A once-in-a lifetime pandemic and a tanking global economy with millions of people out of work provided the backdrop for yet another unthinkable act of racism on May 25th as the world witnessed the senseless killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man at the hands of Minneapolis police. The public’s reaction was swift and decisive. Black Lives Matter!
Despite the pandemic (as of June 11th has caused over 417,829 deaths globally) people took to the streets in the U.S. and around the world in protest of systemic racism. Social media channels exploded and T-shirts were swiftly marketed with the tags: #BlackLivesMatter, #BLM, #NoJusticeNoPeace, #anti_racist and #icantbreathe.
It didn’t take long for the fashion industry to react, while at the same time, come under the microscope for its lack of diversity and sincerity. Could this moment in history be the “sea change” that the world and the fashion industry has been waiting for?
Tuesday, June 2nd became #BlackoutTuesday, whereby all brand/designer social media (SM) users posted a black box and refrained from posting promotional content or selfies, as a way of mourning and calling attention to systematic racism.
On June 3rd, Pulitzer prize winning writer, Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, herself a woman of color, sent a tweet that reminded the industry of their lack of diversity.
Then, on June 4th, the CFDA (Tom Ford and Steven Kolb) published a letter listing initiatives that they planned to create systemic change: 1) create an in-house employment program charged with placing Black talent in all sections of the fashion business to help achieve a racially balanced industry. 2) place Black students in companies for mentorships and internships. 3) implement and make available to their members a Diversity and Inclusion training program 4) make immediate contributions and take up fundraising activities in support of charitable organizations aimed at equalizing the playing field for the Black community such as, but not limited to the NACCP and Campaign Zero – among others.
Anna Wintour came out with an apology, for her ‘hurtful’ and ‘intolerant’ behavior at Vogue, (now that’s a first), while Andre Leon Talley challenged Wintour’s statement, citing the news of newly appointed Samira Nasr, the first Black female editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, as catalyst. In other publishing news, Refinery 29’s founder Christene Barberich stepped down as Editor-in-chief in response to accusations of racism and a toxic company culture, while Leandra Medine Cohen announced that she was stepping back from Man Repeller, after readers called her out for a lack of diversity in content and employees.
A June 10th Diet Prada Instagram post challenged retailer Anthropologie’s reaction to racism as ‘beige.’ The post prompted numerous comments that exposed the discriminatory practice of giving code names to POC (people of color) shoppers and lawsuits that called out certain brands and retailers guilty of the practice, such as Moschino, Versace, Anthropologie and Zara. Looks like Robin Givhan is right, the industry has a lot of soul-searching to do.
In the days following the murder of George Floyd, celebrities, athletes, and politicians all stood up and showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. But, are these fashion brands and designers really showing their support or is it just a PR stunt? In an industry that prides itself on being global and multi-cultural, the fashion industry has a duty to its customers and society to use its privilege and power to drive systemic change and fight against racism. Right?
Most messages posted on social media were thoughtful and less PR-centric. However, Louis Vuitton was one of the first to come under fire from consumers. The company was criticized for the “tone deaf” launch of their new handbag line in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement. Three days later, Louis Vuitton uploaded the following statement to the house’s 38.2 million Instagram followers alongside a video commissioned by men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh: “Make a change. Freedom from racism towards peace together. #BlackLivesMatter.”
But Abloh was not forgiven so quickly. The designer, who is also known as the CEO and brainchild of streetwear giant Off-White, shared on his personal Instagram Stories that he made a $50 donation to Fempower, an organization that is helping arrested Black Lives Matter protesters with their legal expenses.
His followers were outraged. The designer’s estimate worth is over $4 million, and his measly $50 donation couldn’t even buy you an Off-White face mask.
One Twitter user wrote: “So Virgil really donated LESS THAN the equivalent of an Off-White keychain to the bail fund?? Smh wow. Don’t buy his trash, y’all.”
Fashion’s Colin Kaepernick: Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond
On September 11, 2015 – Kerby Jean-Raymond staged a political commentary on police brutality and racism for his Pyer Moss spring 2016 runway show. His shows are and have been a call to action for the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2017, he focused on depression, both personal and cultural. Erykah Badu helped style that collection which brought to light things that keep us down, set to the sounds of a choir singing Future’s “Trap Niggas” and the Black National Anthem, (Lift Up Your Voice and Sing, written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and then set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) in 1899.)
Protesters, Looting & Retailers
While most of the protesters were peaceful, there were agitators that caused chaos and the destruction of churches, monuments, car fires, and store lootings, unfortunately were part of it. No store was safe. Looters destroyed little mom and pop shops in their communities, as well as major department stores and luxury retail brands. Manhattan’s affluent Soho boutiques were ravaged. The city looked like a war zone with broken glass everywhere and boarded up storefronts.
But even with the rioting and looting, designers and brands still supported the Black Lives Matter movement; brands like Nike, Adidas, and Michael Kors lent swift public support to the protests. Plenty of other designers followed, although some lagged in their response and consumers took note.
Jon Batiste (band leader for Stay Human & the Late Show with Stephen Colbert) at the ‘We Are’ March, New York. City (Photo Credit: Stephen Lovekin for Shutterstock)
The protests succeeded in sending the fashion industry a message loud and clear. Consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Zers are the ones to watch. They are faithful to brands that they believe are making a difference. This cohort are focused on movements that work toward the realization of a world where all members of a society, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual preference or religious background, have basic human rights and equal access to the benefits of society. Just as movements of the 20th century spurred change (Woman’s Suffrage, Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights, Anti War, We Are and Gay Rights, to name a few), so too will the 21st century bring change. Movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Times Up, Equal Pay For Equal Work, Gender Equality, Gun Safety, Marriage Equality, Occupy, Climate Change, Criminal Justice Reform, Indigenous Peoples, Immigration Reform, Pro Life/Pro Choice and the Anti-Racist movement will spur brands into action.
In the world of social media transparency, the fashion industry will have to do more than just speak up for the Black Lives Matter movement. They’ll need to advocate and implement change within their companies and provide support to Black-owned businesses.
Funding opportunities are a great way for the fashion industry to support the movement. Shockingly, to this day, Virgil Abloh (Louis Vuitton) and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing are still the only Black creative directors at major brands (an abundance, compared to high fashion’s zero BAME CEOs) and Edward Enninful, the only Black editor-in-chief (British Vogue) of a major fashion magazine, until the recent appointment of Samira Nasr announced on June 9th (Harper’s Bazaar).
On June 10th, Harper’s Bazaar published a list of 10 Black-owned fashion brands to support and invest in. Other ‘call-to-action’ lists have emerged encouraging consumers on how to support local Black-owned businesses, such as grocery stores, hair salons, clothing stores, etc. Another way to support Back-owned businesses is to write positive reviews of those businesses, follow them on social media, engage in their posts, sign up for their newsletters and tell your friends and family to do the same.
The Industry Puts Their Money Where Their Mouth Is
The trendy direct-to-consumer beauty brand Glossier announced that it would donating $500,000 to organizations fighting racial injustice and another $500,000 to BAME-owned beauty companies. (BAME stands for Black, Asian and minority ethnic).
On the brand’s social media channels, Gucci posted a poem by Cleo Wade, a Black artist who also co-chairs the brand’s Changemakers Council, a group of community leaders backed by $5 million in charitable funding established in the wake of Gucci’s blackface sweater scandal: “We need to end racism. Start by healing it in your own family.”
Gucci has also established a fellowship program which is intended to recruit underrepresented talent from fashion schools for full-time positions. But fashion must make measurable commitments to hire Black people to their senior ranks and not just in their lower-level positions.
Aurora James, a designer and creative director of the shoe label Brother Vellies, created the “15 Percent Pledge,” which calls on major retailers to give that amount of shelf space to Black-owned businesses. (Fifteen percent of the United States population is Black.)
James is calling on Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, Sephora, Saks, Net-a-Porter, Barnes & Noble and Home Depot to take part.She hopes that her 15 Percent Pledge will “deliver more money to Black communities.”
Sportswear giant Nike committed $40 million over the next four years to support the Black community in the United States on behalf of its Nike, Jordan Brand and Converse labels. The funds will support organizations focused on social justice, education and addressing racial inequality in America, Nike chief executive officer John Donahoe said in a message to the company’s staff.
Internally, Donahoe said, the priority is to “get our own house in order. Simply put, we must continue to foster and grow a culture where diversity, inclusion and belonging is valued and is real. Nike needs to be better than society as a whole. Our aspiration is to be a leader.”
He added: “Systemic racism and the events that have unfolded across America over the past few weeks serve as an urgent reminder of the continued change needed in our society. We know Black Lives Matter. We must educate ourselves more deeply on the issues faced by Black communities and understand the enormous suffering and senseless tragedy racial bigotry creates.”
In a WWD article, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, founders and creative directors of Proenza Schouler said in a statement, “We unequivocally believe any form of racism or discrimination has no place in our word and we proudly stand with the entire Black Lives Matter movement. We affirm our commitment to supporting the entire Black community, both in terms of what we share with the world externally and how our organization is operated internally.” The designers said they are supporting blacklivesmatter.com, naacpldf.org, blackvisionsmn.org, joincampaignzero.org, libertyfund.nyc, and brooklynbailfund.org/donate.
WWD also reported that PVH took part in the National Day of Mourning, which coincided with the memorial services for George Floyd. PVH North America associates from its retail stores, offices and warehouses were invited to observe eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence Thursday, June 4th at 2 p.m. ET during Floyd’s memorial service. In partnership with BRAAVE (Building Resources for African American Voices and Empowerment), PVH has created a task force inclusive of leadership, HR, Inclusion & Diversity, The PVH Foundation, legal and corporate responsibility teams to ensure they are taking the right steps to make the most impact. The PVH Foundation is donating $100,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which supports racial justice through advocacy, impact litigation and education and seeks to achieve structural changes to advance democracy, eliminate disparities and achieve racial justice. It is also donating $100,000 to The National Urban League.
The PVH Foundation will also match 100 percent of North America corporate associate charitable donations throughout the month of June. The company has also compiled resources to help educate itself about racism and bias and will be sharing it with its employees. This includes an Anti-Racism Resource Guide, Associate Check-in Guide, PVH U course offerings, videos, podcasts and articles.
On June 4th, Columbia Sportswear temporarily closed 95 of its reopened retail stores from 1:00-3:00 PM CDT during George Floyd’s memorial service. “We stand against racism in all its forms, but in this moment, we want to be clear that we are proud to say black lives matter. George Floyd’s life mattered,” the company said in an internal memo from the company’s executive team provided to WWD.
In addition, Columbia said it will make donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Marshall Project “to advance our country’s understanding of racism and its root causes and to promote equal justice and opportunity.” It did not disclose the amount. It also said it will double match employee donations to any non-profits focusing on addressing racism, up to $1,000 through the end of July. It then provided a list of organizations such as, Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, Equal Justice Initiative and the National Urban League.
Tory Burch is making changes within her company. The designer is offering counseling for Black employees and workshops on discussing race and bias for all employees. The company provided a list of resources to help employees educate themselves and their families about race in our society. The company will also work with outside moderators and continue its public work through the Tory Burch Foundation on unconscious bias. The company’s Embrace Ambition Summit focuses on shattering stereotypes and combatting bias in all of its forms, including racial discrimination, by looking at the impact of unconscious bias.
The Kering umbrella, which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Brioni, Boucheron, Pomellato, Dodo, Queelin, Ulysse Nardin, Girard-Perregaux and Kering Eyewear, have contributed to organizations focused on combating systemic racism and ending police violence toward the Black community across the United States. Kering has also made donations to the NAACP and Campaign Zero, an organization that aims to reduce police violence in the U.S.
And the list continues to grow every day as designers are looking to change the culture of the industry as a whole. By engaging in conversations that address bias and stereotypes in the workplace, by educating employees on how they can support communities and organizations in the fight against racial injustice, by hiring talented Black designers, buyers and CEO’s, as well as supporting businesses owned by Black entrepreneurs. We can all do our part in the fight towards making the fashion industry and the world an inclusive place for all.
It’s time for fashion brands to do more than just make statements. They must commit to doing the hard work it’s going to take to combat racism. Remember, racism is not just an American issue, it’s a global issue.
As we approach Juneteenth (Emancipation Day/Black Independence Day) we will again be reminded of racial injustice. It commemorates the day that Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, and read federal orders that all previously enslaved purple were free (2 year after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation). Maybe the campaign to make this day a federal holiday in the U.S., instead of a state holiday in only 46 states will come to fruition? Juneteenth celebrations are also held in other countries around the world, including Ghana, Honduras, Japan, Taiwan and Trinidad and Tobago.
University of Fashion has proudly donated to Black Lives Matter, NAACPLDF, Campaign Zero and the Liberty Fund. We will continue to promote Black fashion, fashion designers and instructors on our site and on our social media platforms. Together we can make a difference.
So tell us, what are you doing to make a difference?