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Fashion Needs to Get Personal

Fashion has its diversity missteps. A sweater that looks like blackface, a hoodie with a noose around the neck — the CNN article “Fashion Gaffes are a Reflection of the Industry’s Diversity Problem” from August lists several issues you probably remember from recent years.

Fashion also has its moments of diversity touchstones. “It’s a regular Benetton ad” is still used as a phrase to instantly convey the visual of a multicultural group of people.

In the fashion industry, the importance of appearing and actually being inclusive is leading everything from marketing to apparel trends. Most designers say they want to empower people through fashion, which means appealing to a more diverse population than ever before.

I appreciated a column in the August issue of the Fashion Mannuscript, “Diversity & Representation in Fashion,” in which author Jessica Couch calls on the industry to go beyond the surface and dig deep to evolve toward true diversity, beyond quotas, to a point of co-creation. She makes the important point that in many corporate cultures, differences are not celebrated; everyone thinks the same.

I agree wholeheartedly, and I want to take the discussion even further. Couch does a great job of setting up the why. I want to dive into the how.

Any company (in any industry) can pay an advertising firm to make itself appear diverse on the outside and hire heads of diversity and inclusion so the company appears diverse on the inside. But diversity does not automatically lead to inclusion (or the “co-creation” Couch mentioned). Hiring a chief diversity officer doesn’t suddenly change the fact that all employees are still required to think the same.

Let’s say your organization has the best intentions; you believe in the power of diversity. You want multiple voices heard within and throughout your organization, at every level.

Now what?

Now you have to develop and practice the skill and the behaviors of inclusiveness. You would never assume that a new technology like artificial intelligence could be introduced into the workplace without training. Why assume inclusiveness is any different?

Here’s the thing: most leaders were trained in exclusion, because they (we) were trained in an age of standardization. In standardization, the business defines the individual. We’re told what to do inside the box we’re given.

But we’re no longer in an age of standardization. As a society, we are more diverse than ever, we are more informed than ever, we are aware of and proud of our individuality. We’re in an age of personalization. These truths are just as relevant for the employees creating your fashion lines as they are for the consumers who buy them.

To be inclusive means you see people for the individuals they are. Individuals — not groups that need to be “represented” — who can and want to contribute to the company’s success if you’ll just let them.

Here are three ways to turn things around:

Don’t Put People in Boxes

Current diversity strategies put people in boxes. They deliver a message that is interpreted as “us versus them.” That can be interpreted as inauthentic (and it might actually be inauthentic) with disingenuous and transactional intentions. When the focus is on inclusion, it becomes a story about “us and me” — a narrative that empowers differences to contribute back to the advancement of society, rather than a representation narrative that slows progress and further segregates society.

Stop Looking for People Who “Fit”

That’s exclusion dressed up to look nice. Sure, it’s easier to work with people who are similar to us. It’s easy to rationalize excluding someone who’s different or difficult in the name of efficiency or team cohesion. But if we really want inclusive cultures that expand the capacity of our teams and our people, we have to interrupt our preference for ease and invite the discomfort of working closely with people who think differently.

Inclusion Won’t Always Be Perfect

Consider an example from a related industry: beauty. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty was named by PRWeek as the Best U.S. campaign of the past 20 years. But its story is more complex than that. With its emphasis on women of different shapes, sizes and skin tones, it has significantly advanced the conversation about inclusion. Yet it’s also had its own missteps along the way, as discussed in PRWeek’s April 2019 article, “How Dove’s Real Beauty Won, and Nearly Lost, Its Audience.” There is no perfect example of inclusion. You will have your own ups and downs because we’re talking about individuals. Individuals are complex. We’re not all the same. And that’s the point.

Individuality solves for inclusion. Inclusion solves for individuality. Successful leadership in our age of personalization embraces both.

Glenn Llopis is a Cuban-American entrepreneur, best-selling author, speaker and senior advisor to Fortune 500 companies and organizations in healthcare, financial, consumer packaged goods and beyond. His website is glennllopisgroup.com.

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