Fashion brands’ responses to the racism protests sweeping the US have swung from emotional, strongly worded public statements like Tapestry chairman and CEO Jide Zeitlin who said “inclusion makes us better” to one-off, shallow Instagram posts.
Nike took an overt stance sharing an ad, “For Once, Don’t Do It”, which rival Adidas then surprisingly retweeted with the message “Together is how we move forward.” Designers, including Alessandro Michele and Marc Jacobs, showed their solidarity for the Black Lives Matter campaign on their personal accounts.
Customers today, particularly the younger, digital generation, expect fashion brands to respond to political and social turmoil. Black culture has heavily influenced many leading designers. Brands need to respond in times of crisis carefully, with conviction and introspection.
From Chicago to Los Angeles, protests continue across the US.
© Mario Tama, Carlos Gonzalez, Max Herman, Mark Ralston/Getty Images
Social media posts are one of the easiest ways a brand can show support, but they must be supported with a deeper involvement, says Kim Jenkins, assistant professor of fashion studies at Ryerson University in Toronto and former cultural inclusivity consultant for Gucci.
“A post acknowledging what is happening and making a thoughtful statement speaks volumes. It connects with existing customers,” she says. In addition to acknowledging what’s going on, brands need to make a commitment to supporting the community. “What is your promise and your commitment as a leader to support the community? What also are you promising us in terms of how you’re going to make a radical change within your organisation? That’s what people are going to look for, and they don’t want to see shallow words.”
The response from consumers can be swift. Louis Vuitton and Off-White designer Virgil Abloh received backlash for criticising looters for damaging stores and the minimal $50 donation he made to help legal aid for arrested protestors. Louis Vuitton declined to comment and pointed to its single Instagram response, a repost of a film commissioned by Abloh in his first season with “Make a change. Freedom from Racism towards peace together.”
Protestors in Detroit, Santa Monica and Auckland.
© Hannah Peters, Seth Herald/Getty Images
Taking action means looking internally. Brands should acknowledge how their own organisations work to affect changes, says Nelarine Cornelius, professor of organisation studies at Queen Mary University, London and member of the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity.
“When I enter an organisation, as a professor and as a black professor, I don’t think it’s my job to adjust to the culture of the organisation because they’re broadly not accepting of people of colour,” she says. “It’s very easy to problematise people of colour — they don’t have the right skill set, they don’t have the right network. Most of this, in terms of the big picture, is broadly untrue.” Beyond including people of colour in organisations, she says, structural and cultural changes have to be made to move forward.
Cornelius suggests fashion houses not only appoint cultural diversity officers but reverse mentor and sponsor promotions for people of colour and bring in external mentoring. That should also extend beyond fashion houses to colleges and internships, she says.
“If you’re sitting silently as a fashion brand because you don’t want to disrupt your Instagram grid or lose any customers, that says something at this day and age after everything we’ve been through. A stronger, impactful approach is one that says what you’re going to do. Don’t take the easy way out.”
Nike, Prada, Macy’s, Burberry and Chanel have all appointed diversity hires in the past two years. While explicit public moves, often following tone-deaf campaigns and cultural missteps like Prada evoking blackface stereotypes in monkey figures and Gucci’s black balaclava sweater, more investment in education is what will make change, according to Jenkins.
“Education can rescue a fashion brand from a misstep linked to ignorance. But there’s not always a long term investment,” says Jenkins. “They dust their hands off too quickly. The smart thing to do — and it’s not always the best thing for the bottom line — is getting educators to work in tandem with diversity officers in understanding the psychology of race and unconscious bias.”
Leaders should also be visible and vocal on race inequality in fashion, says Lanaya Irvin, president at the Center for Talent Innovation, who consults with brands on diversity.
Many brands took to Instagram to condemn the murder of George Floyd and show solidarity with protestors.
© Nike, Cleo Wade/Gucci, Pretty Little Thing, Glossier, Louis Vuitton
“Companies need to be able to overcome the anxiety and cultural paralysis that prevents them from being able to discuss race and how it comes into play in their actual business environment,” Irvin says. Virtual sponsorship, where senior leaders actively advocate in support of professionals of colour, raising visibility and their profile can have a “tremendous impact on the careers of women and professionals of colour”.
Black professionals are nearly four times as likely as their white counterparts to experience explicit racial prejudice at work, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. The power lies in “really understanding what the barriers to advancement are”, says Irvin.
Fashion historian Shelby Ivey Christie suggests brands support movements by donating. “These movements require massive amounts of grassroots organising, and often they rely on crowdsourcing for resources. Brands should allocate funds in support of these initiatives and movements.” A-Cold-Wall designer Samuel Ross shared plans on Tuesday to donate £25,000 in grants to independent black businesses and £10,000 to the Black Lives Matter organisation. Beauty brand Glossier has pledged $1 million to Black Lives Matter, other organisations and Black-owned beauty businesses. Warby Parker says it will donate $1 million to organisations combating system racism.
Permanent change may be some way off.
“If you’re sitting silently as a fashion brand because you don’t want to disrupt your Instagram grid or lose any customers, that says something at this day and age after everything we’ve been through,” says Jenkins. “A stronger, impactful approach is one that says what you’re going to do. Don’t take the easy way out.”
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