Should more fashion retailers be following in the footsteps of Gucci and Chanel and hiring diversity bosses?
There is a new must-have role in the world of luxury fashion. Chanel and Gucci both hired diversity chiefs in July, shortly after fellow high-end powerhouses Prada and Burberry announced the creation of diversity advisory boards.
The appointments have been made as the fashion industry grapples with the fallout from a series of high-profile missteps that can be described at best as culturally insensitive and, at worst, as racist. A litany of damaging incidents raises serious questions about the sector’s approach to diversity, particularly when it comes to ethnic minorities, and prompts questions about company make-up. Fashion is waking up to the fact that a more diverse workforce may help to avoid these mistakes.
Retailers and brands are now faced with the question of whether they should wait until they are attempting damage limitation to appoint a diversity boss, or take a more proactive approach. In either situation, a head of diversity keeps the issue on the company’s agenda, but cannot be expected to make progress without buy-in from senior management.
Among the spate of high-profile incidents, Dolce & Gabbana became embroiled in a racism row that led to it cancelling a planned catwalk extravaganza in China last November. The following month, Prada withdrew a line of monkey key chains and figurines that some felt resembled “blackface”.
In February, Gucci was similarly criticised for selling a “blackface” polo-neck jumper that featured cartoonish red lips. That same month, Burberry was forced to apologise after showing a hoodie with a controversial “noose” around the neck at London Fashion Week.
Many fashion houses are now taking action to address their workplace culture, as a first step towards stamping out the risk of insensitivity. Gucci hired Renée Tirado, previously chief diversity and inclusion officer at Major League Baseball, in July. Chanel followed suit, appointing Fiona Pargeter from Swiss bank UBS as its first global head of diversity and inclusion, as a “sign of its commitment” to the issue.
This problem extends beyond luxury fashion. Swedish titan H&M hired a global leader for diversity and inclusiveness, Annie Wu, in 2018 following public outrage surrounding a black child modelling a hoodie bearing the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle”.
Fashion is following the lead of other industries, which are also beefing up their approach to diversity within the workplace. Ride-sharing app Uber, for example, appointed its first chief diversity officer in January last year, and will factor in whether diversity targets are being achieved when it calculates bonuses for top-level officials. Beauty retailer Sephora recently closed all its US stores for an hour to hold diversity training after being accused of racial profiling of customers.
The issue extends beyond misguided advertising and offensive product. Ethnic and cultural diversity is correlated with increased profitability. Companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability, research from McKinsey & Co indicates. More diverse companies are better able to attract top talent and deliver on employee satisfaction, the consulting firm argues.
“The head of diversity role has been around in the UK for the last two decades but there are a number of sectors that have come to it earlier than others,” explains independent inclusion and diversity consultant Charlotte Sweeney. “Finance, for example, has been really focused on this, but it is great to see other sectors, like fashion, pushing the diversity agenda.”
If businesses sit around and say: ‘yes, we all need to do more on diversity’, then nothing gets done.
Fran Minogue, Clarity Search
Businesses, especially those that have not previously concentrated on diversity, need a specific role to help drive change, she argues: “You really need a dedicated role to get diversity initiatives off the ground. You may have good intentions, but it is difficult to create change without somebody who really knows and understands this agenda.”
Lauren Romansky, managing vice-president of research and advisory firm Gartner, who also leads the group’s diversity and inclusion research, agrees: “Adding a head of diversity role does not take away the responsibility of the CEO or an executive team to deliver on change. What it does mean is that there is someone in the business who can focus singularly on this topic. It can also be easier for organisations to drive change if there is something that demarcates that there is a new era – such as adding a head of diversity function.”
As Fran Minogue, managing partner of headhunter Clarity Search, puts it: “If businesses sit around and say: ‘yes, we all need to do more on diversity’, then nothing gets done. If you pay someone to do a job, they will have a brief, a concrete timeline and targets. Something will happen.”
However, diversity chiefs will need support from business leaders if they are to fulfil their remit.
“To trigger sustainable change, you need buy in from those at the top,” says Yvonne Smyth, group head of diversity and inclusion at recruitment specialist Hays. “There has to be senior-level engagement.”
There may be some people in the business who don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve
Rachel MacNiven, Atos
Championing diversity requires a complex set of skills: the ability to engage stakeholders at all levels, communicate clearly, and deal with difficult and sensitive issues.
Rachel MacNiven is the lead for employee engagement, diversity and inclusion at technology and consulting company Atos.
“Part of my role is to be passionately impartial,” she explains. “My mission is to drive an inclusive culture for everyone. A good diversity boss needs to be passionate. If you don’t fully believe in what you’re doing when there can be so much to be done, you risk burnout. You also need to be resilient and remain focused, as there may be some people in the business who don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve. Influencing skills are key, as you need to motivate and inspire others.”
She urges organisations to use robust data analytics to understand where their diversity challenges lie. For example, perhaps your work force is predominantly female, but more males are being promoted, or people from different ethnic backgrounds are not progressing.
Sweeney adds: “This role is about changing organisational culture. Heads of diversity need to be able to deal with everyone from very senior leaders right down to the people doing the do. They need passion but they also need to be someone with the right knowledge and insight. I often say to businesses that you wouldn’t hire a finance boss just because they are really passionate about spreadsheets but don’t have the know-how, so why would you [do that] with diversity?”
She also argues that businesses need to tailor their diversity approaches to their specific challenges, rather than just taking a copy-and-paste approach and assuming they all face the same hurdles.
Slow and steady
One of the key challenges facing newly appointed heads of diversity and inclusion is that there are no quick fixes. Businesses that have faced criticism following cultural insensitivity will understandably be keen to implement change as quickly as possible, but as Romansky argues, there is no magic bullet.
“There is a lot of urgency around this topic,” she explains. “Heads of diversity can want to walk into a business and create instant change, but there is a lot to be done, especially if the organisation hasn’t previously dedicated time or resources to diversity. The timeline for change has to be married up to the reality of the business – you can’t expect everything to be perfect in a year.”
Smyth agrees: “Change can be slow. If there’s a crisis – like the Gucci situation – where the brand is damaged, there will be a desire to take action, but it has to be about more than a kneejerk response and then going back to business as normal. Diversity and inclusion can also fall down the agenda, as businesses think they don’t have time to focus on it or they’re too busy just trying to make money. They think ‘we’ll sort this out later’ and the time never comes.”
Appointing a head of diversity does not guarantee that “later” becomes “now”, but it at least ensures the issue remains on the corporate agenda.
The Drapers Verdict
Fashion brands and retailers reluctant to address the issue of diversity and sensitivity may argue that they are too busy, or simply too strapped for cash to splash out on a diversity boss’s large salary. But failing to take action can have financial implications. Fashion cannot afford to alienate potential customers.
A head of diversity will help fashion businesses to tackle issues that might otherwise be overlooked, but they cannot achieve anything without support from the C suite and a corporateculture that is open to change.