The fashion industry has a reputation of being on the cutting edge of everything. But for all its ability to be forward-thinking, the industry is severely behind on diversity – somewhere it continues to struggle, even as other industries make strides. Both on the runway and behind the scenes, Latino representation remains abysmal.
With New York Fashion Week – the first stop in a four-week long, multi-country event that takes industry insiders from NYC to London to Milan to Paris – once again reminds us at how few Latinos enter these elite spaces. Besides Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Narciso Rodríguez, Isabel Toledo, and Nina García, there aren’t many Latinos who have broken through. And this is especially appalling when the industry is pushed by the economic power of Latinos, who are often missing from the decision-making process. A 2014 Hispanic market report revealed that Latinos contribute $1.3 trillion to the US retail industry, a 155 percent rise since 2000. Still, the people behind those brands, which increasingly targets and gathers inspiration from Latinos and Latin American countries, are disproportionately non-Latino.
Only 4.3 percent of the 2017 Business of Fashion 500, a list that highlights the most influential names in the industry, was made up of Latinos. Some notable mentions included Uruguayan designer Gabriela Hearst, Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls, and photographer Mario Testino, who male models accused of sexual exploitation in January.
On the runway, diversity’s seen as a commodity, used by the industry to highlight its progress. The Fall 2018 season – shown in February 2018 – was the industry’s most diverse yet, according to The Fashion Spot. The website’s Fall 2018 diversity report revealed 32.5 percent of castings – in all four cities – went to models of color. Still, some believe it’s not enough.
“In 2018, there’s nothing groundbreaking about sprinkling Latinxs and Afro-Latinx here and there on your campaigns and runways simply to appear woke,” said Bianca Nieves, a freelance fashion journalist. “Where are the Latinxs behind-the-scenes, shooting shots, and making diversity the norm in all aspects?”
Even as the Latino community gets a foot in the door, we face exponential hardships that range from unequal pay and discrimination to stereotypes and lack of representation. We talked to 11 people in the industry – primarily in design, styling, journalism, public relations, and entrepreneurship – to learn what it’s really like to work in fashion as a Latinx. Here’s what they had to say.
“[Latinos] are a population that spent over $1.2 trillion in retail in 2017, and we do not have the same representation in the people that design the products we buy.” – Nasheli Ortiz, 36, fashion designer and professor at Moore College
“Most companies are ‘diversifying’ their runway cast and using more non-white models in campaigns, which is great. But everyone in the design rooms, board rooms, and studios remain very much the same: white and usually privileged. It’s currently more about showing that they are interested in ‘all types of people’ than actually understanding how valuable and important the input of someone from a different background can be.” -Luma Guarconi, 22, student at Central Saint Martins
“I have worked for two design teams and out of those teams, I have either been the only person representing the Latinx community in a team made up about 70 percent Caucasian coworkers.” -Crysbel Renoj, 27, assistant designer
“[The industry] comes off fake, and you have to act like someone you’re not. Not all of us come from money or can afford lavish designer shoes or clothes. We weren’t brought up that way, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get the opportunity to work in it.” -Danielle Alvarez, 27, founder of The Bonita Project
“I remember in one of my first jobs, I did a presentation for a big designer name and after 45 minutes she only said, ‘I do not understand a word of what you just said. We need more color. Are you Latina? I am surprised by all the neutrals.’”– Nasheli Ortiz, 36, fashion designer and professor at Moore College
“One day someone referred to my style [by] saying, ‘You are lacking Chanel.’” – Joshe Ordonez, 24, designer and researcher
“One day someone referred to my style [by] saying, ‘You are lacking Chanel.’”
“The hardest part to reckon with is people not knowing how to receive your work. People either have no knowledge or experience of Latin culture to have a context in which to analyze your work in or they have very specific preconceived ideas of what a Latin designer will do. This, then, [results] in them getting frustrated when you’re not working in the same way as other white designers or getting frustrated when you’re not meeting the stereotype they’ve set up for you.” -Luma Guarconi, 22, student at Central Saint Martins
“In the beginning, the fact that my English was not perfect made me feel insecure, especially when I did internships. They picked on my accent or lack of vocabulary, but I always replied, ‘Well actually this is the third language I speak, what about you?’” -Mariana Luis, 27, pattern cutter
“Coming into this industry it has been an eye opener to the neglect in pay. Imagine coming into work and hearing your non-Latinx coworkers flaunt their weekly brand purchases or have their online shopping packages delivered directly to work while you’re trying to save that money for a monthly transportation pass or give yourself the luxury of a dinner out with friends.” -Diana Quiroz, 24, product development assistant
“From the education and training costs of pattern making and design to the actual launch of the first line and inventory costs, this amount can quickly jump into the tens of thousands, especially without the right guidance in place to avoid costly mistakes. These costs can be discouraging and can seem insurmountable for Latinx like myself, raised in working-class families and communities, so building from the bottom has been tough.” -Yuliana Mendez, 32, founder of Bilingüe Clothing
“In the process of getting my company off the ground, I began working with a Los Angeles based company specializing in embroidery design. During one of my meetings with the owner (a non-Latinx immigrant), I presented him with sketches of the designs that I was interested in having his company make. It is important to note that these designs were heavily influenced by traditional Mexican embroidery. After seeing the designs, he proceed to call them ‘wetback dresses.’ I was stunned. Needless to say, I walked out of there and took my business elsewhere.”-Yuliana Mendez, 32, founder of Bilingüe Clothing
“After seeing the designs, he proceed to call them ‘wetback dresses.’”
“At my first design job, I had to restrain myself from having any sort of conversation other than work-related discussions with one particular co-worker because of her statements regarding minorities and the Latinx community. In one incident, she was explaining to another coworker how her Latinx neighbors were playing loud music and must have done so because ‘they do not seem to have a full-time job.’” -Crysbel Renoj, 27, assistant designer
“I remember one time I was waiting to get into a big magazine party during New York Fashion Week. I was on the list, but the PR [public relations] asked my nationality and when I said Mexico, she just turned and walked away. She let me in after a huge waiting time. I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if I had said another country.” -Pedro Gonzalez, 26, stylist and blogger of StyleGonzalez.com
“People stopping me midway while I’m presenting my work to say they ‘just love how you say La-tina’ and then having the entire classroom try to pronounce it correctly to no avail, speaking over me to tell me how they ‘can’t even see the work I’m presenting because they’re distracted with my nails,’ tutors throwing paper balls with their feedback through my hoops. The list goes on.”-Luma Guarconi, 22, student at Central Saint Martins
“There are currently some amazing editors, journalists, stylists, writers, designers doing a fantastic job vouching for Latinxs, but there’s so much more room to grow.” -Bianca Nieves, 24, freelance fashion writer
“Personally, I love encouraging younger designers to push forward. I always try to give them constructive criticism and if they ask for advice I am always open to helping them out, even after they finish their internship. Who knows? The fashion industry is very small and connected.” -Desiree Velazquez, 29, CAD designer
“Having gone through the many challenges of starting a clothing brand myself and seeing how important it is to have exposure at a young age, I decided to incorporate a youth program into my business model. The ultimate goal is to use our company and our story as a Latinx brand to help inspire youth to follow their dreams, no matter what industry that leads them to.” –Yuliana, 32, founder of Bilingüe Clothing