An Answer to Fashion’s Diversity Problem: If You Get a Seat at the Table, Scoot Over

Whether it’s race, gender or body image, fashion’s lack of inclusivity has been widely documented.

But a rising class of designers, models, entertainers and fashion influencers are hard at work championing the diversity cause — and Aurora James, founder and creative director of Brother Vellies, is undoubtedly part of the tribe.

Speaking on Friday at a New York Fashion Week: The Talks panel — dubbed “Fashion Is Changing” —  the designer got candid about the challenges many women face when they aim to climb through the ranks of fashion while simultaneously pushing the inclusion agenda. (The panel was sponsored by Visa.)

“[Some women] — when they’ve gotten a seat at the table — have felt the need to preserve their seat and [they may believe] that there aren’t necessarily seats for others,” James said. “For me, it’s about having the seat at the table and saying ‘Hey guys, scoot over, we need other voices here.’”

James joined three other female leaders in fashion and finance — Candice Swanepoel, supermodel and founder of swimsuit brand Tropic of C; Jennifer Fleiss, co-founder and CEO of Jetblack; and Heather Philp, SVP of credit card products at Wells Fargo — who opened up about the importance of supporting and nurturing female fashion entrepreneurs as they build their businesses. (Mary Ann Reilly, SVP of North America marketing at Visa, moderated the panel.)

Heather Philp, Aurora James, Candice Swanepoel, Mary Ann Reilly Jennifer Fleiss
(L-R): Heather Philp, Aurora James, Candice Swanepoel, Mary Ann Reilly and Jennifer Fleiss.
CREDIT: Bryan Bedder

“As women, we’ve been taught so much that there can only be one final rose — it’s part of the culture,” James said. “How can we get rid of that? We’re not competing for anything — there’s enough capital for all of us. We just haven’t stood up and been willing to take it.”

To that point, Fleiss, who co-founded Rent the Runway in 2009 before launching her latest project, said she and her business partner, Jennifer Hyman, had to find unique methods to land investment during the early years.

“[Venture capitalists] are typically men in their 50s — that’s just the reality,” Fleiss said. “So [to get] them to relate to that need [that Rent the Runway was trying to fill] and just how big this opportunity was — we [made] videos. We did customer videos and testimonials [after we allowed] women to rent dresses in our pop-up shops. We videotaped [those] interactions so we could show rather than tell how powerful this is — that got a ton of traction.”

Now a mother of two, Victoria’s Secret model Swanepoel said she’s still developing her business acumen as she celebrates the recent rollout of her swimwear line.

“I’ve been on the other side of it for so long. So now I’m learning every day to be stronger and more confident [in business],” she said.

For her part, Philp said one her greatest confidence boosters came earlier in her career — and was courtesy of a female (because: diversity).

“I remember walking into [meet with] my boss one day, and I had put together this fantastic

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, and I looked at her and I said, ‘What do you think?’” Philp recalled. “She said, ‘You’re asking me what do I think? I want to know what you think — you’ve earned the right to have an opinion.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, no one has ever said that to me.’ And [that advice] happened to come from a female senior leader — which made me feel more powerful as a junior.”

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