The Ugly Truth about the Fashion Industry’s Lack of Diversity

Original post by Amelia Castellanos

Sep 4 · 8 min read

And What GIFT (Girls In Fashion And Tech) Plans To Do About It

Fierce female fashion has been widely popularized for decades with the help of Fashion Week runway shows, online style bloggers and most recently, the evolution of street style and the birth of the social influencer. From an outsider’s perspective, the world of fashion has been dominated by creative and influential women thanks to iconic female fashion figures throughout America’s history. From the glamour and sophistication of Coco Chanel’s timeless silhouettes to the critical eye of Vogue’s Anna Wintour — fashion trends have been historically driven by the female perspective. But, pull back the curtain Wizard of Oz style and the ugly truth about the fashion industry may surprise you.

The truth is, women’s labor, ideas and dollars prop up the US Fashion industry yet men still run it.

According to a recent study, women continue to dominate the student bodies at schools like New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology where 85% of students enrolled in 2016 were female. Yet, as you travel up the ranks within the fashion industry the office presence quickly becomes predominantly male. In fact, in 2015 the Business of Fashion surveyed 50 major fashion companies and found that out of those 50 only seven were actually run by women in executive-level roles.

In a Glamour Magazine study titled the “Glass Runway” Fashion Designers of America and the McKinsey & Company Consulting group surveyed over 500 people working in corporate fashion (both men and women) about their ambitions, opportunities and setbacks. The survey found that despite being 17% more likely to aspire to be a top executive, women in fashion were hitting a mid-career wall. But who’s to blame for this growing gender gap at the top? Is it an old-school industry mentality? A biased corporate culture? Or an outdated education curriculum?

Ask any leading female in fashion and she will tell you it’s a combination of all of the above. As a 30-something woman now entering her second decade in the fashion industry I’ve experienced the negative aspects of workplace inequality and the industry’s surface-level approach to inclusivity first-hand and now I am faced with a choice. Do I remain silent and keep my head down or, do I pick my head up, seek out a support system and take action?

As the VP of Digital Media for e-Commerce startup Grass Monkey I am fortunate to be surrounded by creative and intelligent female mentors in the industry. In my 7+ year tenure, I have watched technology penetrate the world of fashion in a big way, changing the way consumers shop and ultimately how brands do business. In today’s digital marketplace we have reached a pivotal point but up until recently the women filling leading roles in fashion haven’t had the opportunity to do something great, to open the doors to a better way of doing business in fashion through technological advances because (let’s be honest) we’ve all been too busy fighting our own professional battles.

A lot can be said about the failure of the fashion industry to properly market to its key audience. Women have the power to push the envelope and create massive change within the world of consumer goods and we’ve seen this first hand with the success of Brand Ambassadors increasing company’s bottom line revenue — from Cardi B’s collaboration with Fashionnova and Amiee Song’s joint venture with Revolve to the colossal behemoth that is Rhianna’s brand empire — women dominate the consumer market yet we often don’t have the final say on how brands market to their female audience.

Fashion, Beauty, Technology, all of these industries have an endemic problem and acknowledging the problem is only the first step. Starting a global conversation is critical and Brittany Hicks, Founder of GIFT, has devoted herself to spreading this message on a national level through connecting professionals across industries and giving them the skills and insight needed to open up their eyes and ears to the untapped potential and talents of women of color. Recently I had the pleasure of connecting with Brittany to hear from her on the state of the industry and what she is doing to incentivize change and it gave me a fresh and inspiring look at how I, and all of us can do better no matter what we can afford to contribute to the cause: money, time, energy, and beyond.

I met Brittany in Los Angeles while she and her board of advisors were in town for their inaugural WOCFTB event (Women Of Color FashTech Brunch) and needless to say I was completely taken aback by her professional journey and what she had to say about the hardships women in the fashion industry are up against.

The Founder of GIFT (Girls In Fashion and Tech), Brittany has made it her mission to build a community focused on the convergence of fashion and technology and the need for more women innovators of all races in the workplace. Born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina Brittany earned her undergraduate degree at NC A&T State University and spent her 20s traveling up and down the east coast working a variety of internships before migrating west for a buyer position with e-Commerce powerhouse Amazon.

Hicks recalls what a culture shock migrating from the South East to Seattle was for her back in 2015. As I sat down to interview her she began reminiscing on what it felt like to walk through the front doors of the Amazon offices on her first day and how alone she felt by the end of that work day as she quickly realized that not only was she one of the only women in her office, she was the only woman of color in her entire department.

Prior to accepting her position at Amazon Hicks primarily worked for major department stores in merchandising roles as an assistant and then associate buyer. It was during her five-year tenure at Amazon that she embraced the technological side of Fashion which quickly began to mold and shape her technical skillset. During her early Amazon days Brittany recalled how rapidly her scope of work grew far beyond what she was used to from her previous rolls.

At Amazon, she was given the opportunity to touch and own more and it was empowering. She soon saw just how beneficial her background in supply chain management was for her new career path through her advanced understanding of the journey from raw materials to consumers’ hands and homes.

“I joined the Amazon team at a pivotal moment in Fashion industry history. Technology was increasing in popularity not just across the front-end shopping experience but also within product development and our team was heavily focused on leveraging new technologies to solve those hardships female consumers often face within the digital marketplace that affect conversion rates such as size and fit” she explained.

Over the next few years, Brittany started to see an alarming pattern developing across the industry. “While at Amazon, I noticed brands were establishing digital activations highly targeted at women as studies show women predominantly make the decisions within the household and are the primary family members making purchases for the household yet when you survey the industry, the teams ultimately making decisions on how activations are structured and executed are male” she explains.

This disconnect was very eye-opening for Brittany and really shaped her first two years at Amazon. Diversity, ethnicity, age — all of these issues started to weigh heavily on her and she slowly began to feel less inspired by her industry.

“When we talk about diversity it tends to always be racial or ethnic, but for me I think diversity in skillset also needs to be a big part of the conversation. For example, my background in merchandising alone wasn’t enough to land me a position at Amazon but my background in supply chain management was and this technological advantage got me thinking.”

Brittany noted that the superiority of individuals with more technical backgrounds within fashion companies was very apparent. “You see women with more unique and specific training — finance, product development etc, often times transitioning from other industries over to fashion due to their specific skills and as a result usurping longer term, lower-level employees for open management roles.” This pattern, to her, was a fundamental disconnect of modern education and discipline.

Intrigued by the state of the industry Hicks began engaging in meaningful conversation with women she encountered professionally. The more she connected with fashion students and recent graduates the more alarmed she became with just how unprepared recent graduates were when entering into the workforce. She began analyzing the distance between what young women studied in college and where they actually landed career wise and this growing gap inspired her to get involved with education in an effort to dive in and identify the holes that needed patching. What started as a series of class visits and seminars turned into a teaching position at Seattle Pacific University and shortly after, GIFT was born.

Brittany’s experience of isolation during her time at Amazon and in the Pacific Northwest inspired the creation of Girls in Fashion and Tech as an organization focused on women supporting women by facilitating meaningful conversation and creating awareness through mentorship, events and more. GIFT sponsors events coast to coast where women can come together to share their experiences and to learn from successful female professionals on how to navigate the industry and help them find a clear path to success in their given field.

What’s next for GIFT?

This September Brittany and her board of advisors will be hosting an all-day event during New York’s fashion week to bring together women and brands to engage in meaningful conversation surrounding the current and future state of Technology in Fashion and the growing demand for equality in the workplace.

Brittany shared that Amazon began supporting the Women of Color FashTech Brunch as an official sponsor in February 2019 when leaders attended and felt the impact and intimacy of that community. Amazon has also hired women of color through this event, where 65% of attendees are mid to senior level executives across the tech space with experiences similar to Brittany. Brittany hopes that more companies join them in this effort.

Alongside her co-founder and board of advisors which includes female executives currently and formerly at Amazon, Macy’s and more, Brittany and GIFT will host their second annual WOCFTB (Women of Color FashTech Brunch) in New York City and they need your help to amplify the conversation and take their mission to the gatekeepers of the industry.

As a woman servicing clients across Fashion, Beauty and Technology I leave you with this call to action. Do your part, no matter how big or small. Email this article to the other women in your office. Share this article on your Twitter, your Facebook, your LinkedIn. Text a link to your sister, your friends. Because getting the message out there is only the beginning.

Interested in Sponsoring GIFT or an upcoming WOCFTB event? Check out the available Sponsorship opportunities below or email Brittany for more information.

WOCFT Title Sponsor $50,000

Presence and support at all 6 (six) remaining brunches, networking events and student workshops for 2019.

Student Workshop Sponsor $20,000

Student workshop exploring fashion as an interdisciplinary and sustainable issue, with curated panel of alumni or current employees and student mixer.

Brunch/Event Sponsorship $15,000

Admission for 2 at our NYC event plus branded table activations in NY, ATL and DC, product/flyer included in swag bags, logo on step & repeat, honorable mention in press release, product/flyer in swag bag or sponsor a table for $1,500.

Corporate Workshops

Curated workshop for the specific needs of your business and/or clients including but not limited to fit technology, fit analysis, supply chain & sustainability management, product development consulting, social media marketing and digital shopping with case studies and results.

Jessica Couch