How Should Schools Teach Equity In Fashion? An Interview With ASU Fashion Professor Joanna de’Shay

By Myra Khan

As with many fields across the world, the fashion industry is plagued with racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, colorism, and many more problematic systems. In order to rectify the inequities in the field, fashion needs to reform its roots. In other words, in order to reform the fashion industry, we need to reform fashion education.

Currently across the country, a very small number of fashion programs offer courses on equity and diversity in the industry. As a result, there is a staggering overall lack of skills and awareness in fashion graduates. ASU, however, recently became one of the few that does offer such a course. 

Since the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, companies, schools, families, and organizations across the world have been discussing how best to tackle institutional racism within their own walls. While change has been swifter in some fields than in others, many in the fashion industry have been hesitant to implement meaningful changes.

During this difficult period, Joanna de’Shay knew she had to take action. As the current Herberger Institute for Design and Arts professor and owner of Black Russian Label, de’Shay began actively pushing for an Equity and Inclusion in Fashion course to be taught at ASU.

The course would serve to not only educate students on different diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) topics but also provide them with the skills and framework to be able to tackle discrimination at different levels of the fashion world. This spring, de’Shay was able to teach the course for the first time as an elective for students regardless of major.

De’shay’s initiative emerged from a combination of her field and educational experiences with discrimination. As a mixed Nigerian-Russian woman, de’Shay has personally experienced both implicit and explicit discrimination in the fashion industry. 

Upon being appointed as regional director for a fashion organization and being the only person of color on the board. Four of the other long-time board members resigned immediately, each with odd excuses. Several traditions of celebrating the director were broken for the first time ever and the disdain of certain remaining board members was all but tangible. 

“At that point, you don’t even have to ask yourself why,” de’Shay says.

In the classroom, de’Shay’s experiences, while not identical, have spoken to the same underlying need for DEI education and standards. De’Shay recounted an “eye-opening” moment in a past student presentation where a student insisted on only using white models for her design project. The student insisted that models of color would simply “not fit her vision,” a sentiment that is unfortunately normalized by so many top brands and designers. Students have said similar things about including plus-size options in their designs and collections.

Photo by Herberger Institute for Fashion and Design

However, de’Shay’s experience with the course has been quite the opposite. 

“It has been far above and beyond what I expected. I honestly thought that students would be a bit resistant to talking about diversity and inclusion but I’ve been really impressed. I am so proud of a few of my students who are now going back and revamping their capstone collections.” One of de’Shay’s capstone students went back and modified her collection to include a larger size range as opposed to the original size 2-4 options she offered prior to the class. Others have been considering how to market their collections in gender-neutral ways or how to use racially diverse models in graphics.

Rather than taking a deeper dive into a limited number of topics, de’Shay structured the class to instead give a brief but constructive overview of many different DEI topics, from race to age to sexuality and everything in between. This way, students are exposed to a variety of topics at once and are aware of how much more they have yet to learn.

“We could literally break up every single area and have an individual deep dive class on each of them. We could talk about ageism in fashion as an entire course for study. Same thing with size and sizeism or race and religion.”

According to de’Shay, it only takes students, one class, to whet their appetite with regards to DEI. For many, it is not willful ignorance but a lack of education that causes them to be ignorant of these crucial issues, something which the course rectifies. The course is meant not to teach everything there is about DEI, but rather to provide a foundation for students who can then take other courses on the topic.

Another unique aspect of the class is that de’Shay’s lectures focus not just on the ethics of inclusion but also the economics. Her students learn the demographics and market shares of each group they are exposed to and use these statistics to debate the viability of certain proposals.

“Ideally, of course, brands should be doing the right thing just because it is the right thing, but a lot of them are old brands and old brands know that if nothing else, money never lies. But if it comes down to DEI being the right thing to do and something that will increase revenue by 25%, there’s a sudden impetus.”

De’Shay is optimistic about the future of DEI in fashion and hopes her course can be a part of it. However, she remains concerned that some efforts in the name of DEI may be short-lived.

“I don’t want things that are reactionary. I want things that grow out of a need and desire to be inclusive. DEI should always be a part of our curriculum. We shouldn’t have to wait for something so catastrophic, demeaning, and frightening as police brutality to now be propelling change.”

Her next step is to push for her course to be made mandatory for all ASU fashion major and minor students so that everyone is exposed to DEI at least once in their academic careers.

Photo by Herberger Institute for Fashion and Design

“If we want to be innovative and next-level, we need to do something which isn’t done anywhere else: make DEI in fashion a requirement.”

Given ASU’s reputation of being ranked number one in innovation annually and its charter of measuring success “not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed,” requiring a DEI course falls directly in line with ASU’s values. It is not just fashion that needs a mandatory DEI course, though mandating de’Shay’s course would be the first step in expanding this meaningful policy.

De’Shay has already been approached by faculty in other ASU colleges as well as local high schools asking how to adapt her curriculum to their disciplines. She says she is more than happy to share whatever she can and is thrilled to see the positive response from other educators.

“Students should not have to wait until they get to a DEI class to learn about belonging.”

Naturally, the issues of discrimination and institutional inequality in the fashion world reflect those from the broader socio-political world that we live in. As a result, even addressing DEI directly in the fashion industry cannot solve all of the problems of racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and others. 

Photo by Herberger Institute for Fashion and Design

“These are old, embedded systems that we are going up against. It’s going to be a fight.” 

Even so, de’Shay remains optimistic about the industry’s ability to adapt for the better. Her first cohort of DEI students acts as evidence for this belief.

De’Shay will be teaching FSH 394: Equity and Inclusion in Fashion once again in the fall and looks forward to another semester of engaging discussions and breaking down barriers through the work in her course. We thank her for her hard work and wish her the best of luck with the fall class.


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