“Fashion education is beginning to question what fashion is, what fashion was and what fashion could be in education.” – Tanveer Ahmed, senior lecturer in Fashion Communication and Race, Central Saint Martins
By definition, decolonisation stands for the withdrawal of political, military and governmental rule of a colonised land by its invaders. In fashion education, this can simply be translated to rethink the way we see and understand fashion. It is a step away from the Eurocentric narrative that not only Anna Wintour has famously promoted. “Fashion education is beginning to question what fashion is, what fashion was and what fashion could be in education”, says Tanveer Ahmed, senior lecturer in Fashion Communication and Race at Central Saint Martins. “Just adding new fashion stories to the curriculum isn’t really enough to disturb the dominant canons of the institution”, says Elizabeth Kutesko, pathway leader of MA Fashion Critical Studies at Central Saint Martins. “You need to decolonise your staff and your mind. Ultimately, the concept of decolonisation is based on the idea that Black or brown people don’t exist in academia, particularly in an area like the arts.”, says Andrew Ibi, founder of WEAREFACE and programme leader of BA Fashion Communication at Liverpool John Moores University. It goes way beyond replacing Chanel with Christopher John Rogers or Birkins with Telfars. “The work to decolonize fashion education is an overhaul of the entire curriculum and culture- Nothing less”, states Ben Barry, the dean of the school of fashion at Parsons in New York City.
“When you don’t see a guest speaker who looks like you or comes from a similar background to you, it can be quite discouraging, as though we’re not able to be a part of an industry that is still deeply rooted in colonialis.” – Kryselle Cabral, Toronto Metropolitan University
In an Instagram poll we conducted, the vast majority of 59% voted no when it came to the question of whether fashion is currently in a process of decolonisation. Only 29% of the voters feel represented in fashion education. 68% feel marginalised in fashion education and only 25% said that the Black Lives Matter movement substantially changed fashion. Fashion education needs new people and new perspectives says Ibi. “Yes, decolonization is great, but who’s teaching it? So, if you don’t have Black or brown academics, only white academics? Well, that would be like me teaching women’s studies”, he says. Since starting her MA in Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins, Melanie Solari recalls having only met five Black people who came in as guest lecturers. “The majority of the guest speakers were white. As a Black female, it made me feel as though there still isn’t a place for me in the industry”, she says. “When you don’t see a guest speaker who looks like you or comes from a similar background to you, it can be quite discouraging, as though we’re not able to be a part of an industry that is still deeply rooted in colonialism”, she adds. Kryselle Cabral, who is a recent graduate of the Toronto Metropolitan University adds: “A white professor may have a specialization in Asian hair accessories. However, they would never be able to teach with the same kind of nuance an Asian professor would possess.” There have even been times in her fashion education, where she had been “taught” elements about her own cultural background, India, Portugal and the middle east, which weren’t entirely true, but she didn’t feel comfortable enough to speak up about it. When Sameerah Balogun, an MA Fashion Critical studies student wrote her undergraduate dissertation focussed on anti-racism in fashion at an educational institution in Germany, both her white supervisors made racist comments whilst she was in the room, one of them being the n-word, she says.
“We are currently in a cultural and social landscape that recognises the importance of challenging absences everywhere across all spaces, disciplines and areas of life.” – Diamond Abdulrahim, brand strategist and MA Fashion Critical Studies, Central Saint Martins
In 2020, George Floyd was murdered. The video of his brutal killing went viral, like no other. What followed, was a mass-posting of black squares on the grind, and probably the biggest merchandise opportunity for fast-fashion retailers. Inclusivity is a trend now, and whoever ignores it calls themselves out. So, we cast diverse models, whilst the higher positions stay in the white power. It is almost as if someone tried to wipe it away instead of tackling it. “Black people being murdered by the police is essentially nothing new, it happens every other day”, says Balogun. “The revolution was televised in front of our own eyes”, adds Ibi. “It didn’t just impact Black people like it did in the past. It actually affected a lot of white people. The world is ready for this. This is the difference- 15 years ago, the world wasn’t ready”. “We are currently in a cultural and social landscape that recognises the importance of challenging absences everywhere across all spaces, disciplines and areas of life”, says Diamond Abdulrahim, brand strategist and MA Fashion Critical Studies student at CSM. “It is only right that fashion education is also recognising this and adapting with the concerns of time”.
“Bigger cities in Europe or America are forced to contend with and scrub the moral stain of their own colonial and racist legacies. Inclusivity is just damage control.” – Kira Issar, Central Saint Martins
Fashion education is tied to privilege- whether that is in a financial, social or racial sense. Going to study in a major city remains to be more of a fantasy than a reality for most people. Graduate collections have the potential to cost a fortune, something that is often not possible without scholarships, says Pip-Paz Howlett, MA fashion graduate and receiver of the L’Wren Scott scholarship. “The specific meanings and practices of decolonizing fashion education depend on place- on the continuing legacies of where the fashion school or program is located”, says Barry. “Bigger cities in Europe or America are forced to contend with and scrub the moral stain of their own colonial and racist legacies. Inclusivity is just damage control”, says Kira Issar, an image-maker from India and MA Fashion image student at CSM. Accessibility of not only bigger cities, but also funds is the issue. In the British system, the international fees for students from the global South are usually double what a British person would pay. Decolonisation is not just about race, it’s also about class, money and status. It is the battleground of issues that structural racism has caused over the years. When the Black Lives Matter movement was happening, Ibi recalls telling his director that the institution is systematically racist. She replied asking what he meant. “Well, I am the only Black person in here”, was his answer.
“So far decolonial fashion is weighted heavily on programmes that are more academic in nature.” – Diamond Abdulrahim, brand strategist and MA Fashion Critical Studies, Central Saint Martins
Whereas the curriculum might be changing, and the academia bubble is progressing, the industry remains stagnant. “Perhaps so far decolonial fashion is weighted heavily on programmes that are more academic in nature”, states Abdulrahim. “I remember working for a big fashion company and they were picking their models for a shoot. Every single model they chose was a size 0, blonde-haired and blue-eyed woman”, says the fashion journalist and CSM student Ayo Ojo. “It didn’t even occur to them until my boss glanced at me and was like “Ayo, are there any good Black models you can recommend, we need to try and be more diverse”. It didn’t even occur to him how out of pocket that was.”, he continues. Reminiscent of the pandemic Jaquemus fashion show where the designer made his best efforts to curate a diverse model cast, just to post a selfie from the all-white crew after wrapping the production. “I’ve had many similar experiences recently from people saying things like ‘There are too many Black people now’ when there are literally only two Black people in the room to ‘I wish fashion could go back to the old days when it didn’t matter when everyone was white'”, Ojo continues.
.”The project to decolonise is not new for the global South, it is the global North that is lagging!” – Tanveer Ahmed, senior lecturer in Fashion Communication and Race, Central Saint Martin
Yet still, the page seems to be turning. Before Edward Enninful was appointed as editor in chief of British Vogue in 2017, a Black model on the cover would have been a rare sight. “There is this famous quote from Vogue. I think it was Alexandra Shulman, who said years ago that if they’d put a Black model on the cover of a magazine, then the magazine wouldn’t sell as well as other issues”, says Harris Elliott, Senior Lecturer in Fashion, Identity & Culture at CSM and the RCA. The magazine’s recent September issue was dedicated to the theme of “Activism now”. It had Adwoah Aboah on the cover, which felt like a wake-up call to the fashion industry, says Solari. “Change within the industry only occurs when immerse pressure is being given, so you have to wonder how much of this is genuine and how much is to maintain interest”, says Isabella Papagiannis, BA Fashion Communication student at the Toronto Metropolitan University. “Luckily at Central Saint Martins, they are quite open to me doing projects that are not tailored to European Fashion History”, says Ojo. “The thing is, I came to school to learn- which is why I like exploring and researching different things because the information for a lot of non-European history is very difficult to compile.” Decolonisation starts in the heads and should be a given in the history lessons. “The project to decolonise is not new for the global South, it is the global North that is lagging!”, adds Ahmed.
“Do you think decolonization would exist if there were more Black and brown academics teaching?”, asks Ibi. “Probably not”. In her novel Grand Union, the writer Zadie Smith describes the function of racism as a distraction. It keeps people from doing their work. It forces them to explain their reason for being again. Over and over. Fashion education might be in a pivotal place where all the resources are available, yet still many institutions fail to read the instructions for them in the right way. From boxing international students into a specific narrative to inserting decolonising classes, the ball seems to be rolling but has still a long way to go.