Can the fashion industry ever be inclusive?

January 19, 2023

The fashion industry, and luxury brands in particular, are generally associated with exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Exclusivity covers a broad spectrum of significantly distinctive aspects ranging from price range, product design, consumer group, PR strategies, etc. Luxury brands align their values with the business tactic of strategic scarcity centring around the psychological notion that people tend to prize rare and unique things.

This concept is all the more preeminent in fashion as clothes, garments and accessories are not only intrinsic objects but through styling, people can portray their individuality and tell their personal stories. Thus, in this day and age, people desire to stand out from the crowd and fashion is hence, the most compelling device helping them to do so. Therefore, the fashion industry holds a unique place in a society thriving for inclusivity as exclusivity is the key component contributing to the success of a business by creating this fashion bubble which peculiarly draws people into it.

 However, can the fashion industry possibly reconcile two seemingly incompatible notions of exclusivity and inclusivity? Or would exclusivity lose its place in this society where younger generations increasingly consider exclusivity to be culturally uncool? Or would the fashion industry ever be inclusive? This article shall and hopes to satisfactorily explore all the mentioned enquiries.

It is not of utmost bewilderment that the fashion industry has been gradually aligning its values with the modern-day society that thrived off exclusivity. Understandably, with monumental societal movements such as Black Lives Matter, Body Positivity, racial and gender inclusivity, brands are under the constant urge to shift from exclusivity-centred conduct to renew into socially and culturally accountable brands.

This can be equally explained by the changes in consumer behaviours of the younger generations, who undoubtedly make up the biggest part of customers, and who actively reject traditional codes of exclusivity which convey elitism. Consumers today consider inclusivity to be the new “cool” and increasingly choose brands that embrace this value as young people believe in supporting and standing up for one another. However, for many decades, the success of the fashion industry is made almost solely on the concept of exclusivity, hence, attempting to align their proposition into an inclusive one is undoubtedly challenging and paradoxical.

Nevertheless, brands can still maintain the exclusivity of their products all the while keeping the brand itself inclusive. This can be easily achieved if brands act consciously and socially and culturally aware enough. For example, initiatives of Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzarri are hailed to be a positive development by actively hiring diverse casting of models and emerging female photographers like Coco Capitain and Petra Collin.

Moreover, these strategies are proven to be financially fruitful for the brands as, by satisfying the present-day customers’ demand for a more responsible fashion brand, Gucci has seen double-digit growth far beyond its competitors over the past few years. Thus, brands are highly encouraged to adopt more pressing measures to respond to consumers’ highly demanding transition towards an inclusive society.

Recent initiatives by luxury brands to come off as more inclusive are numerous. For example, the live-streamed conversation between Raf Simons and Miuccia Prada and university students following the online debut of their collaboration on the Prada Fall/Winter 2021 Menswear Collection was a step forward to a more inclusive PR and customers service scene of the luxury fashion industry. By doing so, the fashion powerhouse has successfully created a more approachable and inclusive image for the brand.

However, despite these initiatives, the fashion industry is slow to change as most of the big luxury brands only act to tackle societal challenges after being accused of their apparent failings. For instance, Gucci only launched the £1million plan to support young designers from underrepresented backgrounds after being accused of racism over a jumper design. While Prada has spoken up about racial injustice, the brand was previously forced to apologise for merchandise that was deemed racist.

Furthermore, despite employing more inclusive methods of communication and PR, luxury products remain almost entirely exclusive due to their price point and scarcity hence, reconciling the industry’s core principle and that of present-day society remains an unsatisfactorily tackled task that leaves the industry with much more to do.

Hence comes the question of whether the fashion industry can ever be inclusive. From a consumer’s point of view, many reports have shown that clients are ambivalent and doubtful of brands’ inclusive initiatives. For instance, research by Jean-Noel Kapferer and Anne-Michaut Denizeau (2015) showed that the younger generation of customers visualises the concept of luxury and sustainability and inclusivity as contradictory. This is because luxurious products are sold at a price point that most cannot afford and yet, claiming to be a brand that cares about environmental sustainability and social inclusivity seem to put doubt on its credibility.

Until now, many of the initiatives are either trivial or verbal, hence it is required of the brands to undertake more prominent and concrete actions. Furthermore, statistics demonstrate that many brands have fallen short of their promises to be more inclusive and transparent. For instance, NYT’s report on 64 brands, 15 major department stores, and online sellers, and 5 leading publishers, found that while the fashion world claims it’s “very committed to progress”, not much is changing.

Of the 69 designers and creative directors spotlighted, only four are Black. And this number just shrank by one when LVMH and Rihanna shut down her Fenty fashion house leaving no Black woman at the head of a major Parisian luxury brand. In the runway landscape, most fashion houses are reluctant to cast plus-sized models, however, one can certainly not diminish the recent rise in the spotlight of plus-sized models and how this has affected the industry as a whole and as well as consumers.

Finally, how can brands truly achieve inclusivity is a question that many embarked on a long journey to find the answers to. Despite shown efforts, brands must not only display inclusivity through verbal announcements or PR campaigns, but they must also ensure that, for example, minority groups (in terms of race, size, etc) are represented offstage as well.

While it’s extremely challenging for luxury brands to make their products more accessible to a wider group of consumers, these names can show intentions to shift towards more inclusive values by actively taking more culturally and socially responsible actions. Hence, ensuring product exclusivity in the context of brand inclusivity can be a winning combination that brands should consider.

Esmée Pham