Alessandro Michele
Alessandro Michele
Image: Valentina Sommariva / Courtesy of Gucci

After a year of speculation about where he would go, former Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele starts his new role at Valentino this week. It’s an appointment overseen by the Italian house’s CEO Jacopo Venturini, a former Gucci colleague of Michele.

Alessandro’s appointment follows several others in recent months at some of the world’s most recognisable luxury fashion brands. This includes the appointment of Sean McGirr at Alexander McQueen after the departure of Sarah Burton. McGirr’s appointment inevitably sparked a lot of debate in the industry as many observers and insiders wondered why — in 2024 — most creative directors in the luxury fashion sector remain white, and specifically male.

Within Kering, which owns McQueen, Gucci and Saint Laurent, among other brands, every single creative head is white and male. The picture outside Kering issimilar, with the Vogue Business index stating that only eight out of the 33 creative director roles in the industry are held by women. Four of those women — Stella McCartney, Sandra Choi (of Jimmy Choo), Miuccia Prada (of Prada and Miu Miu), and Donatella Versace — are either founders, descendants of founders (Prada and Versace), or a close relative (in the case of Choi).

Pharrell Williams and Maximilian Davis of Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo, respectively are the only black men on Vogue’s index, bringing the total number of creative directors who are people of colour to three, when you include Choi. If we throw in Berluti (known more for leather goods than fashion), Ozwald Boateng gives us four. 

It’s not a pretty picture. We can hash out the merit argument all day but it quite simply doesn’t wash. McGirr was relatively unknown at the time of his appointment and the lack of women can’t be due to a lack of talent.

I’ve written about the disappointing appointment of Williams at Louis Vuitton in this column, which feels weird to say, all things considered. But it was disappointing for me because two women who were in the running for that job — Grace Wales Bonner and Martine Rose — both run successful brands of their own. It made no sense that they were overlooked. 

The lack of diversity demonstrates a stubbornness that is holding fashion back and it’s unsurprising in many ways. Just last year, Tremaine Emory, founder of Denim Tears, left his job as creative director at Supreme, citing systemic racism. Emory alleged he was told he was “racially charged” and “emotional” among other things. Supreme denied all allegations, of course. 

Speaking to Vogue after McGirr’s appointment at Alexander McQueen last year, Emory said he wasn’t surprised, and neither should anyone else. “We live in a world where the white male patriarchy controls things so I don’t see why people are surprised,” he said. 

Grace Wales Bonner
Grace Wales Bonner
Image: Christina Ebenezer / Coutesy of British GQ

It’s pretty clear that things are changing across society, and change does inspire resistance. It’s almost impossible to ignore that the fashion industry missed recent, and multiple, opportunities to foster diversity in its upper echelons around the same time that the Supreme Court of the US made a ruling that gutted diversity, equity and inclusion programmes in government and higher education.

In SA, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law the Employment Equity Act of 2020, an update to the EEA of 1998, imposing stricter compliance measures on businesses with more than 50 employees. This was met with fervent opposition from the likes of the DA in spite of the fact that these amendments were necessitated by a painfully slow rate of transformation in the private sector, as we head towards the fourth decade of democracy. 

People are becoming impatient, and while the lack of diversity in fashion has not yet been shown to affect the bottom line, how long will it be before it does? 

Many often argue that the death of glossy consumer fashion magazines in SA was hastened by digital, but I would posit that much of it had to do with incredibly late efforts to transform the editorial teams and content to reflect the perspectives of the majority of South African consumers. I might be wrong (as I have no scientific evidence of this), but I guess only time will tell if luxury fashion does indeed have a white man problem it might need to address.

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