An inside look at the vicious cycle that fuels the fashion industry, where rich white people determine beauty standards and who gets access in the first place

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  • A recent uptick in calls for social justice over the past month has reached the fashion industry, with employees of several brands coming forward with allegations of racist behavior and toxic workplace environments.
  • Accusations of marginalization aren’t new in the image-obsessed industry, but the combination of a pandemic, changing consumer expectations, and the Black Lives Matter movement has some experts saying this could be the tipping point.
  • Experts told Business Insider that the corporatization of the fashion industry has made decision-makers focus on what they see as the most valuable customers: middle-class white women and teens with extra spending money.
  • Through this white gaze, fashion aspirations center on an idealized version of young, thin, white, feminine, and able-bodied beauty.
  • But younger customers, who are more sensitive to diversity and inclusion and tolerant of political messaging from brands, are demanding change using their money and social-media power.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On June 1, L’Oréal Paris posted on Instagram a black square with white text that read, “Speaking out is worth it.” The brand, like countless others, expressed solidarity with the Black community amid widespread protests calling for police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

But not everyone was convinced companies would back up diversity and inclusion efforts with systemic change.

In particular, L’Oréal Paris came under scrutiny for its post because of its treatment of the British model and activist Munroe Bergdorf in 2017, when the brand canceled her campaign after she spoke out against racism. “I said just yesterday that it would only be a matter of time before RACIST AF brands saw a window of PR opportunity to jump on the bandwagon,” Bergdorf wrote on Instagram.

That bandwagon Bergdorf was referring to is the Black Lives Matter movement, which many fashion brands and media outlets have hopped on with social-media posts. Now they are weathering a storm after what employees at brands like Reformation, Anthropologie, Refinery29, and Vogue describe as years of toxic company culture.

Munroe Bergdorf

Munroe Bergdorf called out the beauty brand L’Oréal Paris.

Gareth Cattermole/GAY TIMES/Getty

Since the beginning of June, the fashion world has been whirling with allegations of racial discrimination.

Anthropologie was accused on Instagram of racially profiling Black shoppers.

Former Refinery29 beauty writer Khalea Underwood wrote for Business Insider that she wasn’t given the same opportunities as white reporters, making her believe she was “merely a diversity hire.” The site’s cofounder and editor in chief, Christene Barberich, resigned.

Leandra Medine, the founder of the fashion website Man Repeller, stepped back after readers commented that the site was exclusive and lacked diversity. 

Current and former employees at fashion brand Reformation told Business Insider they experienced microaggressions and racist behavior because of a culture driven by CEO and founder Yael Aflalo, who resigned in June.

There was even speculation that the legendary Vogue editor and Condé Nast executive Anna Wintour would resign, according to Business of Fashion. One of her direct reports, Bon Appétit Editor In Chief Adam Rapoport, resigned after employees alleged a “toxic” workplace culture of microaggressions and exclusion.

Business Insider pored over reports of these allegations and spoke with fashion historians and critics to learn why systemic racism seems to run so rampant in the industry. What we found is that an obsession with an idealized version of young, thin, white, feminine, and able-bodied beauty has long facilitated a culture of marginalization that affects employees, models, and consumers alike.

Discrimination goes unchecked at every level, according to insider reports that have surfaced in the last month. Employees are afraid to go against values that have been normalized for decades, for fear of losing access or opportunity in an exclusive industry. Brands stay silent so as not to seem political or alienate customers, while consumers buy into cyclical trends appropriating cultures that are rarely celebrated by the industry. 

But a younger generation of customers might be ready to hold brands’ feet to the fire, amid the coronavirus pandemic, increased scrutiny on systemic racism, and changing consumer values. 

A white-dominated industry creates certain ideals of beauty

Vogue’s March 2017 cover featured seven models. Though the group was ethnically diverse and featured the plus-size model Ashley Graham, the models all shared a look: dark brows, high cheekbones, long legs, and relatively light skin. 

What was widely criticized as an inadequate attempt at inclusivity mirrors the lack of diversity throughout fashion, from runway to boardroom. With the industry’s obsession with a certain flavor of attractiveness, only 17% of the models walking major runways during fashion week in spring 2015 were nonwhite, according to The Fashion Spot. Less than 4% of the Council of Fashion Designers of America members are Black, according to Fast Company, and Black designers are in charge at only two leading European fashion houses. Only three major fashion magazines are helmed by Black editors. Instagram is ruled by a single face.

The industry, by catering to the vanity of the historically white majority, perpetuates a vision of whom its customers desire to be. This facilitates an aspirational hierarchy of beau

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