Fashion Week Is Heading In The Right Direction, But Is Change Happening Fast Enough?
“The mainstream designers who got to show at Fashion Week — are they making clothes for bigger bodies? Are they making clothes for people with disability?"
On paper, Afterpay Australian Fashion Week made a concerted effort to implement past feedback, and champion diversity and inclusion this year. But now that it’s been and gone, the annual showcase has left a question lingering in the air — where to from here?
Fashion Week has been making incremental moves to address cries for change over the last two years. In 2021, a record 13 Indigenous designers had their work shown over two dedicated runways, to coincide with Reconciliation Week and Mabo Day.
It was also the year disability activist and influencer Lisa Cox had her wheelchair jam on decorative shredded paper at the Camilla Franks show, and where model and casting director Basjia Almaan called out the thin line between diversity and tokenism, which she felt had been walked over.
View this post on Instagram
“I really did not intentionally mean for that post to blow up the way it did,” recalled Almaan to Junkee. “A lot of my friends are people of colour, and curve models. We’ve all shared the same negative experiences that I don’t really see happening to white models, or slimmer models.
“When I wrote it, I was speaking on my experience, and the experience that I saw of people around me, and how tiring it gets being a black woman in the industry, constantly dealing with so many different issues.”
Cause For Celebration
This year, it felt as if the feedback levelled at Fashion Week had been heeded: the 2022 iteration featured a historic Adaptive Clothing Collective runway showcasing functional and accessible garments by Jam the Label and Christina Stephens. On the same day, Australia’s first-ever size-inclusive show, the Curve Edit, featured bodies of all shapes and sizes through the collections from six catering designers and brands.
The breath of fresh air was also a strong talking point online for AAFW, from its choice of pictures on the grid, to its PR interviews, panels, and annual Changemakers program, which saw handpicked figures from the industry consult on programming, content, and the runways themselves.
“The culture of fashion today is a celebration of multiculturalism,” said designer Mariam Seddiq ahead of her show. “As an Australian Afghan, fashion provides a platform for me to explore ideas around female empowerment and femininity.”
Alongside the dedicated shows, diversity was seen through wider casting as well. A range of sizes, ages, and ethnicities were not only more normalised, but walked more often this year, as well as modesty being respected for Muslim models and designers, in shows like Erik Yvon, Gary Bigeni, Asiyam, and Dypsnea.
“There was definitely way more diversity,” said Almaan. “Obviously every year there’s room for improvement, and room for more understanding, but it was good to see that this year … You can definitely see that they really wanted to work towards celebrating all different types of bodies more than ever before”.
But in the fortnight since Fashion Week wrapped up, both praises and criticisms have already waned. Discussions that should be held year-round have already started to mellow in the public eye, leaving creatives in the industry who don’t fit a certain mould hoping they at least continue behind-the-scenes.
Holding To A Higher Standard
Two years ago, Black Lives Matter shone a spotlight on Australia’s fashion and beauty industry, and the massive gaps that still need mending. The international movement demonstrated that even across the Pacific Ocean, similar conversations needed to be happening here as well.
Renowned label Zimmerman came under fire for its racially-loaded employee appearance requirements, a push was made for salons and TAFE to accommodate afro styling, and shade diversity in supermarket makeup aisles was all called into question — a trickle-down from concerns aired in runway backstages for years as well.
Just last month, former Victoria’s Secret model Shanina Shaik shared that she had to move from Australia to New York to “feel accepted” over her ethnicity, and to secure better opportunities for herself.
The reckoning showed that diversity and inclusion couldn’t be fixed overnight, resulting in a win-lose paradox — that in playing catch up, we should be ashamed that it took so long for progress to be made, but thankful the forces of motion are finally happening after all this time.
For Almaan, the tension between checkbox diversity and authenticity still weighs on her, even years on, when she is no longer the only black model or curved body on set.
“We need to incorporate everything into a way that feels really natural and normal…”
“Do you think it’s important because it makes you guys look good, or do you think it’s important because of who you’re representing?” Almaan challenged of the industry. “It’s important for younger generations to see them to see themselves on the runway.”
In her casting for Jordanes Spyridon Gogos this year — a show that featured the works of nearly 70 masterminds — she carefully considered who would see themselves in the models, and how she could create a sense of community not only in the room, but within society.
“We need to incorporate everything into a way that feels really natural and normal,” she reflected on the importance of showcasing specialised designers on a national stage, while also addressing how their efforts still aren’t being replicated within conventional wear.
The strategy was employed at the First Nations Fashion + Design Show, which featured seven looks created by Indigenous designers in collaboration with non-Indigenous fashion names to close the mammoth week.
“Everything should be integrated as well,” said Almaan. “The mainstream designers who got to show at Fashion Week — are they making clothes for bigger bodies? Are they making clothes for people with disability? Are they trying to educate themselves on how to do either?”
Keeping The Conversations Going
In a radio interview with the ABC on the last day of Fashion Week, Harper’s Bazaar Features and Fashion News Director Patty Huntington described sizeism as one of the “last bastions of discrimination” after the Curve Edit show. But for the wider minority groups who also still don’t see themselves mirrored back in labels, in advertising, or presented with leadership opportunities to enact change from within — those fortresses still feel lofty.
Last Wednesday, having had time to unwind from the fast-paced motions of AAFW 22, Almaan debriefed on Instagram once more. “What ACTION is going to be made? What further CHANGES will the industry and institutions implement?” she asked on a since-expired Instagram story.
She questioned whether people of colour, Indigenous, and black trailblazers would continue to be given a seat at the table, continue to be consulted, and finally be seen in positions of power, to make the decisions that will affect the direction of the institutions at play continue to head in.
“Nothing can just be a spectacle to gain attention just because it’s ‘on trend’ to speak to us whilst Fashion Week hype is still buzzing,” she described of the waning subject matter. “What about next month, next year, even next week?”
Almaan told Junkee that these spitballs aren’t exclusive to AAFW, but the industry as a whole — as well as the way fashion publications report on and help set the agenda.
“It should just be normal to have diversity in casting, diversity in hair and makeup teams, people who are in styling, even with designers — how can we support people who probably don’t feel like they belong in the Australian fashion community because for years they’ve not been as celebrated as mainstream white designers?” she reflected.
Millie Roberts is Junkee’s social justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Caroline McCredie/Getty