Even the glittering bubble of fashion isn’t beyond learning from Nelson Mandela’s legacy; in fact it should be at the front of the class. The father of modern South Africa achieved equality, peace and unity in a country racially segregated by law for 46 years yet the fashion industry still hasn’t managed to celebrate full diversity on the catwalk.

“As the years progress one increasingly realises the importance of friendship and human solidarity. And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the centre of the values by which you live.”

Major glossies and women’s weeklies wasted no time in showing respect to the former first black president of South Africa. His inspirational quotes about humanity and freedom have been repeated on slideshows aplenty. Harper’s Bazaar even offered them as ‘Lessons to Live By’ but one of his less well-known expressions to make the media’s on-going elegy is: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.

For all our homages to Mandela’s wisdom, his courage and his selflessness, goodwill is futile if we don’t learn by example. So far the fashion industry has paid more attention to Kate Middleton’s dress worn to the premier of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom than to what we can do to improve upon the mere 8% of black models at Fashion Week.

The freedom fighter knew equality was ambitious but it was something that he was willing to die for. His “ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities” was achieved. It was achieved in a land where 21,000 people died in political violence between 1948 and 1994. In an industry at peace, why are we struggling to do the same? So we have our own great hill to climb, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

So many of Mandela’s words apply to the inequalities within the fashion industry:

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhance the freedom of others.”

As we continue to look back over his life, we must also look forward. Last week I became aware of an increasingly upsetting trend on Youtube. The ‘Pretty or Ugly’ phenomenon has seen almost 600, 000 children, mostly girls, posting videos online asking the public a question they shouldn’t even be thinking about at nine years old.

Mandela’s quote: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” seems appropriate for this scenario. Fashion and the media can shake their heads at the treatment of innocent children during Apartheid but any child left vulnerable and insecure is criminal. We now need to think of our own legacy to the next generation.

Of course, Mandela did value beauty as well:

“Appearances matter – and remember to smile.”


Fi Anderson

Fashion Journalism student at London College of Fashion