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Savannah Hopkinson: Utah boutique controversy reveals the importance of checking blind spots

Earlier this month, social media posts from some Utah clothing brands caused a bit of an uproar and discussion about representation, inclusion and the fashion industry as a whole.
Earlier this month, social media posts from some Utah clothing brands caused a bit of an uproar and discussion about representation, inclusion and the fashion industry as a whole.
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It all started with a pair of pants.

Designer Jesse Kamm is credited with popularizing the wide-leg, high-waisted sailor style of pants that’s become trendy in the last few years. It was a drastic move away from the reigning skinny style, but was soon everywhere, including the popular J. Crew brand, Madewell.

Kamm threw criticism toward Madewell’s version of the pants when she noticed that a search for ‘Jesse Kamm pants’ would bring up ads for Madewell’s Emmett pants, and she asked them to take her name out of their SEO search terms. Controversy arose when Kamm drew criticism for her lack of inclusive sizing and affordability — one pair of Kamm pants will set you back just under $400, while Madewell’s version comes in at a cool $88. Kamm was criticized for failing to fulfill the wishes of many fashionistas by not expanding her size range, forcing would-be buyers to turn to imitations that did include larger sizing, like Madewell.

It sparked a debate over sizing inclusivity, or more specifically the lack of it, within the fashion industry. Now that conversation has hit Utah.

The state has a large market for women looking for modest but fashionable clothing and swimwear. In the last few years, many little boutiques and brands have popped up to fill this need, and many with great success, but you’d be hard pressed to find any of these stores carry anything bigger than a size 12 or 14. Reports say the average American woman is between a size 16-18. So if the average woman can’t shop there, then who can?

Earlier this month, social media posts from some state-based brands caused a bit of an uproar and discussion about representation, inclusion and the fashion industry as a whole. Women of different sizes and colors voiced that they didn’t feel included in the advertising or messaging of the brands. The two companies most directly targeted varied in their responses, ranging from going on the defense to, at one point, saying they didn’t care what the audience had to say.

There’s no point in zeroing in on what exactly was said. What’s done is done and there’s no point trying to shame anyone. Instead, it’s time to understand an important takeaway.

We all have blind spots; topics or issues that we don’t understand. Usually that’s not through any fault of our own, but just from the simple fact that not everybody can simply understand or be aware of everything. Our initial reactions or thoughts aren’t always correct, and — just like when driving — not checking your blind spots can lead to a crash.

The Utah brands were given a chance to check that blind spot and acknowledge that there may be issues regarding representation. Instead of taking that opportunity to grow, they instead put up defenses, which only resulted in greater backlash and division.

My focus isn’t to shame the companies that didn’t handle the criticism well, but rather to suggest that there is a way to have productive, meaningful conversation about representation and blind spots that can lead to change; a way that doesn’t cause offense or result in using people of color or different sizes as tokens to feign inclusivity.

When I spoke to Janely Martinez, one of the most vocal critics about the lack of real representation in some Utah brands, she said her goal wasn’t to fight, but to point out what was missing when these companies claim to be “for women” and “supporting women,” but don’t represent more than one kind of woman. “We all know how hard it is to be women,” she said, emphasizing the need to build others up instead of knock them down.

There’s still a long way to go before representation isn’t just an afterthought or something that a brand promises to get to eventually, but ignoring those asking to be seen and included isn’t going to get us there any faster. I question why anyone would think it is acceptable to reject a group that is asking to be included.

Instead of brushing off these kind of incidents as people just getting too worked up — something I am guilty of in the past — we’d do well to really step into their shoes and truly understand where they’re coming from. There’s a certain kind of pain and rejection that comes when you grow up without seeing anybody who looks like you, or the ones you love, shown as successful or beautiful. Natural, effective change happens when we can truly empathize with others. We can seek to better understand, and sometimes that means asking for help to recognize and fill the gaps.

It would do us all well to approach opportunities to fill in those gaps and acknowledge our blind spots with a listening ear and humble heart. Conversely, when trying to help others see something that is not immediately clear to them, we can do it kindly and with constructive criticism.

They say that you don’t know what you don’t know, but we also don’t have to revel in our ignorance. Opportunities to check our blind spots should be met with humility and an open mind, not defensiveness and anger. While there’s no shame in making mistakes, not acknowledging them only perpetuates problems, when we could instead be building bridges.