LGBTQ+ visibility in fashion: Are times changing?

Hadley considers the role of gay designers in increasing LGBTQ+ visibility in the fashion industry.


Christopher Bailey signed off on his final Burberry show with an eye-catching rainbow-themed fashion collection. The CEO and Chief Creative Designer of one of the most well-known fashion brands in the world demonstrated its commitment to funding LGBTQ+ third sector organisations with a collection that coincided with LGBT History Month in the UK. The fashion industry is arguably not always portrayed as being inclusive or accepting. In fact, many would argue that it excludes people on the basis of them not fitting a certain ever-changing mould. But perhaps a small revolution is brewing in the wings of the catwalk, and Bailey isn’t the only gay man driving the change.

Although the fashion industry may be associated with creativity and delivering powerful messages through a visual medium, it also has some more sinister connotations. It’s no secret that the industry remains inaccessible to many in society, with accusations of racism, misogyny and elitism being pinned to the backs of those working in the sector. The representation of people at the top of the fashion ladder also leaves them open to criticism. Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour, unquestionably one of the most powerful figures in fashion, allegedly inspired the icy, cut-throat character of Miranda Priestly in the film The Devil Wears Prada. What’s more, the representation of gay men in the industry on TV shows like Ugly Betty perhaps further fuels the fire that the industry is anything but welcoming.

Just last year, Alexandra Shulman, former Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, vacated her post with a revelatory interview in The Guardian. She denied accusations of racism at the publication, despite the lack of diversity among the people she hired. It was clear to those looking in from the outside that things needed to change.

Alongside Christopher Bailey, another gay man was waiting to take on the role of leader at Britain’s iconic fashion magazine. Edward Enninful took over from Shulman and has opened the gates to a whole new generation of fashion. As a black gay man, Enninful not only brought about change regarding a lack of racial diversity within the fashion sector; he also encouraged greater LGBTQ+ visibility. Under Enninful’s editorship, the magazine’s issue marked the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote, with Paris Lees pictured alongside other influential women. She took to Instagram to share her elation: “People at school told me I’d never be a girl, would never be pretty enough, would never be accepted WELL HERE I AM BEING CELEBRATED AS A WOMAN – IN VOGUE!”

Lees’ appearance in the magazine was significant for the fashion industry but it also broke the fashion industry’s glass ceiling for trans people. What’s more, Lees and Enninful have sent out a signal to the fashion industry and the global stage that trans women are women. Given how trans people are treated both in the UK and abroad, this was clearly a significant statement that will hopefully encourage greater reflection on how trans people are viewed in wider society.

Across the Atlantic, another gay man working in fashion is also changing attitudes. Phillip Picardi is Chief Content Officer at Teen Vogue, a publication that sits within the global publishing house of Condé Nast, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Vogue, GQ and Tattler. During his tenure at the publication, Picardi has thrown out the fashion magazine rulebook by creating content that sheds a light on issues like diversity and equality. As a gay man in a position to influence change, it’s clear that Picardi has used his powers for good. Just last year he launched them, Condé Nast’s first publication for LGBTQ+ people. It was an important milestone in the publisher’s history, with the World Trade Centre, the company’s headquarters in New York City, illuminating into rainbow colours to mark the occasion. The new publication has given a voice to those who were previously silenced within the LGBTQ+ community, arguably steering LGBTQ+ publishing from solely focusing upon white, cis gay men in a new direction, where every letter is celebrating and embraced.

Bailey, Enninful and Picardi have broken various rules to bring about change in their industry. Whilst it may not seem like a traditional form of LGBTQ+ activism, it’s clear that they have used their platforms to harvest change both within and outside the fashion bubble. The stereotypes depicted in popular culture about the fashion world may not be that far off the mark, but what’s clear is that these men are helping to change this. Although Christopher Bailey is stepping down from his position at Burberry, we can only hope that his final show has helped demonstrate fashion’s influential power when it comes to the visibility of LGBTQ+ issues. Although the question remains about where Edward Enninful and Phillip Picardi will take their publications next, what is clear is that there is still a mountain to climb when it comes to true equal opportunities for LGBTQ+ people in the fashion industry.

Follow Hadley on Twitter (@wordsbyhadley)