I understand that an employee at the Louis Vuitton Townhouse in London’s Selfridges department store, after being subjected to many of your humiliating, infuriating, racist rants, recorded one of your many outbursts. In your recently outed diatribe, you allegedly state: “Black people are slaves who eat dirt off the floor.” I’m hopeful you’ve come to realize the gravity of your predicament, considering your actions on behalf of Louis Vuitton will be tried in court on the grounds of racial discrimination and harassment; restitution for which could cost your employer millions of dollars. It’s hard to imagine you’ll work in the industry again, but my concern for your future work-placement is less pressing at this particular moment. Your hate and ignorance is also of lesser importance.What is more deeply troubling is the prevalent racism found in the high fashion industry of which you are a representative — well, were, anyways.
Your racist rant may outrage many who are only moved to action by overt bigotry, but the reality of racism in the high fashion industry has been a long-standing point of contention for people of color. Black supermodels have been historically barred from or underrepresented in high fashion since its inception. Even today, Black designers face nearly insurmountable challenges when attempting to gain notoriety.
For that reason, former model Bethann Hardison launched an attack on the industry and its racially discriminatory practices in 2013. She penned a powerful letter that warned “eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses use one or no models of color.” Louis Vuitton responded by introducing four models of color in its following runway show, a significant increase from zero in years prior. Many other design houses followed suit, teasing diversity by adding one or two ethnic faces. Still, other fashion outlets chose not to respond at all, signaling a battle that is far from won. I laud the efforts of these strong Black women who have fought and continue to fight for future women of color to who strive for success in the industry. The need for this “diversity activism” in high fashion speaks to a racism much more powerful than individual hate speech.
This need has roots in history. When the United States enacted Affirmative Action and federally mandated integration, the country was embroiled by racism and blatant discrimination. Door signs read “Whites only” and fountains lined public spaces designated “for Coloreds.” With the exception of your racist outbursts, such blatant bigotry is not often openly expressed by individuals in the fashion industry, but the systematic exclusion of women of color speaks to something eerily reminiscent of that time. A sign may not be hung above fashion runways, but the implicit acknowledgement that high fashion is for “Whites only” has been a truism that is only now being challenged.
I say all of this to help you understand your insignificance. Your words are no more powerful or hurtful than the reality Black people face and continue to face in the industry of which you were a part. Your individual bigotry is no more impactful than the industry’s collective discrimination co-signed by the design house for which you were employed. If any silver lining can be traced, it is that you have spotlighted a refined racism with your expressions of hate. You may have enraged a few individuals, but the spark that ignited the fire within the Black fashion community to stand against racism did not begin with you, nor will it end with your career.
[Image of Louis Vuitton via Shutterstock]