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Big Retailers Say They Don't Mind the Looting. It's Different for Small Businesses.

Small business owners who support #BlackLivesMatter have mixed feelings about the damage the riots may have to their livelihoods.
Outside the Dolce & Gabbana store in Soho on June 1, 2020 | Source: Getty
  • Cathaleen Chen

NEW YORK, United States — Last week, Tiwanna Jackson watched in horror the violent video of George Floyd's death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, her hometown. Days later, she watched her business, an eyelash extension studio, vandalised and broken into by a group of protestors, who stole thousands of dollars worth of appliances.

“Burning stores down, stealing things — how is that going to get justice for George Floyd?” Jackson said. “It almost took my focus away on why this whole thing started in the first place, which was racism.”

Jackson is among hundreds of retailers large and small reeling from both the tragedy of Floyd's death — along with Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — as well as the ensuing riots that led to the destruction of their storefronts. Some of the industry's biggest players, including Tapestry and Nordstrom, issued statements brushing off their physical damages and speaking out against racial prejudice.

“We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others,” Tapestry Chief Executive Jide Zeitlin said on Monday in a personal letter posted on LinkedIn. “Each of these black lives matter.”

Looting has been a topic of much discussion since the outbreak of the protests last week. Right-wing opponents of civil rights activism have long used looting as an excuse to discredit largely peaceful demonstrations. Social justice advocates argue that the destruction of property is a symptom of the systemic discrimination that victims cannot address legally.

Off-White designer Virgil Abloh drew intense criticism Sunday for condemning the looters that broke into an art gallery in Chicago as well as sneaker reseller Round Two Hollywood in Los Angeles. Social media users also chided Abloh, who is the creative director of Louis Vuitton, for posting a receipt of donation of $50 to a Miami bail fund for protestors to his Instagram account.

Abloh responded in an emotional post on Instagram on Monday, supporting protestors and the Black Lives Matter movement and detailing projects he is organising to support black creators and youth. He apologised for not making his stance clear and said that he has donated more than $20,000 to bail funds and other causes connected to the protest movement. "People who criticise 'looting' often do so as a way to make it seem like our fight against injustice isn't legitimate," he wrote. "I did not realize the ways my comments accidentally contributed to that narrative... if looting eases pain and furthers the overall mission, it is within good standing to me."

People responding to looting but not to black cries for change is irresponsible and dismissive.

Before Abloh released his apology, some critics compared his comments about the national protests with that of Marc Jacobs, who on Sunday re-posted a popular statement on his personal Instagram that says "Property can be replaced, human lives CANNOT." In the comments section, Jacobs told his followers that one of his stores had been destroyed but that he stood by the statement.

"People responding to looting but not to black cries for change is irresponsible and dismissive to the point of what's actually happening at this moment," said Amira Rasool, founder of Folklore, an e-commerce and wholesale distribution platform that promotes emerging African brands. "But I don't think anyone should be celebrating Marc Jacobs for saying and doing what's expected. To boost up this white man as the standard for how things should be handled is still super perplexing to me." 

Still, black business owners like Jackson are wary of condoning violence. Rasool, who is also a freelance writer, pointed to another looted black-owned business, Attom in Atlanta, as an example of how misdirected anger can end up hurting the cause, not help it.

“I don't dictate the way that people respond to hundreds of years of oppression … But I want to make sure that the actions that we're taking are actually going to provide positive benefits for our community,” she said. “[Some] people who say at the end of the day, 'Store owners can rebuild their business' — but that's not true. When have black people ever been given the opportunity to have a second chance?”

The Coaches and Nordstroms of the world have the cash and multiple revenue streams to withstand a store or two’s worth of stolen merchandise and broken windows. Small, independently-owned retailers could be disrupted for months without posting a single sale. Even businesses with insurance face considerable monetary risk.

While many business are covered for looting under casualty and theft policies, according to Y. David Scharf, a partner at Morrison Cohen LLP, the pandemic might complicate their ability to get further support through business interruption insurance in areas where there are still shutdown orders. And Jackson is nervous that lingering demonstrations could mean that customers will stay away even after she repairs her store.

In Minneapolis, business organisation Lake Street Council has raised over $2 million for cleanup and rebuilding efforts following the protest. To truly rebuild the hundreds of businesses impacted by the demonstrations, however, will cost much more, said Theresa Swaney, senior creative operations managers for the council, which she said oversees a district with about 2,000 businesses.

“That’s only $1,000 per business. A lot more is needed,” she added.

Ultimately, Jackson and Rasool say they hope the looting will not distract anyone from the main issue at hand. Even companies speaking out in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the ongoing protests will need to prove their dedication with real changes to how they operate, according to Rasool.

“A lot of companies can get away with issuing Instagram statements and then go back to normal and not having real conversations around race,” she said. “It doesn’t matter unless they hire black people, make them leaders, and also pay a livable wage to their [sales associates], many of who are black and can’t make a living on minimum wage.”

Additional reporting by Chantal Fernandez. 

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