Cultural diversity in Australia’s fashion industry: a call for true representation

How far does Australia have to go to do justice to CALD representation in fashion?
Cover of Erin Visagie's honours project featuring works by (left to right, top to bottom) Ishani Buff, Suleiman Thomas, Jamela Boutique, Carlin Stephenson, ANNANASA and Mastani. Image: Supplied.

In today’s world, the fashion industry is a powerful reflection of a society’s cultural diversity. For a multicultural nation like Australia, the question of whether its fashion industry and fashion journalism adequately represent this rich tapestry of cultures is of paramount importance.

I recently completed my Bachelor of Media and Communications degree by writing an exegesis and feature article on representing cultural diversity in Australia’s fashion and fashion journalism that aims to create positive change.

My feature article and exegesis worked tirelessly to explore this complex issue, delving into the challenges and opportunities ahead as we strive to foster a more inclusive and authentic representation in the Australian fashion world. This journey involved speaking to six talented, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) creatives, including photographers and designers, whose voices and experiences are integral to understanding the industry’s representation dynamics.

Australia’s cultural diversity is underpinned in its population, with people from many backgrounds and ethnicities. This mosaic of identities should be celebrated and showcased in all aspects of society, including the fashion industry. However, the reality often falls short of the ideal.

The disparity in representation is often the result of the broader marginalisation of minority cultures, that are stereotyped in fashion campaigns and publications. This underrepresentation (and misrepresentation) perpetuates a sense of exclusion among diverse communities, which is detrimental to our collective identity as Australians.

While the fashion industry and fashion journalism have made significant progress in recognising the importance of cultural diversity, there is much work to be done. The industry must move beyond tokenism and surface-level gestures, such as featuring models of diverse backgrounds in a handful of shows or magazine spreads. It must commit to genuine, sustained change that permeates every business level, from design and marketing to editorial content and decision-making processes.

Authenticity is the key to bridging the gap between Australia’s fashion industry and its diverse society. Fashion brands and journalists must invest in building lasting relationships with communities and learning about their histories, traditions and values. By collaborating with local artists, designers and talent from various backgrounds, the industry can not only showcase the beauty of diversity, but also incorporate it into the creative process. This approach ensures that representation is not just a fleeting trend, but becomes an integral part of the industry’s DNA.

More work needs to be done

CALD creatives often face significant challenges in the fashion industry. These include feelings of isolation and alienation due to the lack of representation, intimidation and a sense of being overwhelmed. A lack of representation at higher levels in the industry also contributes to the issue, alongside language barriers and denials and rejections due to not being from Australia or industry circles.

The feeling of being token hires can further exacerbate this feeling of being “othered”, while many CALD creatives who do “make it” have to work twice as hard as non-CALD practitioners, and simultaneously are being ignored or excluded from the fashion scene and receiving stigma. These challenges resonate with my experiences as a biracial (South African-Filipino) woman working in journalism and modelling, illustrating the industry’s need for greater inclusivity and recognition of CALD creatives.

I wanted to start those tough conversations up again about diverse representation in fashion in a different way.

The solutions proposed by the CALD creatives I interviewed offer a roadmap for positive change. These solutions include fostering more open conversations to increase understanding, achieving greater representation in leadership roles and fashion councils, ensuring that diverse creatives are not used as mere tokens and actively engaging with culturally diverse designers. Other recommendations include increasing media exposure, applying genuine intentions to hiring processes and creating spaces that connect CALD creatives in events and provide platforms for sharing their stories.

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While BIPOC and CALD initiatives have increased diversity in model representation on runways, it’s still inadequate. We need open conversations, actions and meaningful solutions.

My research underscores the importance of listening effectively to the experiences and insights of CALD creatives. This includes maintaining ongoing communication, expressing gratitude for their time, keeping in touch professionally, acknowledging their achievements, letting them guide the conversation and responding sincerely to their perspectives. It has been a profound and enlightening experience to listen to the remarkable stories and insights of each creative.

Moreover, the power of storytelling is central to the transformation we seek. Fashion journalism has the unique ability to educate and inform, and it must use this power to tell the stories of individuals and communities whose voices are often neglected. By sharing their experiences and perspectives, fashion journalism can help break down stereotypes and promote understanding.

In my exegesis, I questioned whether the Australian fashion industry and fashion journalism can adequately represent wider society’s cultural diversity. The answer is that they can, but they must be willing to commit to change. This involves adopting an inclusive mindset that reflects the reality of our multicultural society rather than adhering to outdated standards of beauty and cultural norms. It also involves acknowledging that diversity is not just a “trend”, but a fundamental aspect of our nation’s identity.

I want to challenge the traditional and often white-washed beauty standards of fashion and media. I want to create something that celebrates and amplifies diverse and intersectional voices, and to tell stories that are not often heard. By creating this project, I hoped to inspire people to push for more inclusive representation in the fashion and media industries, and to show young people from diverse backgrounds that they are seen and valued.

The Australian fashion industry and fashion journalism need to take a proactive role in authentically representing the country’s cultural diversity. The participants and interviewees of this project have illuminated the challenges and opportunities ahead. We must work collectively to challenge stereotypes, foster inclusivity and embrace the beauty of our diverse society.

It’s not only a question of whether the industry can achieve this, but whether we are willing to lead the way toward a more inclusive and vibrant fashion landscape for all Australians.

This article is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Erin Visagie is a South African-Filipino freelance journalist and model. Her interests include coffee, tango, and social media, and she appears in WonderSips' Boost Juice 2023 campaign. In 2022, she received the JERAA Private Media Diversity Award and the RMIT Journalism Inclusion Award. She was a Voxfrock Rookie and was a 2023 finalist for the 7News Young Achievers Sofitel Art Award. She researches and presents untold stories, lived experiences, and diverse voices. Erin Visagie is based in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. Instagram: @ezzavee8749