OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — “Knowledge is power and it’s empowering for young women,” began Karlie Kloss, speaking with BoF founder and chief executive Imran Amed on stage at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, in December last year. “It can change the way that girls think about themselves and [what they think] they are capable of, but confidence is key. It’s a tricky time, deciding who you think you can be and what you think you can’t. [We need] more girls in the conversation, at the table.”
VOICES has been a catalyst for change since its inception in 2016. From inspiring James Scully’s Model Safety Charter with Kering and LVMH, to spotlighting Sinead Burke’s advocacy for adaptive design, VOICES, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, continues to provide a powerful platform for some of the most important issues facing the global fashion industry.
At VOICES 2017, guests and speakers were invited to take part in one of five salons with the goal of sparking debate and exploring resolutions for burning issues, such as the fashion industry’s need to embrace the circular economy or build new retail models. Each VOICES salon revolved around a central question and was held under the Chatham House Rule to ensure anonymity while creating an intimate, candid environment.
Hosted by Kloss — who, alongside her modelling career, founded Kode with Klossy, a programme that runs coding summer camps for girls — one salon tackled the question: what can fashion do to empower girls?
The world’s 1.1 billion girls are a source of power, energy and creativity, yet gender inequality is rampant across the globe. Girls have fewer opportunities than boys in many countries and the disparity is especially stark in parts of the developing world. There are currently 32 million girls around the world who should be in lower secondary school, but aren’t.
“How can we encourage more fashion companies to undertake initiatives to empower young women and girls?”
Salon participants addressed the importance of telling universal stories, elevating role models and developing self-belief. “As a group, we discussed how important it is to create peer-to-peer networks of both girls and boys that enable them to learn through facing life’s challenges together, losing as much as winning,” said Kloss after the salon. “We also considered [the value] of collaborative learning networks and supportive communities, [which for young girls] can banish the idea that ‘you can’t.'”
The group also watched “Ladies First,” a documentary by filmmakers Shaana Levy and Uraaz Bahl, which follows the story of Deepika Kumari, a girl from a rural village in India who fought her way out of poverty through sport and went on to win gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. “Deepika is a role model that is relatable to so many women, especially in rural India,” Levy told BoF. “Girls look out the window and they don’t have anything to dream about, they don’t have role models. But here is someone who broke out of that box, who broke the mould.” To coincide with International Women’s Day, “Ladies First” is celebrating its worldwide release on Netflix.
After watching the film, salon participants reflected on the power and reach that voices in the fashion industry can have on girls from many walks of life, all around the world. “Deepika lives in an area which has very few hours of electricity, let alone the internet,” explains Bahl. “But she is [nevertheless] very well aware of the fashion industry. She definitely knows who [people like Karlie Kloss] are. They probably don’t even realise the magnitude of the footprint that they have. Even in a small village in a rural part of India, they are known.”
Indeed, the fashion industry has the capacity and responsibility to use its influence to positively impact girls. “The scale and complexity of the issues we see facing children in the fashion industry, and particularly within the sector’s supply chains, require a collective response,” says Charlotte Williams, head of child rights and business at UNICEF UK, whose colleague, Lily Caprani, deputy executive director of UNICEF UK, helped to lead the salon.
Fashion companies can start by communicating more empowering messages to girls, believes Chris Sanderson, co-founder of The Future Laboratory and facilitator of the salon. “Through editorial content, brand messaging and even mannequins, fashion has long had the reach and ubiquity to set the tone for women’s expressions of self and their aspirations for achievement,” he says. “If every brand, retailer and content producer can see their day-to-day job through the lens of empowering women and girls, we will see a definitive wave of change.”
The Future Laboratory’s 2017 Future Female report envisioned the outlook for women and girls in 2027. This imagined future, still far from achieving gender parity, enables industry leaders to rethink and refocus their efforts towards gender equality and the empowerment of girls for the future. “Rather than trying to change the world to support girls, it’s more efficient to support girls so they can change the world,” said co-founder of online learning platform School of Doodle, Molly Logan, in the report.
“Rather than trying to change the world to support girls, it’s more efficient to support girls so they can change the world.”
Creating candid, relatable dialogue between leaders of the industry and the wider community could also empower girls. “Part of the conversation is showing what the people who have made it [in fashion] have potentially suffered through,” said one participant in the salon. “If we shared the stories of successful people saying, ‘I still get nervous, I struggled, I was bullied,’ it would make the conversation more of approachable and real, instead of just shouting empowerment and advocacy.”
Fashion must also look internally to solve the injustices and inequalities that remain within the industry itself. “The fashion industry employs millions of girls and women who are hidden in the supply chain,” said another salon attendee. “If we think about the women who we could have an impact on — and [therefore] have a strategic entry point into some of the issues that affects girls around the world — it will be the people who made the clothes we’re wearing today, or the people who helped pack them along that whole value chain — the people that you don’t see.”
Education is key. According to UNICEF, investing in girls so they can complete the next level of education could lead to lifetime earnings of up to 68 percent of annual GDP. Inspired by Deepika’s story, the salon discussion turned to the topic of education and providing financial support to girls through apprenticeship programmes. “Maybe the fashion industry could set up apprenticeship programmes to keep girls in school and learn skills that will be able to help support themselves?” suggested another participant. “As an industry we should be supporting apprenticeships that could keep girls in education longer, which in turn will empower them to get better jobs.”
This International Women’s Day, BoF is asking for your help to uncover ways that the fashion industry can better empower girls. As Deepika’s story goes to show, the voices in our community are in a uniquely privileged position, with global reach and the ability to incite change for the those inside and out of the industry whose voices have been silenced and ignored for too long. From better brand communication and inclusive storytelling, to messages of solidarity and sponsorship programmes, fashion can empower girls to overcome adversity and become the leaders and innovators of tomorrow.
Looking ahead toward International Day of the Girl on October 11, BoF asks you to consider the ways our industry can better empower girls and harness their potential. Where and how should we focus our efforts? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
“Girls around the world have the potential to become scientists, artists, doctors, engineers, business leaders, designers and innovators, yet all too often girls face significant barriers to achieving their full potential. Girls are particularly at risk of suffering domestic violence, early marriage and health complications associated with child birth, which deprive them of the ability to go to school. Things that we take for granted, such as having access to sanitary products and segregated toilets, can be the difference between a girl being in school and staying at home.
“We should seek to tackle these underlying issues limiting access to quality education, including some of the cultural barriers which may mean that boys’ education is prioritised over girls’. It’s also really important for parents to be mindful of the messages we give to our children and ensure we are raising the aspirations of girls.”