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Diversity and Inclusion in On-model Imagery

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” – Verna Myers, Diversity and Inclusion expert

Tall, white, skinny. These three words summarise the stereotype that the fashion industry has come to associate with over the last few decades. Be it pret or haute-couture, the staple imagery on the runway, or on magazine spreads, has been deliberately exclusionary by design. The business of fashion has been historically rife with one-dimensional growth in terms of representation. As a result, this has led to the gatekeeping of ‘real’ people from, at best, advertising and marketing campaigns, and at worst, the entire fashion value chain. This can be witnessed through the severe underrepresentation of people of different races, body sizes, and types, differently-abled folks, the LGBTQIA+ population, ethnicities, and religions.

But these practices have severe implications, not just on a moral front for us as a society, but also from a business perspective. In this article, we will explore D&I practices in On-model Imagery in the industry, the bottlenecks that litter the path of true representation and the opportunities that technology can provide to bridge the gap.

The State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (or Lack Thereof) in Fashion 

There has been a prominent trend of limiting the idea of beauty to euro-centric standards, which can safely be considered a thing of the past. The problems are multifold – the majority of fashion consumers are not the same size, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or body type as the standard featured models, which makes the average customer feel excluded on a sustained basis. If we really come down to it, less than 1% of products stocked by most major retailers are from black-owned businesses. What’s more, over 68% of women in America wear sizes 14 and above, according to Plunkett Research.

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Recent years have witnessed an uprising from BIPOC and other minority communities about this pressing issue in the fashion world. This is especially true since the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, with age-old systemic issues coming to the fore. An industry that has thrived on exclusion and exclusivity is now forced to take a hard look at years of non-representation and is finally taking legitimate steps to undo the damage. This is the need of the hour since over 62% of shoppers want retailers to be part of the dialogue around social, environmental, and political issues. With 50% of Gen Z and 56% of millennials rejecting the idea of gender binaries, the cultural shift in gender expression and nonconformity is palpable.

Image: MatchesFashion.com

When it comes to fashion runways and on-model imagery, Fashion Month Fall 2021 witnessed a 43% representation of models of color, with a measly 1.16% of plus-size model castings, according to The Fashion Spot. There was a major drop in gender diversity on the runway, with just 12 transgender or non-binary castings and 0.98% age-diverse castings. The figures speak for themselves – the need for an internal shift within the industry is absolutely critical. 

What’s Ushering in the Shift to Inclusivity in Fashion?

Unless you’re living under a rock, chances are you haven’t been immune to the vast coverage of high fashion and glamour at Cannes. And taking centre-stage at this vividly colored global event is Deepika Padukone, donning various outfits and accessories from the house of luxury retailer Louis Vuitton. Interestingly, Padukone is the first Indian, non-white ambassador for the brand in its illustrious 167-year of existence. Surely, if head-honchos at LVMH are identifying a reason to become more inclusive, there is a sordid business case for the move, which is apparent: to engage a larger diaspora of customers across the globe and build loyalty in those segments of society that have previously been left-out.

And this is as good a time as any to make a statement. With the pandemic fueling the growth and adoption of social media by fashion brands for both business and customer relationship-building, there has never been a more compelling time to become socially conscious. Diversity and inclusion should be at the heart of a fashion brand’s ethos and how it interacts with the world. After all, enthusiasts around the world love fashion because it empowers them to own their bodies and identities with confidence. 

In light of this, the shift to a more diverse and inclusive representation in fashion retail and eCommerce is inevitable. On-model imagery is the primary touchpoint between shoppers and fashion brands. It also exhibits your brand’s personality and core values, which makes it a vital touchpoint for the consumer to gauge whether they would like to engage with you or consider buying your products. 

With leading contemporary fashion and beauty brands embracing diversity with fervor, the change is slow but sure to come. “The fashion industry needs to embrace people that don’t fit the ‘eurocentric vibe’ and understand times have changed, our behavior as consumers have changed, and that impacts what we put money and effort into,” says Dina Basharahil, global talent director at Modest Visions.

Image: Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive’s summer campaign

Brands the likes of SavagexFenty, Glossier, ASOS, Reformation, Girlfriend Collective, TomboyX, and others are leading the way for change by representing diverse body types, skin colors, ethnicities, differently-abled bodies, and plus-size models in not just their photoshoots, product imagery, and marketing campaigns, but also at an executive and internal level. As Brussels-based fashion label Ester Manas puts it, inclusivity “should not be a concept, a trend or an inspiration” but must become “viral, obvious, intuitive, mainstream.”

Image: Glossier

Fashion Retail and Diversity – A Profound Untapped Opportunity

Not only is diversity and inclusivity in on-model imagery absolutely critical given the evolving societal norms, but a lack of representation has actual business costs for fashion brands. 41% of shoppers reveal that they have shifted at least 10% of their business away from a retailer which does not reflect how important diversity and inclusion are. Moreover, 42% of ethnic minorities and 41% of LGBT shoppers would switch to a retailer committed to diversity.

The shift in consumer expectations is a crucial factor for businesses to consider while making creative and strategic decisions. Fashion brands that value diversity and inclusion are the ones experiencing sustained and promising growth today. According to a report by IRCE, model diversity and inclusivity can increase the conversion rate by 29%. Another report by Accenture notes that 4 out of 10 (42%) customers would spend 5% more to shop with a company that values diversity. Keeping in mind the value and social costs, it has become pivotal for fashion brands to assess and reform their commitment to diversity.

Furthermore, a 2018 McKinsey & Company study Delivering through Diversity establishes a clear correlation between diversity and inclusion, and performance – companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform homogeneous competitors with regard to profitability. ASOS is one of the leading fashion brands trying to embrace diversity and inclusion across the value chain. 

Image: ASOS’ Diversity & Inclusion KPIs

On-model Imagery and Diversity in Fashion Retail

“If you want to future-proof your market, diversity and inclusion are no longer a nice-to-have; they are a must-have,” says June Sarpong, a TV personality and diversity advocate. This remains true for fashion businesses of all sizes, with more shoppers demanding marketing initiatives that prioritize diversity. As an Accenture report states, 62% of shoppers said they would switch from a retailer where they feel unwelcome. Another survey by Adobe found that 62% of respondents said that a brand’s commitment to diversity, or lack thereof, impacts their perception of their products or services.

The same survey reveals that 53% of African-American respondents, 58% of LGBTQ+ respondents, and 40% of Hispanic respondents have abandoned a brand for not representing them in its advertising. Fashion retailers need to re-align the way they view and practise diversity and inclusion in the workplace as well as through every marketing and organizational decision to truly build a future-proof business. 

Here’s what a Newscred survey of US marketers found about representation and inclusion in fashion –

  • 88% agreed with the statement: “Using more diverse images helps a brand’s reputation.”
  • 41% agreed that it is important to represent modern-day society in marketing imagery.
  • 91% of U.S. marketers agree with the statement “There is still room for growth in using more diverse images by marketers.”

Furthermore, if one looks at the spending power of minority groups, the business potential is expansive. With African Americans projected to spend $1.8 trillion on goods and services by 2024, and the buying power of the LGBTQ+ community worldwide having reached $3.7 trillion in 2019, fashion brands need to take note of the market potential they are missing out on. 

The Role of AI and Technology in Fostering Diversity and Inclusion in Fashion

On-model product imagery is the fundamental element of a brand’s personality and often tells a story about the brand. Fashion houses that invest in high-quality product images and on-model photoshoots experience unmatched business outcomes in not just conversions and sales, but also in building a strong brand persona. Investing in high-quality on-model imagery can, however, be an expensive affair for fashion brands, especially at scale.

With the awe-inspiring advancements in AI, technology-forward fashion retailers are leveraging the power of AI-enabled photography in fashion retail and eCommerce. AI-powered on-model product imagery has the potential to elevate fashion brands’ efforts to be more inclusive by matching the specific requirements for sizes, skin color, and body types and rendering realistic on-model images at one-fourth the cost of traditional photoshoots.

AI-generated on-model product imagery is on its way to disrupting commercial photography by churning out high-resolution eCommerce-ready product images at a fraction of the traditional turnaround times. AI-enabled model imagery can help fashion brands invest their time and money efficiently by outsourcing their photography requirements, while creating a compelling catalog of ready-to-market images that prioritizes body diversity and inclusion, while catering to the evolving needs of all of your customers. 

Platforms such as FlixStudio are at the forefront of AI-enabled photo rendering and AI-generated on-model imagery that create beautiful and realistic high-resolution eCommerce-ready images at a turnaround time of 48 hours. FlixStudio produces high-impact, high-quality on-model product images featuring diverse representations through AI-powered models that allow your fashion brand to embody inclusivity at every touchpoint.

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Arunava Acharjee

(Product Marketing Manager)