I was at LACMA recently checking out the Rain Room with a friend. The exhibition relies on motion sensors and an ability to detect “lightness”. It responds to the capacity to reflect light in order to detect when bodies are in the water’s midst.
We had somehow managed to sync up our outfits –grey T-shirts, dark jeans and white trainers. The only difference was in our skin colours, I am white and he is black. He got drenched and I did not. Staff at the exhibition blamed the sensors not working on his clothing choice, but the three other non-Caucasian people viewing the exhibition at the same time as us also ended up wet. Looking into the technology behind the room, it appears that paler skin reflects more light, but darker tones, like my friend’s, reflect less. This suggests that the cameras are less likely to see darker skin.
At Random International, the art collective that made the installation, the racial distribution of the group is largely Caucasian or light skinned. I think that what it really comes down to is that there weren’t enough non-white people around when the space was being designed to say that it doesn’t work for them.
What the Rain Room emphasised to me is the importance of diversity in design teams. This is not a problem that is limited to one particular arts collective – approximately 86% of professional designers are Caucasian, according to statistics released by US design trade body AIGA.
Speaking at an event recently, fashion critic Robin Givhan said that the percentage of black students at design schools is in the single digits. Diversity in the fashion industry is often spoken about as something important from an outward perspective – with much of the conversation focused on diversifying catwalks and in ad campaigns. While this is incredibly important, “diversity in design is imperative for businesses wanting to succeed into the future” In the US, non-Hispanic whites will not make up the majority of the US population by 2055. According to forecasts by the Pew Research Centre: “Non-Hispanic whites are projected to become less than half of the US population by 2055 and 46% by 2065,” the report says.
Retailers are increasingly serving a global, rather than a national or regional audience, so having a workforce that reflects that population is going to be key to business success. We’re already seeing this in some businesses. Louboutin has changed its notion of nude from a colour (beige) to a concept, a decision prompted by one of Christian Louboutin’s staff telling the designer that “beige is not the colour of my skin.”
This concept of serving all different shades of nude is not limited to Christian Louboutin’s footwear, but one that is being looked at particularly by underwear and makeup companies like Naja underwear and MDMflow, which was initially designed for black skin, but is now broadening its focus to more skin tones.
The religious make-up of the world is changing too. In 2010, the number of Muslims in the world accounted for 23.2% of the population, and Pew expects this to increase to 29.7% by 2050. In the second half of the century Muslims, are expected to surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.
There are huge business opportunities here: The global Muslim clothing market is forecast to be worth $327bn by 2020, according to the latest Global Islamic Economy report.
Smart retailers are already tapping into this shift, with retailers like Marks and Spencer launching a line of burkinis, Uniqlo launching a “modest wear” collection, and a number of other brands like Mango, unveiling Ramadan specific collections and promotions.
Earlier this month, mall operator Westfield said it was preparing for a surge of Middle Eastern tourists celebrating Eid, with the market accounting for 30% of non-EU spending at Westfield London and 23% of non-EU spend at its luxury quarter, The Village.
Diversity is not a soft HR attribute that companies can trot out in order to seem like good corporate citizens, but a business imperative. For retailers and brands looking to succeed into the future, knowing your customer is key. But your customer is changing, and to serve them, you need a workforce that represents and understands them.