Why Fashion Media Needs Sensitivity Ombudsmen

Why Fashion Media Needs Sensitivity Ombudsmen

Fashion writing and brand communication must unlearn and relearn. The rules have changed and the new sensitivity checklist is not a crash course

Last week, in an interview-conversation with Eva Kruse—CEO of Global Fashion Agenda, the forum for industry collaboration on sustainability—I asked her if fashion needed a new set of professionals to speak its contemporary mind. Besides sustainability executives recruited by many future-focused fashion brands or Diversity Officers (H&M hired one after racist accusations around its monkey hoodie ad of 2018), should fashion bring in sensitivity trainers? Human behaviour experts who can voice ideas on race, caste, class, body size, skin colour and economic diversity with the right vocabulary and cadence, comparable to editors or heads of big fashion houses.

My question was rooted in the recent riots around USA’s race conflicts after George Floyd’s death. The subsequent tumult inside and by fashion brands that have left diversity on the periphery, followed by Condé Nast artistic director and Vogue US editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s admission on printing “hurtful and intolerant” material and “not finding enough ways to elevate…” Black talent. Other platforms, Refinery29 for instance, also stood for course correction with the stepping down of its editor.


Photo: Yui Mok / POOL / AFP

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (C) and Anna Wintour (second from right) at British designer Richard Quinn’s runway show in London on February 20, 2018.

There is no escaping the fact that an editor-in-chief of more than 30 years, also fashion’s most powerful figure internationally, did not do “enough”. Not enough to open the queendom of fashion content and careers outside the bubble of privilege. That Condé Nast, among the world’s most influential media conglomerates did not practice fashion-plasticity (like neuroplasticity in the brain that forms new neural connections) as it expanded in commerce and content. All this even as global conversations around colourism, shifting political discourses, Barack Obama’s stunning ascent to the White House or hundreds of debates on queer rights, body size and skin colour changed dramatically in the last decade.

Wintour’s alleged crimes of neglect make for fascinating and frightening exposures to the inside workings of some publishing houses. However, it also makes it urgent for all of us dealing with fashion communication to turn the diversity investigation inwards.

Caste and Crass in India

When you pin it down in the India context, Vogue India’s 2008 fashion editorial that placed Fendi bibs and Burberry umbrellas on the rural poor, reported in a probing story broken by journalist Kanika Gahlaut then working with Mail Today bubbles up. In addition, the magazine’s 2017 Kendall Jenner cover photographed by Mario Testino, a “collector’s edition” that had few or no Indian designers featured inside.


Photo: Instagram@vogueindia

Kendall Jenner on Vogue India’s cover.

But let us flip that question for a moment to ask if we remember any big debate that caught the attention of Indian society on the lack of diversity in employee recruitment of fashion brands and magazines? Or, the lack of diversity among those we put on covers—in other words, tell me a less known Tollywood actor on the cover of an English fashion magazine or a wheelchair bound model on the runway? Or, the near-total absence of the differently abled as fashion photographers, bloggers or stylists? Private companies do not follow “reservation” or positive discrimination in employment. However, does that absolve us from leaving out who we want based on rehearsed judgements, groomed style, celebrity access and logo bags? Crimes of privilege?

The Indian fashion industry, alas, is so small, unfortunately so insignificant in the larger scheme of the Indian economy that very few really care to even reiterate that a large number of Dalits and OBCs form the skilled spine of what is known (and sells to make money) as “Indian fashion”.

Many articles have been written about “craftsmen” and “handloom workers” and karigars, but only a few focus on the caste and minority community realities that lay open, raw, like live electrical wires and may deserve some conversation. Has the son or daughter of a “Muslim masterji” ever made it to the feature inside a fashion magazine?


A file photo of the statue of BSP leader Mayawati (L) and BSP founder Kashi Ram, pictured in Lucknow on March 4, 2012.

I also realise that in the past when I have written about Bahujan Samajwadi Party chief Mayawati’s love for polished shoes (that once meant a deputy superintendent of police had to polish them), her faux leather handbags or her silk-satin salwar sets, my writings have missed reflecting on Mayawati as inspiration—faux handbags included—for Dalit women with political ambitions. By crime of omission, we, the fashion media, have barely ever written about the influence of fashion on the Dalit community—even though it is a well-documented fact that one of the reasons social reformer and jurist B.R. Ambedkar, who inspired the Dalit-Buddhist movement, wore suits was to change how Dalits should “look”. The community that was once denied chappals and proper clothes (or even a parasol, the sign once of a privileged Brahmin), has never been listened to or interviewed, to understand how the ready-to-wear market, the luxury malls and beauty industry is consumed by them in the contemporary scenario.

As Anurag Verma wrote in The Print last year: “It’s important to make Dalits a part of mainstream imagery. Perhaps a Dalit with a beer in hand dancing wildly in a nightclub to DJ Snake songs.” Verma’s article was pointedly titled: Can A Dalit Wear Armani Or Zara? Why Most Indians Would Say No. 

In 2018, a Dalit teenager was beaten up in Becharaji town in Gujarat for wearing mojris, a fake gold chain and jeans. No fashion publication picked up the story. Our radar doesn’t easily point that way. And then the question: would it be insensitive to “study” Dalits as a separate consumer demographic to understand segregation in the market? I would rather a Sensitivity Officer advise us.

Clique Bait?

As a society, we have insidious issues with how we treat and speak of our fellow citizens from the Northeast (Axone now out on Netflix highlights it yet again) or how fashion “culturally appropriates” their textiles, accessories and costumes now and then. “Stylish” girls and professionals from the Northeast are featured in street fashion and beauty articles in glossies but never with the headline: Let’s Stop the B**** against them.



Indian students from the Northeast protest the death of a fellow student in New Delhi on February 2, 2014.

The wellness-inspired actor Shilpa Shetty Kundra who often endorses Indian fashion and couture and “Be Human” bhai Salman Khan had to apologise (in 2017, in separate incidents) for explaining their unkempt looks as “bhangi”. The discriminatory term that was once used for manual scavengers can now provoke penalty. Yet no fashion magazine pointed out these incidents. Nor did any designer disown any collaboration with either of the stars for their “insensitive racial comments”. In 2015, Harper’s Bazaar Bride, now titled India Today Bride put Salman Khan on its October cover (with Sonam Kapoor). At that time, Khan was out on bail in the 2002 Mumbai hit and run case. Judge D.W. Deshpande’s verdict had found him guilty of all the prosecution’s charges, including culpable homicide not amounting to murder, rash and drunken driving and driving without a valid license. Khan had appealed and the conviction waited for the next hearing. That did not stop the magazine from calling Khan “India’s most eligible bachelor”.

When you research Western fashion media’s inflection points and Condé Nast in particular, you also find a number of heady, inspiring, steroid-fuelled accounts of success by power and privilege. Tatler and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown’s book The Vanity Fair Diaries—1983 to 1992; and The Glossy Years by Nicholas Coleridge, the Condé Nast chairperson for many years who was often called “the colossus of the glossy magazine” make the dazzling trends of their age clear. It is evident that a person needed privilege and “class”, her own or endowed by a spouse, partner, mentor or wealthy maverick on the resume to cut into the circuit. But instead of striking a difference, other magazines tried to ape and mirror the Condé Nast culture—that is how aspirational it was, despite its haute cliques.


Photo: Shutterstock

Assorted magazine covers.

Cliques torment those inside them as well as outside. Over the decades, they have devastated many a fashion pundit or devotee on either side of the playing field. The late designer Alexander McQueen, the controversy-addled John Galliano and the late British fashion pursuant Isabella Blow’s stories are some instances. Many remain untold.

Regret the Error

That said, fashion, especially Western glossies and brands have tried to put weight behind transgender (Vanity Fair’s cover with Caitlyn Jenner in June 2015), body size and skin colour issues, making inclusivity the top trend of the last decade. The late Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, for instance, took on the industry’s biggest, most difficult problems. In July 2008, the magazine put out an All Black Issue with 100 pages of black models, shot by photographer Steven Meisel. In July 2011, Vogue Italia did a special plus-size issue and a new, ‘Curvy Section’ on its website.

Many other titles and fashion brands have gravitated towards inclusivity, bringing people of colour and models of different sexualities and sizes into their narrative.

That is why Wintour’s apology will matter immensely if it is followed by action.

The Case for Sensitivity Ombudsmen

Action is also needed for us; We the Fashion Media. There is always someone watching and observing. There is always something that could potentially offend someone in terms of the equality narrative. When TVOF published a piece on The Clothing Needs of the Disabled on a couple in Kottayam creating clothes for differently abled children, I got a reader letter asking me why someone under 16 years had been used in the visuals. When we published another piece on the differently abled on fashion runways, the featured organisation called the writer asking for the headline to be reworded as “adaptive clothing” and not use the words “disabled”. Last month, a reader admonished us for giving a “fashion twist” to the stoicism of Pallavi Sharma, wife of martyred Colonel Ashutosh Sharma who was killed in the Pulwama terrorist encounter in Kashmir. As recently as the day before, we were rapped for using the word “captivating” as part of a story on actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. We rephrased the sentence.

Media teams would really benefit with counsel by an informed, trained, fashion ombudsman on how to use words like Harijan, Dalit, disabled, fat, wheatish, widow, slave, in our work. We learn most of it by revision, correction, information. However, in the wake of the global hue and cry against fashion media for its “insensitivity” towards race and other issues, it is time to take training workshops and be evaluated by a supervisor. One who can review fashion media language and stance and offer useful guidelines. Who could also advise a number of designer brands perennially hung on “royalty” and “maharani” themes to get off that horse-drawn carriage of unattainability and make fashion “equal” in its communication.


Serena Williams with daughter Alexis Olympia shot by Mario Testino.

I keep referring back to Craig Silverman’s very useful book Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. From a “Brief History of Media Accuracy and Errors” to “Corrections: Strange and Sublime to The Art of Correction”, the tome is like a journalism textbook.

Alas, it does not include fashion media.

Banner: Indian students from the Northeast protest the death of a fellow student in New Delhi on February 2, 2014; Vogue Italia’s July 2008 black issue