When I was 22 I got my dream job offer: to work as an assistant at a major American fashion magazine. I was going to be independent and, I sang to myself, working with the most creative people in the world. And then I met my prospective boss.
“So your annual salary will be $17,000 (£13,000),” she said breezily. The average salary in New York at that point was just under $50,000 (£38,000).
“I – I don’t know if I can live in the city on that,” I said.
“Most of our staff,” she said, looking up at me, “have private incomes.”
I left her office sadder, wiser and unemployed.
Last week the first edition of British Vogue under Edward Enninful, the magazine’s first black and first male editor, was published. His appointment has prompted a lot of talk about fashion journalism – specifically, who is represented and who is doing the representing. After walking away from that fashion magazine, I got a job as the fashion assistant on this paper, which paid me a living wage, and also gave me ample opportunity to see the problem of representation from both sides. I covered the fashion shows for almost a decade, where I could count the number of black women in the front row on one finger: the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan, the only fashion writer to have won a Pulitzer. Because that’s how good you have to be if you’re a black woman and want to be a major player in this industry.
Fashion, like the film and music industries, is a dream profession for a lot of young people, which means it can get away with paying pitifully low wages. For this reason, it is dominated by, if not posh people then certainly middle-class ones and, racial inequality being what it is, white people. Given how much fashion dictates pop culture, this is a problem.
People don’t like to have their privilege pointed out to them; they get huffy and think they’re being told they’re bad at their job, when they’re just being told they didn’t face the hurdles others do. The former editor of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, fell into that trap when she was interviewed by the Guardian last week. Asked about a photo of her staff in her final issue, in which every single person was white, she replied: “The idea that we were having a kind of tea party when we made literally hundreds of millions of pounds of profit, I find offensive.” But no one is saying that. They’re saying how bizarre it was to have a staff of over 50 – in London, for God’s sake! – and for them to be entirely one race. “Relatively few [non-white people] came up through the pipeline, for whatever reason,” Shulman said, betraying remarkably little curiosity as to why that might be.
The fashion industry still holds up Caucasian as the beauty ideal, and, really, why would a non-Caucasian woman want to work in a business where the best she can hope for is to be deemed “exotic”? Just look at the differing attitudes to Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss by the British fashion media: both raised in south London, and both with a fair few scandals in their past. And yet it’s Moss who is touted as – to use one recent magazine line – “the best of British”; she, not Campbell, is the one magazines put on the cover of their special issues.
Membership Event: Guardian Weekend Live
When an industry is dominated by one demographic, blind spots occur. Solange Knowles and Lupita Nyong’o recently complained about, respectively, the Evening Standard magazine and Grazia photoshopping their hair out of covershoots. In all honesty, my initial response was bemusement: surely, I thought, the magazine had just been making space on the covers for text? But, despite not being able to work for peanuts when I was 21, I am a privileged white woman and therefore am blithely ignorant about what a black woman’s hair represents to black women. And while ignorance isn’t the same as racism, it is also not an excuse.
For far too long, magazine editors have been able to hide behind the myth that magazines with black cover models don’t sell. In fact, they do: American Vogue covers featuring Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Nyong’o in 2014 performed as well as those featuring white women. A much bigger problem is that many advertisers don’t want to see their products on them, because they don’t think black people buy luxury goods. And as magazine sales plummet, editors are beholden to those advertisers.
It will be fascinating to see if Edward Enninful can change this. But if fashion magazines are now dying, with younger readers rejecting the sluggish glossies in favour of fashion bloggers, editors have only themselves to blame. They reinforced the idea that beauty was white, and for a long time, readers believed them. No more.