What psychology can teach fashion about inclusivity

Written By BELLA WEBB

By including psychology in their strategic thinking, brands can move beyond tokenism towards true inclusivity.



© Olivia Lifungula/Hajinsky

Could psychology help fashion brands resolve their inclusivity problem? An increasing number of academics believe so.


Back in 2009, Caryn Franklin, a former editor of i-D turned academic, co-founded the award-winning All Walks Beyond the Catwalk campaign. Enlisting British industry heavyweights ranging from the British Fashion Council to Rankin and Kayt Jones, the campaign sought to celebrate diversity in fashion in front of and behind the lens.

By 2015, having stepped away from All Walks, Franklin felt frustrated with the lack of industry progress: “I realised I needed science because I was coming up against mindsets that I didn’t understand how to challenge.” Her solution was to study psychology. After completing a master's degree in Applied Psychology, Franklin became visiting professor of diverse selfhood at London’s Kingston School of Art. Psychology, she says, is a missing link in brands’ current efforts to understand and unlearn their biases.


Updating hiring policies and introducing diversity councils can offer marginalised communities a seat at the table. But experts say brands need to empower employees to turn diversity into more than another tickbox category for HR managers.



Caryn Franklin, a former editor of i-D turned academic.  © Michelle Beatty

If brands can foster truly inclusive internal cultures, their external output and customer relations will improve too, says fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen, who was the first Black female psychology professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). “Retail microaggressions are seemingly covert racist acts — verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities — that impact the psyche,” she says. Examples include Gucci’s sweater resembling blackface and H&M advertising its “coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie on a Black child model. “We shop to heal ourselves but then we’re unexpectedly confronted with retail microaggressions that are even more damaging.”


Diverse teams are more creative when they’re inclusive

Diversity efforts work long-term in companies where the environment is genuinely inclusive, says Dr. Andrew Marcinko, a teaching fellow at Britain’s Durham University. “Organisational psychology shows that diverse teams can be more productive, creative and innovative than more homogenous groups when both upper and lower management are diverse. To achieve any of those benefits, you have to be inclusive. Diversity becomes an asset when employees see it as such. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”


Unconscious bias training may not be the answer. Professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK, Michelle Ryan, says there is little evidence showing the success of unconscious bias training, despite its popularity. It can even encourage employees to become complacent and excuse biased behaviour. “At best, it increases awareness that unconscious bias exists. What has been shown to have a greater impact are approaches that try to address more systemic issues, rather than individual attitudes and actions,” she says.


Dr. Julie Van de Vyver, also a fellow at Durham University, explains that there are two types of norms at play in companies. “Descriptive norms are what is actually happening, like the number of ethnically diverse board members. This can be changed in all sorts of ways, including hiring practices. Injunctive norms are what we should do, bringing in the moral aspect. These kinds of norms need time [to implement] and top-down commitment to change.”


Van de Vyver suggests brands hire an independent expert in culture and climate interventions to complete a diversity and inclusion audit. Marcinko adds that internal commitment and a transparent reporting of the data are critical. “The one thing consistently missing from those programmes is accountability. Brands might have goals, targets and plans, but nobody suffers any consequences if they don’t meet them,” he says.



Fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen was the first Black female psychology professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.  © Loriann Lawrence

FIT’s Karen would like to see brands move beyond what she calls a formulaic “band-aid approach” and treat prejudices like racism as mental disorders. “An alcoholic will always say they’re an addict, even if they’re 20 years sober. You’re constantly battling and acknowledging the problem, learning and unlearning, trying to understand your triggers and develop coping mechanisms. You will always be in recovery,” she says.


The power of empathy

Psychology has emerged as an important subject of discussion at London College of Fashion in recent years. The scope of diversity and inclusion efforts can be widened further, says Jekaterina Rogaten, course leader for London College of Fashion’s MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion. “There is still little progress for people with physical disabilities, for example. For the blind person, it is almost impossible to shop in the average store without assistance. Garment labels and some retail websites are not accessible to people with eyesight difficulties.”


Judith Achumba-Wöllenstein and Pak Lun Chiu, who founded fashion psychology journal Hajinksy Magazine after graduating from London College of Fashion’s MA Psychology for Fashion Professionals, encourage brands to lead with empathy. “Empathy rarely features in a fashion business model, but the ability to make room and see yourself in another person’s position keeps us connected,” says Chiu.


The arts offer options for engaging employees. Brands can use film screenings or workplace libraries to encourage empathy-building through storytelling, says Van de Vyver. “Intergroup friendships are one of the most powerful tools for reducing prejudice, as well as exposure to norms of inclusion and kindness.”


Companies can also make social events more inclusive, considering accessible venues and decentring alcohol. “The sweet spot is where employees are able to maintain their own cultural heritage and experiences while still integrating with the dominant culture,” says Marcinko.


The importance of a collective response

Action across the board — well beyond the buy-in of senior management — is essential, academics say. “Going forward, we need to be hypervigilant,” says Caryn Franklin. “Biases become firmly entrenched when they are not challenged.”

Collective action is driven by moral outrage, which is especially powerful when expressed across different groups, says Van de Vyver. “If you witness unfairness and you feel anger, you want to do something about it. You also want employees to feel efficacy. If people don’t feel like they can make a difference, they are less likely to take action. Highlighting the success of people who have previously spoken up will encourage more action,” she explains.


Use existing hierarchies to advocate more effectively for change, suggests Ryan. She highlights studies that show gender interventions championed by men and framed as benefiting the whole business (rather than only women) are more effective.

An important step is to encourage dominant group members to acknowledge their role in upholding biased systems. When working with white clients to understand their racial biases, Karen questions the source of their prejudice. “When was the first time you realised you were a white person and you had more agency or more privilege than most? Can you remember the first time your parents spoke ill of people of colour and how that made you feel? How was your privilege used? How would you feel knowing a Black person doesn’t have that access?”


After honing her approach over 40 years, Franklin now tries to challenge people with what she calls humble curiosity. “We don’t have to know the answers and we don’t have to intervene in a militant way,” she explains. “We can say humbly, ‘I’m not feeling right about this. Is anyone else feeling the same way?’ We can create a safe space for other people to say ‘I feel that too’. But we can’t be a white saviour. The people whose lives are affected need to steer this. If those people aren’t on your team, that’s where your creative deficit lies.”

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