Drapers meets some of the women pushing against fashion retail’s boundaries of ethnicity and gender.
The fashion industry is still a long way from being a paragon of equality. Within the wider gender equality debate, it is also important to recognise the limited representation of black and minority ethnicity (BME) women. Here, Drapers celebrates some of these women and asks for their views on diversity in fashion.
Nicole Clewer, founder, Dot Dash activewear
Entrepreneur Nicole Clewer came up with the idea for her vibrant activewear brand, Dot Dash, in 2017, while pregnant with her first child. Determined to combine her love of fitness – Clewer was previously an ambassador for Sweaty Betty – and to provide for her son, she set about finding investment for her budding idea.
“For me, it felt like the perfect time to launch my brand and I just said to myself: ‘I’m going to do this’,” she tells Drapers. “I pitched my idea several different investors, got many rejections, as you do in the fashion industry, and then found someone who shared my vision and liked my idea. We officially launched in January last year.”
Dot Dash is now stocked by upmarket spa chain Champneys, as well as independents Runners Retreat, That Lovely Stuff and Fly LDN.
Future goals for Clewer include launching a crowdfunding campaign to help further expand the business and building strong relationships with influencers.
When people think of an entrepreneur, they tend to think of a white man
For Clewer, who is also an associate lecturer in business and management at Oxford Brookes University, encouraging the next generation of female entrepreneurs, from all backgrounds, is important: “I try to stay focused on my business and what I’m doing. But it is true that when people think of an entrepreneur, they tend to think of a white man rather than a mixed-race woman – that’s something that’s apparent across the business community as a whole, not just fashion. Women can also be more fearful about starting businesses, because they think they might not be taken as seriously as a man.”
She adds: “I’m forever telling people, especially my female students, that starting a business is a risk and that you can’t fear rejection or failure. I was rejected, I made mistakes in my business and it was hard at the time, but I learnt from it.”
Tskenya-Sarah Frazer, founder and designer, Tskenya
“It’s time for women, especially women of colour, to start their own thing,” Tskenya-Sarah Frazer tells Drapers. This young entrepreneur did exactly that in 2017, when she launched her eponymous gender-neutral and size-inclusive footwear brand, which sells via its own website.
Frazer spotted a gap in the market after struggling to find stylish shoes in larger sizes and chatting to gender non-binary friends who shared the same problem.
“People feel more comfortable discussing gender and getting into the nitty-gritty of that particular issue, but they often don’t want to talk about race,” she adds. “Until the industry is more willing to have honest conversations about race and how few female chief executives of colour there are, change will be difficult.”
This industry is often inspired by or comes from marginalised communities
Fraser also stresses that the fashion industry needs to take an intersectional – relating to the way in which different types of discrimination because of race, gender, sexuality or ability are linked – approach to diversity, celebrating different genders, ethnicities and physical abilities.
“As a black woman, intersectionality has to be at my core. I’ve felt ostracised before, and I want to ensure others are part of the conversation. Fashion doesn’t need to move mountains to make catwalks more diverse, but it has taken until 2019 to start to see more diverse models. This industry is often inspired by or comes from marginalised communities, such as LGBT or black communities, yet they are left out of the conversation.”
Frazer received a grant from charity the Prince’s Trust to help develop her business, and has also previously run a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than £3,000.
She now aims to gain investment for the brand: “It’s the right time to start finding an investor, so that’s my next mission. I’ve had some conversations, but investors still tend to be white men, and some have made transphobic comments when I’ve outlined the brand. It needs to be an investor who is as forward-thinking as I am.”
Mandy Errington, owner, DJV Boutique
Retailer Mandy Errington, who started Ipswich boutique DJV in 2012, and stocks brands such as French Connection and Miss Charm Paris is positive about the opportunities for women across the independent sector.
She tells Drapers that she has not experienced any racial or gender-related discrimination while working in the industry, but feels that starting a fashion business suits many women who feel their opportunities are more limited in the corporate world.
“There are a lot of reputable businesses in my area, run by women from various backgrounds and cultures. From my experience, I feel that women like to embrace change, and many women who work in the corporate world decide to start exploring becoming self-employed. My own focal point was to provide something unique in fashion and to invest in my local area.”
Her advice to women interested in starting their own independent retail business is to be constantly exploring new opportunities: “Set yourself goals and aim to be innovative. You have to think about what you can do to stand out, and constantly explore other avenues to secure revenue.”
Set yourself goals and aim to be innovative
Errington, who previously worked as head of marketing at the East of England Co-op, is passionate about customer service, and encouraging consumers to think and shop locally.
“Independent retailers strive to provide exceptional customer service – it’s all about building customer relationships to sustain customer loyalty and retention. There’s a growing demand among shoppers to support independents and physically visit shops. This is invaluable support in light of the challenges facing the retail industry and the tough economic climate.”
Irene Agbontaen, founder, TTYA London
Working as a stylist for online giant Asos, Irene Agbontaen noticed that many taller girls shared her own struggle of finding good-quality wardrobe staples that fitted. In 2013, she used savings to launch Taller Than Your Average, or TTYA, which specialises in simple, stylish pieces designed to fit women who are 5’ 9” or taller, and is stocked by Asos.
Agbontaen also set up TTYA Talks, which brings women in creative communities together for mentoring and support.
“When I started the brand, I had huge support from friends and family, but it was more difficult to find help and support from women who were already doing what I wanted to do. Yes, you can research things online, but it makes a real difference hearing directly from someone in your own industry.”
We need to let young women of colour know about the jobs that are out there
For Agbontaen, change in the fashion industry needs to be driven from inside businesses: “We have to be very careful in this industry, because black culture is becoming popular culture and a lot of brands are keen to jump on that bandwagon, without employing black people to speak on black culture or black events.
“Diversity is becoming a buzzword and brands are happy to be diverse on the outside, like using BME models on the runway, but a lot of the time on fashion [photoshoot sets or backstage], everyone else is white, and the people who have the power to push projects through tend to be white. Businesses to need work from the inside out.”
Making young women from all backgrounds aware of the many different opportunities in the fashion industry could help the industry become a more diverse place, she adds: “We need to let young women of colour know about the jobs that are out there. It’s not just about the whizz-kid designer – there are all the other roles that go into making a fashion business.”
Fashion's black and minority ethnic trailblazers