The lack of diversity in advertising is an enduring problem in the fashion industry. Of the 460 fashion print ads for Fall 2015, 84.7% of models cast were white and only 4.4% were black, according to our recent diversity report. These alarming stats are often explained away with weightless claims that a designer wants a “uniform look” or doesn’t have enough models of color to choose from. For Perry Ellis, the motive behind whitewashed ads is pure racism, according to the brand’s head of sales.
Joseph Cook, a senior executive at Perry Ellis for three years, is suing the company for both racist and anti-gay discrimination, specifically calling out the company’s future CEO, Oscar Feldenkreis, the son of Perry Ellis International founder George. Cook, who reveals that he is gay in the lawsuit, alleges that Feldenkreis specifically requested “no blacks” or “anyone who looked too gay” in Perry Ellis ads, and the discrimination didn’t stop there. The lawsuit claims Perry Ellis implements a classification system in which skin color is ranked by numbers. Feldenkreis is reportedly so comfortable spewing hate speech that he suggested Cook tell officials “you hate n—ers and f-gs” to avoid jury duty. Cook believes Feldenkreis’ tactics go unchecked because of “dominant family control” of the business as his sister and daughter are both directors at the brand.
A lawyer for Perry Ellis released a statement refuting these allegations, saying, “Perry Ellis is a company that promotes equal opportunity and a positive working environment. The company is proud of the fact that it is probably one of the most diverse companies in the apparel business following its multicultural roots, stemming from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Perry Ellis categorically denies any allegations to the contrary. The claims that have been asserted will be vigorously defended against.”
It’s harrowing to think that these discriminatory practices may go on behind the scenes at fashion brands, but it also helps to explain why diversity fails to increase significantly season after season. In order to see diversity in a brand’s ads, we must first tackle the company culture that allows bigotry to foster in the first place.