As part of Vogue Loves Fashion Avenue, Vogue Arabia’s managing editor Alexandria Gouveia hosted a topical panel that explored diversity in fashion at the Vogue Loves Fashion Avenue main stage at The Dubai Mall. Gouveia was joined by Sinead Burke, a renowned writer, academic, activist and proud “little person”; Ghizlan Guenez, CEO and founder of The Modist, the first premium e-commerce site devoted to modest fashion; and Patrick Herning, founder and CEO of 11 Honoré, the first size-inclusive shopping site to offer women luxury fashion straight from the runway. In case you missed it, we list the 7 takeaways from Saturday’s panel discussion.
On Retail Spaces
During the discussion, Sinead Burke opened up about the struggles she faces when shopping as a person with a disability. “If I was to go into any retail space here independently, I would face challenges immediately. Even just looking at the rail of clothes,” she admits. “I’m not able to just take something down independently, and if I do, I’ll probably pull everything to the floor. And even if I do decide what garment I would like to wear, I’d probably go into the changing rooms and I’ll face a challenge if there’s a door because I won’t be able to close it. And then if it’s a curtain, I won’t be strong enough to pull it across. And I also won’t be able to reach the hook. Then when I go to purchase the item, the person who’s behind the cash register cannot see me.” The writer and activist goes on to explain that what she doesn’t want is for retail spaces to be designed just for her, but for those working in retail to be more aware and understanding of the challenges she faces. “What makes it an entirely different experience is for me to walk into any retail space, and for the assistant behind the counter to come up to me and say ‘Hi, my name is Paul. It’s really lovely to meet you, and I understand that this space isn’t entirely suitable to you. What can I do to help?’ Marginalized voices are continuously expected to explicate their vulnerabilities in order to gain independence and for somebody in position of power, even though it may not look like power, to eliminate that and offer assistance transforms the entire experience and makes me want to spend my money there.”
When asked about the steps the fashion industry can take towards becoming more inclusive, Guenez stated: “I think that the conversation that’s being had right now is the right way to start, because it’s bringing forward a topic that’s very important. I think when you address a consumer, yet you’re not reflecting the reality of these consumers and the women that you present in your campaigns and editorials, then you’re missing the plot, because consumers need someone that they can relate to and it’s just business sense. These are consumers that are able and willing to pay and need to be spoken to in a manner that is relevant to them. I think the start is having the conversation and dialogue that is being had right now, but i think it’s important that when you do take that shift in your business as a brand, as a designer, or as a retailer, that it’s an authentic approach.”
“Community is so important,” proclaims Herning, who launched 11 Honoré in August 2017. “If I think back to the role 11 Honoré played, we at the very beginning at large had zero marketing. Everything was very organically driven. The amount of support we had from our customer base and the larger community in general is what’s allowed us to create the company that we’re creating.” Later on in the panel discussion, he went on to credit Instagram for helping to bolster this existing community. “For me, Instagram has been a massive, massive platform for inclusivity and for the dialogue around plus-sized fashion. We as a policy do not pay influencers to post about 11 Honoré, and as a result, our customer is truly organically supporting us through social media and it resonates.”
On Diversity Beyond Fashion
Burke revealed the importance of having more diverse voices in the meeting room when decisions are being made, and beyond just the fashion industry. “I had a conversation with Google recently, about one of their most famous products, Google Maps,” she recalled. “I said, ‘How far is it from here to the hotel I’m staying in?’ I put it into Google Maps, and Google said a 2- minute walk… for who? In the era of customization, why am I not able to update that and say ‘Well actually, I’m 105 centimeters tall. It’s realistically going to take me 45 minutes. and Google’s response was, ‘We’ve never thought of that.’ Because, they’ve never had those voices in the room.”
Speaking on the importance of authenticity in fashion, Herning reveals: “The consumer today has a tremendous amount of power. And consumers are very smart. They may not get it right away, but they will eventually catch on if a brand isn’t being authentic.” He goes on to reference brands that use very famous plus-size models in their campaigns, but don’t carry her size in the size run. “You can’t put a plus size woman in a campaign, and then not sell the size to the consumer. They are going to start doing the math.”
On the Importance of Role Models
“Through social media, young girls and teenagers are being exposed to a whole new world of images that are telling them what is beautiful and what isn’t, so there is a responsibility that we all have as individuals and as businesses to address that and ensure that these girls and grown-up women are seeing themselves and seeing role models that they can relate to in these platforms,” notes Guenez. “Businesses today have the responsibility to address these issues and topics; our voices are stronger and we have an impact. Today, you can’t be a brand or business that doesn’t speak up or have a purpose. Especially with all the voices that are out there. The consumers are connecting with brands that they feel they have an emotional connection with, and that connection comes out of what the brand stands for.”
On Fashion Week
On the topic of diversity at Fashion Weeks, Burke shared a personal story with the audience about how one editor from an esteemed publication used their influence to get the writer moved to a front row seat, from the third row, where she could not see anything. “I was very fortunate this September to be invited to Fashion Week in London, New York, Paris, and Milan. And for me what was interesting was that correlation seeing the shift happening on the runway in terms of the models that were employed in terms of shape and disability. But one of the spaces where you still see no change, is those who get invited to participate and write the reviews for the shows,” she said. The writer went on to detail an experience she had during a past Fashion Week, when she was assigned a third-row seat, despite not being able to see the runway. “I was sat in the third row, which is perfectly acceptable, except for the fact that I’m three foot five and I couldn’t see a thing, but yet they had invited me. And I had an experience when the editor of the New York Times came up to me and asked me, ‘Can you see?’ and I said ‘No, but I’m just delighted to be here.’ And she said, ‘That’s not good enough. Come with me,’ and she marched up to the PR of the brand and said ‘Sinead needs a front row seat. She can’t see.'” After the PR insisted that there were no more front row seats, the New York Times editor walked over to her seat, moved the publication’s deputy editor, and sat Sinead down. Burke went on to reveal that six minutes later, the PR of the brand came over and informed her that they found her a seat. “For me that was the definition of true ally-ship from someone with enormous power in an archaic industry, and yet leveraged that in a way that they didn’t profit from.”
See the full live-stream from the panel below.