The diversity problems in the Swedish fashion industry
Last week, Robin Westling was announced as the new creative director at Swedish Fashion Council. He is also the project manager of an upcoming report from the Swedish Fashion Council, which unveils the lack of diversity and inclusion in fashion. So, what’s next?
Photography SENAY BERHE Interview KONRAD OLSSON
This interview was originally published in Scandinavian MIND Issue 2 from August 2021. The full report is scheduled to be released in 2022.
Tell me about the background to this report.
— The second I started at Swedish Fashion Council, in June 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded. Everyone’s eyes were on the George Floyd murder and police brutality in America, which led to big demonstrations and movements around the world. In the fashion industry, people testified about their experiences of being black or a person of colour. Julian Redaelli, Nikolina Höljö, and I saw an opportunity to research why and how this happens. At first, it was meant to be a one‑page document to show people that this is actually happening. I started to take small meetings with people in the industry to analyse the situation. It resulted in 84 interviews, trying to find out if racism and discrimination exist within the Swedish fashion industry.
What type of people were you talking to?
— It was everything from stylists, photographers, makeup artists, hairstylists, PR agencies, education, institutions, fashion organisations, the whole industry. I interviewed about three people from each category. There were people of colour who said they experienced this every day within their profession. But also established people who didn’t believe there was a problem.
Going from a one-pager to 84 interviews is a pretty big step. When did you realise that this needed to be a bigger thing, a bigger report?
— Maybe after the second interview. I found that the lack of knowledge regarding this question is huge. I realized, OK, we need to gather more perspective of the situation and talk about racism, discrimination, and social sustainability in a concrete way.
What did you want to achieve with the work?
— I thought that there should be a code of conduct to make sure that this will not happen within the industry. Then I learned that there already existed one — a Swedish Fashion Ethical Charter that was founded by Swedish Fashion Council, the Swedish Fashion Association, the magazine Elle, and the model agency Mikas in 2017. I looked at it, and it was joke, because it focused very much on the models and their bodies. I believe that if you’re doing a contract for the industry, it needs to take into account different aspects of discrimination, diversity, and racial injustice.
Was there something from people’s testimonies that stuck out?
— A lot of things I had already heard about. For example, that hairstylists can’t style black hair, that they burn the hair because they don’t have the knowledge. Or telling people of colour to dress and act differently in the beginning of their careers. One person said that she was told by a senior person that if she acted ”more white”, everything will be so much easier. I don’t think he said that because he was a mean person. He said that because he thought that he was helping her.
Why are diversity and inclusion important?
— Everyone in the society today should be seen and heard. I think the most important aspect of why representation matters, is to make people inspired. One person said that if they hadn’t seen other people that looked like them in the positions that they wanted to be in, he would’ve never believed that he could be where he is today. There is this quote I find interesting: ”You can’t be what you can’t see.”
One thing you bring up in the report is that there’s a difference between what’s being shown on pages and in fashion stories, and what’s happening behind the scenes. How important was that?
— Super important, because the debate has always been that people of colour or a more diverse group of people need to be in campaigns or as models, but you never see these people behind the scenes. If you want to capitalise on that target group, you should also hire a target group, so you don’t do stupid mistakes like cultural appropriation. That knowledge is easy to get if you just hire people with that knowledge or come from that background. If you want the culture, you need to make sure you hire the culture and pay the culture as well, not only make money out of them.
What hopes do you have for this report to be received by the industry?
— I want people to get the knowledge that they need to actually work on this long‑term.