a business strategy of flooding non-Western markets with cheaply produced Western fashion while also extending White and Western culture to every corner of the world, thereby maintaining and perpetuating the aura of superiority around White people and their culture – this has been termed the ‘colonization of the mind’ and creates cultural subservience.

Western fashion culture as modernising

Historically, fashion was utilised as a status symbol in countries across the world to separate the hierarchy between classes, including between the colonised and the coloniser. However, after the industrial revolution, when the West had colonised much of the world, fashion houses maintained this power dynamic for profit growth by encouraging the rising middle class in the West and its colonies to buy a little taste of luxury and supposed modernity in the globalised world: they introduced entry-level status symbols.

A Gucci belt, Chanel earrings, or a Louis Vuitton wallet—all with prominent labels and accessible costs (if still expensive)—allowed once-colonized peoples to dress like the “wealthy and powerful” of the West. Wearing Western fashion is therefore connected with progress, causing disdain for traditional clothing. Traditional dress conventions were traded for Western styles, and this is happening more vigorously now. Stilettoes and bikinis are modern and a sign of liberty, but hijabs and traditional outfits are seen as restrictive and oppressive.

Telling someone what they should look like frequently necessitates telling them what they should not look like: people must first feel inferior when wearing non-Western clothing to spend money on Western styles. Luxury fashion is built on the emotional scaffolding of human aspiration. Looking fair and not dark is part of the reflection of self.

Neo-Colonial Economics

Western fashion houses’ business strategy, like that of colonial enterprises of the past, has always been to capitalise on the world’s least expensive and weakest regions. In the past, the best fabrics and accessories for high fashion was obtained from the colonies. Not much has changed. Why have luxury brands relocated their production to Cambodia, Myanmar, and now Ethiopia, when China’s expenses increased? It isn’t due to improved industry or infrastructure.

Simply put, these are the least expensive frontiers for the exploitation of cheap labour and resources that are still available.

According to McKinsey & Company’s Global Fashion Index 2020, the worldwide fashion industry is dominated by 20 corporations that account for 97 per cent of global economic profit in the retail sector. No surprise. They are all Western brands.

When we examine the fashion sector as a whole, we can see that the supply networks of the top Western apparel businesses follow the same trade routes as they did 150 years ago, during the height of European colonial exploitation. To put it another way, the fashion industry continues to abuse institutions and leverage cheap resources in nations still recovering from colonialism’s effects. And they have ingeniously made some of them their customers and biggest markets. 

Many people are aware of supply chain abuses, but how do these brands escape controversy? By focusing on and promoting D&I activities in the West, away from the harsh and exploitative tactics that keep the business alive in African and Asian nations. And not to mention the almost irreversible impacts of local culture and fashion being discarded as part of the wider trend of the acculturation and Westernisation of the world.

Token gestures 

This leads to tokenism. “The practise of making simply a perfunctory or symbolic attempt to perform a certain item, notably by hiring a small number of persons from under-represented groups to provide the illusion of equality,” according to the Cambridge dictionary.

This is found everywhere in the fashion industry, from the catwalks to the seasonal adoption of “ethnic chic” by designers. Tokenism also encourages non-Westerners and non-Whites to abandon their traditions to seek employment in Western fashion houses.

These non-Western designers, models, hairdressers, make-up artists and so on had to intentionally or unconsciously pursue Whiteness to obtain favour from Westerners and advance their careers. It is so accepted that most people do not even react to the awkward and condescending advertisements of leading fashion houses such as Gucci and D&G, which routinely depict non-Whites in outrageous settings and poses that seek to play on their non-Whiteness as if they are captive performers in a circus.

Consider the late Virgil Abloh. He was the first black artistic director at Louis Vuitton. His appointment at LV, like Leena’s, is still seen as a watershed event in fashion and a sign that the industry was making a determined effort to adapt. His hiring, however, was not a sign of structural change, but rather highlighted difficulties that have long plagued fashion and other creative sectors.

Even his own “Black-owned brand” was made up of overwhelmingly White people. As a result, “streetwear” appeared “cool” because white creatives utilised a Black designer as its calling card (despite years of criticising Black culture). It did not change the fact that the brand was still controlled behind the scenes by White and Western commercial interests.

What the world needs is for consumers to be more aware of the rise of a new fashion consciousness in the non-Western world, one which is not so intrinsically linked with global economic domination of established Western brands, but rather the reclamation of fashion as a reflection of their diverse cultures – dictated by them and not the West.

But this change will not happen overnight. A country’s fresh fashion statement can only be defined through an appreciation of its long history of traditional culture, pride in its traditions, developing novel consumer ideals and resisting the onslaught of Western cultural domination – but not going so far as to reject it.

A long way to go 

While Abloh and Ms Nair’s appointments were no doubt due to their hard work, undisputed talents and abilities, they were also effectively spun to be seen as a cause for celebration – and this is not a sign of systemic change. Stamping this as a landmark moment for global racial equality in the industry, without acknowledging the pointed economic interests behind it and its negative cultural impacts, is plain dishonest.

It is in many ways impossible – and even perhaps unfair – to ask Western fashion brands that have clung to fashion’s entrenched elitism and White soft power, to change their business model, one which preys on non-Western consumers indoctrinated by the superiority of all things Western. Non-Westerners can however cease imitating the West and begin expressing their own fashion sensibilities and culture. Why can’t traditional attire become the standard business dress in international business centres or be exhibited on European fashion runways and not be seen as a touch of “ethnic” colour or flair? China’s redefining of “Made in China” as a sign of pride rather than shame can be emulated in the rest of the non-Western world.

The actual breakthrough will occur when non-Western people all over the globe comprehend the nature of the Western fashion trends they follow, ask why they follow them at the risk of rejecting their own culture, and see that doing so perpetuates global White economic power.

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Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, an independent pan-Asian think tank. He is the author of Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World ( Jan 2022). Read other articles by Chandran.