Ryerson’s Diversity Now: Deconstructing Underrepresentation

The fleeting month of September has come and gone with no trace of the Ryerson School of Fashion’s annual Diversity Now event. So has the creeping month of October, also flickering by with no sign of the panel dialogue about issues of diversity in the fashion industry.

Worried? Don’t be.

It isn’t because the event isn’t going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean it’s been forgotten.  The simple reason for the delay is that event organizer, Ben Barry, who is an associate professor at Ryerson, has been away on sabbatical.

Ryerson’s foundation treads on the core of a hectic, concrete jungle.  This jungle is home to an estimated 3 million bodies, all shuffling and bustling as they make their way through crowded early mornings and dawdling late nights.

These people are different  but not only in the sense that they live elaborately dissimilar and complex lives: they look different. They are different. Toronto is a pool of miscellany—a salad bowl of cultures, genders, sexualities, religions and anything else you can imagine. And so is Ryerson.

Barry knew this all too well as a professor of equity, diversity and inclusion when he began the Diversity Now event in 2012. It began as a panel discussion that explored concepts and notions around diversity and inclusion within the cosmos of fashion and design. It quickly became a mandatory part of the fashion curriculum, integrated into all aspects of Ryerson’s fashion program.

“The objective of Diversity Now is for first-year fashion students to develop a foundation of design that is grounded in diversity and inclusion,” says Barry. “We want to teach students not just to understand the issues of the lack of diversity [within the industry], but also understanding their own power.”

How is diversity a problem in fashion?

The Fashion Spot releases a report each year recapping statistics drawn from New York, Paris, London and Milan’s fashion weeks. Each year, these numbers tell the story of an industry that is inspired by many different cultures, but features very few. Only a quarter of models who walked in the 2016 fashion weeks of those four major cities were models of colour.


Diversity of models at Fashion Week in Paris, London, New York and Milan over the past two years.


This isn’t just a runway problem, though—a lack of diversity can be seen across the industry. Whether it’s design techniques that cater to just one body type, magazine spreads that feature a single beauty ideal, or the general underrepresentation of entire groups in fashion media, diversity is a problem in fashion.

“I think when we started in 2012, diversity wasn’t even on the agenda in the fashion industry,” says Barry. “Since then, diversity is now more frequently talked about within fashion journalism, discussions, panels and in the media. It’s becoming a mainstream conversation.

“There’s definitely progress, but when you look at the majority of design, we still don’t see the inclusion of different bodies [and] size ranges.”

The industry is progressing, albeit slowly.  This year, every model that hit the runway at Yeezy Season 3 was of colour. An increase of transgender models from this year’s spring shows was seen in the fall seasons of all fashion weeks. H&M Studio even showed their fall collection on models of all ages and sizes.

But is this enough?

Danijela Keko doesn’t believe it is. As a biracial woman and Ryerson fashion communication student, she has first-hand insight about consumption of non-diverse fashion.

“I definitely feel misrepresented in the industry and I constantly feel this pressure to conform,” she says. “It affects my place in society and how others perceive me, because there are all these preconceived notions of who you or what you should aim to be like.”

“Despite being half white, I’ve definitely felt my share of lack of representation in fashion. Like, you look at runways and there’s always that token Asian or black model… that’s not an accurate or morally [correct] portrayal of the real world and [of] real people.”

Keko isn’t the only one who finds herself confused when it comes to fashion diversity.  Blake Harris is a second year fashion design student at Ryerson. Harris often finds himself wandering the women’s sections at retail stores despite identifying as male.

“What’s frustrating in the fashion industry is that the selection of styles, colours, fabrics and cuts are so limiting for men. But for women, there is so much choice and option,” Harris says. “Men, especially those who are more fluid in their gender, don’t know where to turn or what to wear. It [seems] every man is stuck in a hole where there is no new innovative fashion.”

So what does Diversity Now do?  

Barry created the Diversity Now event to help combat the issues that both Keko and Harris have encountered in their lives. It is his philosophy that fashion designers have a responsibility to design from a place of empathy, equity and empowerment, considering factors of gender, size and more while designing.

“I think it’s definitely a starting point to reach a broader audience and really get newbies in the industry talking,” says Keko. “One thing I liked about Diversity Now is how it opened up a discussion amongst students who were just starting to experiment as creatives, designers, writers—whatever they aspire to be—[because] that’s where the future of the fashion industry lies.”

“I think it is an important conversation,” says Harris. “Every art form pushing boundaries and exploring diversity is how [we] grow and evolve. That’s one of my favourite things about fashion: that it allows you to play with the idea of diversity and what is acceptable.”

Harris thinks Ryerson needs initiatives like Diversity Now. He believes discussions about diversity and inclusivity serve only to catapult the industry into a projection of what it needs to become. However, he also believes more can be done, and that nothing can ever be perfect.

“I’d like to see a push in learning about the not so obvious forms of diversity. Diversity Now is centered on the obvious things—age, size and physical disability. These are very important things to consider in fashion and diversity, but there is no conversation around androgyny: people who don’t conform to gender norms, transgender people and other things that aren’t so visible or tangible but are still very real.”

What’s the future of fashion and diversity?

Conversation is a huge proponent of why the industry is beginning to change.  Events like Diversity Now and course curriculums that incorporate elements of discussion which force and encourage students to consider spectrums of representation can only contribute to a healthier future for fashion.

Harris understands his responsibility as a fashion student.  

“Fashion students and upcoming designers need to challenge the system,” he says. “Conformity isn’t the answer. Fashion is art, and as art it needs to make statements and question what is acceptable and [what isn’t]. Why make what’s already out there?  Push your creativity.”

Although the industry often gets a bad rap for being superficial, it is becoming clearer that it carries more weight than it is given credit for. According to Keko, the industry is able to shape beauty ideals and norms, creating false ideas of what is attractive and what is not.

“I think the way things are now definitely makes consumers unhappy. You buy and buy with this idea that you’ll somehow feel like that girl or guy on the cover of a magazine or on the runway,” she says. “You’re buying to reach this lifestyle and beauty that those people on the covers and runways don’t even have because it’s all fabricated.”

Though it seems we’ve missed out on the conversation, the discussion of diversity will continue upon Barry’s return from sabbatical—he has confirmed his plan for a Diversity Now event in the winter months to come.