Chromat features diverse models in New York show. Credit: Getty
Chromat features diverse models in New York show. Credit: Getty
A view from Sarah Shearman

Social media's made fashion more inclusive, but let's not celebrate its diversity just yet

Opinion: What fashion can learn from advertising when it comes to representing diversity

Social media, that great leveler, has opened fashion's kimono (a notable Spring/Summer 2015 catwalk trend) and enabled the world to peek inside the notoriously exclusive industry.

Live-streamed catwalk shows on Periscope, models' behind-the-scenes Snapchats, "shoppable" catwalks, bloggers with DSLRs documenting "street style," are some of the many ways people can now engage with the event online. Technology has brought Fashion Week into people's offices and homes, bombarding social feeds with images and stories of who sat next to whom on the FROW via the hashtag #NYFW.

Many have declared this an exciting new inclusive era for fashion. What is essentially a trade show  albeit far more glamorous than your average out-of-town convention center affair with ugly carpets and bad coffee  has been opened to the public. Everyone, literally in the case of Givenchy, is invited.

But the democratizing power of technology falls flat when fashion brands fail to represent the diversity of people's race, size, age, body and gender on the catwalks and in their marketing. Controversy about ultra-thin and young-looking models walking the catwalks is the industry's perennial trend. This NYFW, Victoria Beckham took the tired, worn-out mantle.

For an industry that prides itself on creativity, it's woefully unoriginal — not to mention damaging — to see mostly one type of woman being held up as an ideal that all others should aspire to.

In recent years, there have been many positive examples of greater diversity in the industry when it comes to casting people of color, people with disabilities and transgender people as models; designers like Chromat, FTL Moda and Carrie Hammer should all be applauded. But until this practice is normalized across the industry, unfortunately it is at risk of coming across as a gimmick.

Perhaps fashion could learn a thing or two from the advertising industry (not a phrase you hear often), which has also been battling a lack of diverse representation. In the past few years, the issue has been gaining momentum in the industry, spurred on by advocacy groups like 3% Conference and resulting in some brilliant creative work.

The often-cited but nonetheless great example of Dove's Real Beauty campaign, by Ogilvy, was an early pioneer in this movement and made celebrating diverse women in advertising imagery so popular it's almost cliché now — which isn't a bad thing.

Under Armour's "I Will I Want", by Droga5, starring Gisele Bündchen is perhaps the best example for the fashion world to pay attention to, since it showcases the supermodel's physical and mental strength, dismantling tired stereotypes about models being two dimensional. The advertising industry still has a long way to go, but through this work there has been a strong business case made for diversity, which can also applied to fashion.

That's because the future of luxury and fashion rests on the paradox of "exclusively for everybody," as the Economist puts it. While it can be argued that fashion brands, unlike major consumer brands, are not looking to sell to the mass market, they still depend on the adoration and aspiration of the general public to sustain themselves.

Are all those tens of thousands of people who "like" an Instagram image of Kate Moss and Cara Delevigne going to drop $2,000 on a Burberry trench coat? Of course not, but they help build the hype, desire and fantasy around the brand.

With many fashion brands awakening to the importance of building and sustaining their brands on social media and digital platforms, they must also be prepared for the two way conversation this invites. And it's going to be, at times, around uncomfortable, thorny issues such as diversity, but those which do it well will be at a distinct advantage.