Cover Rosana Lai, Federico Tan, Anne-Marie “Harmony” Ilunga and Anaïs Mak (Photo: Anna Koustas for Tatler Hong Kong)

Tatler's latest House Stories brought together fashion industry insiders for a discussion around diversity

While based in Paris for the spring, Tatler’s fashion director Rosana Lai spent countless hours on Zoom, interviewing designers, stylists and other key figures from the world of fashion. After returning to Hong Kong, Lai hosted the May edition of Tatler’s House Stories at The Upper House’s Sky Lounge on May 12, which brought together fashion industry insiders for a discussion around diversity.

The hour-long panel featured Anne-Marie “Harmony” Ilunga, founder and CEO of Harmony HK, the first diversity-led modelling agency in Hong Kong; Anaïs Mak, founder of clothing brand Anaïs Jourden; and Federico Tan, who started Advisory Council, a marketing and communications firm that specialises in luxury branding. The fireside chat dived into the subjects of racism and discrimination in the mainstream fashion industry, and the distance Asia has to go to champion its homegrown talents while embracing ethnic diversity.

The death of George Floyd in the US in May 2020 catalysed worldwide support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and conversation about racial equality and representation spread across societies and industries. However, Ilunga spoke of there being two sides to the coin as brands raced to align themselves with the cause. “I got so many messages from people wanting to collaborate. [Supporting black people] became a trend, and the demand for black models at my agency increased. But it made me take a step back and question whether I was doing enough for diversity in the fashion world. I asked myself: ‘Is Harmony HK being inclusive?’ It forced people to have these conversations,” she said.

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Speaking about his own observations of the shifting cultural landscape, Tan added: “2020 was a pivotal year for everybody. We all had to change. Racial and social issues made us a lot more aware, open-minded and culturally sensitive. The traditional notions of what is beautiful in fashion have changed. You don’t need to be a certain height, weight or race to be represented. Even brands are now looking for people who are pushing culture forward,” Tan said. 

In 2018, Mak showcased her first collection at Paris Fashion Week, an opportunity that helped raise the profile of Asian designers by changing their perception in the West. Last year, the designer wrote and produced World of Realms, a short film that celebrated community and connection during Covid-19, shot across eight locations in Hong Kong. Instead of professional models, she cast people from across the creative industries, including athletes, musicians and photographers. “The fashion system has been built under western influence for years. When the industry opens up to people from more diverse backgrounds, it allows them to introduce their culture to others,” Mak said.

Ilunga has made it her mission to promote and normalise more racially inclusive casting, especially in Asia, inspired by her own experiences in Hong Kong as an aspiring model. “I was 12 years old when I moved to Hong Kong from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As an asylum seeker, I didn’t know where I was going, but I loved to model, so at 16 I went to a modelling agency. Unfortunately, I was rejected. I remember crying so much.”

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Ilunga’s agency has now started using artificial intelligence to eliminate bias and add objectivity to the casting process, filtering out gender and cultural prejudices often faced by those seeking work. “With Harmony HK, we celebrate diversity and inclusion in fashion—not just diversity in skin colour, but sexuality too,” Ilunga said.

Other topics included the future of fashion weeks, ageism in the industry, the treatment of women in the workplace and the Hong Kong government’s support for emerging designers and creatives. Turning their thoughts towards the next ten years in fashion, each was hopeful for diversity being more than a buzzword, and instead being promoted and celebrated in the Asian fashion industry for the long run.

“Asia is taking baby steps towards progress. But at least now we are having a conversation about it,” Ilunga added.

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