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Why Some Black Founders Are Uneasy About Fashion’s Diversity Initiatives

Black-owned brands are in the spotlight, but some entrepreneurs worry that aligning their own racial identities with those of their brands will alienate some customers — and not all retailers are coming to them with mutually beneficial offers.
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Like other Black founders in the fashion and beauty space, Samara Walker found new attention on her vegan, non-toxic nail polish line Àuda.B last summer as the Black Lives Matter movement went mainstream, and initiatives like the 15 Percent Pledge put pressure on retailers to sell more Black-owned brands.

But the offers from retailers turned out much less attractive than they originally appeared to be. So when she later connected with Nordstrom to discuss wholesale, Walker made some specific requests: She did not want her polishes to be sold in the department store’s “inclusive beauty” section, and she did not want her label marketed as Black-owned.

“I’m not against it, but I’d rather not [be framed that way] because it paints a narrative... for the consumer [that] these products might not be for me,” said Walker. “I don’t think it’s so crucial that you say you’re Black-owned if you have a good product and you have great marketing and you’re really telling a story.”

Nordstrom, which joined the 15 Percent Pledge in June, agreed to her requests. The company declined to comment.

The events of the past year have left many Black designers in a sometimes uncomfortable position. Designers and other creatives who had little chance of landing a meeting with major brands and retailers are now mulling a stream of new opportunities with Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sephora and other companies that have pledged to support Black-owned businesses and talent. The 15 Percent Pledge organisation, founded by designer Aurora James, said that as a result of its efforts, 385 Black-owned brands signed on with major retailers since it launched last June.

I don’t think it’s so crucial that you say you’re Black-owned if you have a good product and you have great marketing.

At the same time, some Black founders worry that closely aligning their own racial identities with those of their brands will alienate some customers. They are also realising not all retailers are coming to them with offers that are in the best long-term interest of their brands.

Deals that prioritise “creative freedom” as much as ownership of ideas and other intellectual property for Black creatives are still largely missing from fashion, said Alexander-John, a celebrity-favourite streetwear designer who has collaborated with Nike, Puma and Reebok among others in his two-decade-long career. A persistent lack of equitable partnerships — which he defines as deals that allow designers and other creatives to own their own work — is also why he’s felt the recent stream of DEI initiatives created by companies are not a fit for his business.

“There are a lot of cool opportunities but if you read the fine print, it says ‘your idea now belongs to [XYZ company],” he said. “When a brand approaches me and says, ‘We want to do this project based off of this [Black-focused] initiative,’ and because we care, well then I should see that care roll over to the ownership of the [intellectual property], the longevity of the contract, and the exclusivity clause you’re offering.”

If Black designers are able to jump through the necessary hoops to be in consideration for a financial investment or collaborative opportunity, they may end up signing a deal that is not mutually beneficial, said Alexander-John.

“I’ve had so many conversations with brands [over the years] and depending on who you’re talking to, your ideas can be safe, or they may not be safe,” he said. “As Black [creatives], we are so passionate that we end up giving away our ideas.”

Breaking Down the ‘Black Aisle’

In the current climate, as more socially-conscious consumers seek out minority-owned brands, a brand that is placed in the Black-owned brand section of a department store could reap some short-term benefits, said D’Wayne Edwards, a footwear design veteran and founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy.

“Getting into a department store alone is a win,” said Edwards. “But we, as Black entrepreneurs, need to be more strategic about what we do with these partnerships. Your future as a Black [brand] is not in the department store, your future is leveraging the visibility and exposure that the department store provides you and driving that to your dot com so you can build your customer base.”

Even if consumers — younger generations in particular — seem more resolute than they did in years past about pushing for racial equality in fashion, Black founders are rightfully circumspect about relying on this trend as a business strategy, Edwards said.

Jazerai Allen-Lord, a sneaker strategist, Reebok collaborator and founder of agency True to Size, was intent on carving out a space for Black women when she started her career in fashion 14 years ago. She’s seen — and accepted — that her advocacy on Black issues has both created and derailed potential partnerships.

My business was built on my personal convictions … [because of that], there are brands that are scared and they won’t touch me.

“With my opinions and the work that I’ve done in the sneaker space specifically, it either makes you want to work with me — and [a company] actually targets me for this reason — or I’m on your blacklist,” she said. “Those are the consequences that come with you putting a stake in the ground … in my case, my business was built on my personal convictions … [because of that], there are brands that are scared and they won’t touch me. I will never do business with a lot of brands.”

As social media campaigns and coverage of Black-owned brands picked up momentum last summer, Walker said she considered emphasising her racial identity on social media. It was already clear she was a Black founder to anyone who went to her webpage or saw photos of her.

She participated in the #pullupforchange campaign, a social media movement started by beauty founder Sharon Chuter last year to urge beauty brands to be transparent about the diversity of their teams, sharing that all four of Àuda.B’s leaders were Black. But when Walker’s team suggested adding “Black-owned” to the brand’s description on Instagram, she disagreed.

“I think when you’re an inclusive brand … you shouldn’t have to put ‘Black-owned,’ because authentically, your brand should represent inclusivity for everyone,” she said.

Walker was also concerned about pursuing a marketing strategy that focused on something other than the quality of her products.

“If I’m just saying, ‘Hey, we’re Black-owned,’ and we’re only getting customers based on us being Black…. That is not sustainable,” she said. “I don’t want pity support. I want true, authentic genuine followers, support [and] community.”

James said the goal of the 15 Percent Pledge is to create economic opportunities — and options — for Black founders, and that retailers need to communicate with founders about what merchandising and marketing strategies they are comfortable with.

“We don’t want anyone to feel like they are being tokenised ever, and we talk a lot about that with our pledge takers,” she said.

In the past, James said a retailer wanted to place her footwear label Brother Vellies in a “cultural” area in a store instead of alongside other luxury shoes. “I was privileged enough to be in situations where I could afford to say ‘no,’ and make the right choices for my brand because I’ve been given opportunities,” James said. “And the Pledge is really about advocating for access and opportunities for people, and then they can do with those what they want.”

What Should Retailers Do

Walker was initially excited last summer and in the months that followed when, as the 15 Percent Pledge was gaining momentum, she received offers from two national retailers with hundreds of locations: women’s clothing boutique Francesca’s and the department store Belk. (Neither store has joined the 15 Percent Pledge.) But she quickly felt she was being used for “propaganda.”

Walker said Francesca’s never paid her for its order of her nail polishes, filing for bankruptcy a few months later, and Belk ended up changing its offer from carrying the line in 25 stores to selling it only on the website through drop-ship, a model by which the retailer does not buy the goods and the brands handle the logistics of shipping.

A representative for Francesca’s said the current company is separate from the one that filed for bankruptcy, and that the new entity “will reach out to Samara in order to understand further in an attempt to find a resolution.” A representative for Belk did not respond to a request for comment.

Walker’s deal with Nordstrom, where she began selling Àuda.B online in May, is on her own terms: the brand is not advertised as Black-owned or inclusive, and the founder said when she pursues selling it in the department store’s brick-and-mortar locations next year, she will request placement outside of the “inclusive beauty” shopping areas.

Retailers need to think about the purpose of a brand and its products, and the needs of their customer base, in setting a retail strategy, said Brittany Hicks and Jessica Couch, co-founders of consumer research and consulting firm Fayetteville Road. Creating Black-owned sections is not a long term strategy, especially without other efforts to market those brands to customers based on more than their founder’s racial identity and without other strategies to advance equity across the organisation.

Retailers have approached showing their customers they are supporting Black-owned and diverse brands in different ways this year to fill a demand from customers looking to support those brands with their spending. Sephora shoppers, for example, can see all its Black-owned brands on one landing page online, but those brands are also found in the clean beauty section or in different subsection bestseller categories. This spring, Nordstrom created a space in twelve stores featuring men’s and womenswear from Black designers.

“Because the Black experience or the native experience, or the Latinx experience is not homogenous, there may be consumers who want to shop [by if a brand is Black or minority owned],” said Hicks, adding that others may be less interested in a founder’s story and more interested in product efficacy. “It [goes] back to understanding your customer, understanding her motivation for shopping.”

Retailers should also be clear on their own motivations and expected outcomes for the programmes they launch — if the goal is to do something more than generate profits for their own businesses, then it may require a greater effort on the retailer’s part.

“It goes beyond [providing a] space for a [Black brand], the bigger focus should be on how to provide the necessary and equitable resources so that these Black-owned brands are in the same positions as the brands that they compete against,” said Allen-Lord, adding that stores can provide support in production and distribution beyond just placing orders.

“The big problem before was that no one was caring in the first place,” said James. “And now we’re just figuring out how to care in the right way.”

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