Wearing Thin: How the high street fails minorities

As big brands cash in on millennial tastes with gender-neutral, plus size and so-called 'modest' ranges, one writer takes stock of their shortfalls

Feature by Megan Wallace | 04 Jul 2018
  • Ethical Fashion

At the last New York Fashion Week, less than 2% of models were trans or non-binary. People of colour only made up 37.3% of the models walking at shows and only 27 out of the 2289 model appearances were made by plus size models. While a handful of brands and labels – New York's Gypsy Sport, for example – are committed to casting models of diverse ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, body types and ages, most catwalk casting leaves a lot to be desired.

This might not seem all that important for the average shopper nipping out to Topshop for a quick browse, especially when a failure to recognise and celebrate diversity has long been an issue in the fashion industry. But the absence of diversity from catwalks plays into a wider, more systemic problem in fashion: that designers are still creating clothes to flatter and suit the lifestyles of a very narrow portion of the population. This kind of thoughtlessness on the part of high fashion brands not only reinforces single-minded beauty standards but justifies a situation in which large swathes of the population are overlooked and ignored by retailers.

That's not to say the fashion industry isn't moving forward. One focus group at a time, many brands are beginning to realise the lucrative effects of catering to a more diverse customer base. While most women’s high street stores only stock styles up to a size 16, the ‘plus size' market (which caters for sizes 16/18 upwards) was worth around £6.6bn in 2017. As a result of this success, other brands are taking heed and dipping their toes in other markets deemed to be outside of the mainstream. But their approach thus far has often left a lot to be desired, serving up tokenistic, half-hearted ranges which fail to deliver for their targeted customers.

Take the high street’s attempts to tap into the ‘modest fashion’ market. For those unaware, ‘modest fashion’ is a style of dressing favoured by a wide spectrum of individuals who are more inclined towards covering certain areas of their body. What it actually comprises is pretty subjective and anyone can be a modest dresser, but modest fashion is often marketed toward culturally Muslim women. It is this demographic which has been targeted by high street stores. H&M, for example, released modest line LTD to coincide with this year’s Ramadan. While the company’s head of design, Pernilla Wohlfahrt, claimed that the move was taken with the aim of making the brand more “diverse and inclusive” and “offer[ing] something for everyone”, many Muslim women were vocally disappointed by the fruits of this labour.

Modest fashion blogger Dina Tokio (aka Dina Torkia), who has amassed more than 1.4 million followers on Instagram, publicly called out the LTD line in a YouTube video with more than 600,000 views. “We are not asking brands to sell us what our cultures around the world have already invented,” she explains. “We are looking for whatever’s on the high street to be more inclusive for everyone — just add a few more layers and a bit more length.”

Similar critiques surfaced in a video by YouTuber Kaur Beauty, who stated, “I don’t think we want a westernised abaya or a westernised salwar kameez… we want more options.” What’s more, the collection was not only placed at a considerably higher price point than most H&M pieces, but it featured garments posing the same issue to modest dressers as most high street collections — for example, dresses that are too sheer to not be worn without a petticoat. How have H&M managed to disappoint their modest-dressing customers quite so spectacularly?

Torkia’s opinion is that the collection’s failings are down to a lack of engagement with the modest-dressing community, coupled with complacency: “It seems to me like they’re not actually working with modest dressers… But why would they? They know the pieces are going to be hot.” And Torkia may well be right. At the time of filming her video, many pieces within the collection had already sold out. It seems as if high street stores are just not willing to make the effort to listen to the actual modest dressers out there, knowing that modest collections are so overdue and in demand that they can get away with a sub-par selection.

It’s a similar story with the shift towards ‘gender neutral’ fashion as retailers scramble to appeal to the emerging Gen Z market, whose ambivalent attitudes towards the gender binary pose issues for the strict menswear/womenswear divide in fashion. While gender-neutral or unisex collections would, in an ideal world, serve the queer, trans and non-binary communities by providing clothes that go beyond ‘male’ or ‘female’ and towards more fluid definitions of gender, retailers have fallen down again and again. A stunning example of this came in 2016, with Zara’s Ungendered line; it was literally eight pieces of loungewear and plain T-shirts. Not exactly groundbreaking and certainly not what gender non-conforming can’t already buy from literally anywhere. Even as the years go by, big brands are slow to catch up to where gender-neutral fashion needs to be. Last year, H&M’s unisex denim collection, despite featuring a solitary and much-discussed dress, was just another disheartening selection of ‘basics’. More recently, Abercrombie’s gender neutral childrenswear line disappointed the queer community by falling back on exclusively masculine-coded items and no dresses, skirts, or other pieces of clothing considered ‘feminine’.

The steps retailers are making towards making their collections more inclusive should be applauded. But we should remain critical of the types of changes retailers are introducing and indeed the motives lurking behind these decisions.  In order to truly improve representation at shows and in stores, there needs to be more POC and LGBTQ+ individuals working at every stage; not just models, but designers, buyers, marketers, CEOs and fashion writers and photographers. Brands must do the groundwork before they cash in on the profits and social prestige involved in selling to minority fashion markets. Those who have the privilege of having their needs catered to by the mainstream should listen to those who have been traditionally overlooked and help hold brands accountable when they fail to deliver. The problem of exclusion in the fashion industry is a difficult weed to kill, but one thing's for sure: it won't be fixed by a limited edition capsule collection.