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Rihanna: Changing Levels of Diversity on the Runway

Human diversity can be defined as the sum of unique biological and cultural variation within our species.

Talk of diversity within fashion usually focuses on the following: the models featured on the runway, magazine covers and ad campaigns. Models are the visible faces of brands, therefore, remain a point of controversy and speculation.

Trends evidently come and go, yet the discussions and rage continue to persist surrounding the poor track record of model representation. Consumers are now demanding that brands take responsibility for the lack of diversity in an attempt to break down fashion’s systematic barriers.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the leading trade association for American fashion, called out the lack of diversity in fashion across all levels of its workforce, from the entry level to the boardroom, where the power is concentrated. It says the result is a self-perpetuating imbalance in fashion’s corporate culture, where those in power retain power while minority groups struggle to access the upper ranks.

To illustrate the issue, the CFDA explain the difference between “inclusivity” and “diversity.” Diversity is the “measure of difference” in a workplace. Inclusion, on the other hand, describes a climate where people of all types feel comfortable expressing themselves, creating a scenario where everyone is able to contribute their best work.

“It is often assumed that diversity is enough,” the report says. “However, without inclusion, diversity is ineffective. Leaders are prone to struggling with inclusion as it is often a learned skill. Even in organisations with the best intentions, diversity and inclusion leadership development are often isolated instead of being integrated in other leadership skill-training.”

Savage X Fenty 2019 Show

In 2019, Rihanna’s highly anticipated Savage X Fenty show premiered on Amazon Prime Video. In behind the scenes footage, Rihanna made runway history.

The show centred around the celebration of women’s bodies and sexuality in an inclusive and diverse environment including women of all sizes, races, ethnicities, trans women and disabled women. The singer-turned-designer said “every woman deserves to feel sexy. We are sexy, we are multi-faceted and I want women to embrace that to the fullest”. Unlike any lingerie show or ad of the past, Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty runway was shown through the female lens by creating and controlling their own sexuality.

Fenty X Savage VS Victoria’s Secret

Majority of the time, slight glimpse of diversity and inclusion on the runway only happens in order to tick boxes. Rihanna’s show did not tick boxes, instead, it drew a circle around all the boxes. She packaged beauty in all shapes, sizes and colours and ensured no one was left behind.

Many organisations and leaders can learn a thing or two from Rihanna’s brands which is; diversity and inclusion matter, beyond ticking boxes because more people exist beyond the confines of the boxes. Viewers of the Savage X Fenty show were quick to express their praise on social media, with some even calling for the singer’s spectacle to replace the controversial Victoria’s Secret Show, which is regularly scrutinised for its lack of diversity.

“I’ve never, ever, in 39 years, watched a fashion show. Because as a bigger woman, it always made me feel bad about my body, Savage X Fenty and Rihanna changed that today… someone finally gets it. Bravo to this team of amazing people.” tweeted one user.

Another tweet compared both Fenty and Victoria’s Secret, “After watching this Savage x Fenty fashion show I never want to see another Victoria’s Secret. The Victoria’s Secret show seems to be about men looking at beautiful women. Savage x Fenty show seems to be about women feeling beautiful.”

Victoria Secret’s long-time chief marketing officer Ed Razek, who had been with the brand for nearly 30 years before recently stepping down, made comments in an interview with Vogue regarding plus-size and transgender models, firmly dismissing the idea of more diverse casting. “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is,” Razek said to the magazine in 2018.

As diversity and inclusivity become a more popular talking point when considering fashion brands, more companies will elevate diversity and inclusion as a higher priority, embed it across the organisation and hire dedicated leadership roles, but their initiative will also come under increasing scrutiny in terms of sincerity and results.


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