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Why It Feels Like Fashion Forgot About Black History Month

Slogan T-shirts, themed sneakers and marketing emails that mention the heritage celebration are rarer this year, as consumers grow tired of cash-in collections and corporate diversity efforts face a backlash. Some brands say they’re steering resources away from flashy gestures and towards more meaningful work.
A marketing image from Target's 2021 Black History Month collection. The retailer has continued to launch collections for the cultural heritage month, including this year.
A marketing image from Target's 2021 Black History Month collection. The retailer has continued to launch collections for the cultural heritage month, including this year. (Courtesy)

Key insights

  • Of more than 700 US retailers, only 51 retailers sent emails mentioning Black History Month so far this year, Edited found, while some brands known for their themed collections haven’t put out dedicated lines since 2021.
  • Some brands say they’ve moved away from one-off releases and marketing campaigns to showing their support through charitable donations or event experiences as well as embracing more substantive, year-round support of Black talent and consumers.
  • Diversity advocates argue many companies are doing neither of these things and that their silence runs a piece with the broader diversity backslide that’s taken hold this year.

NEW YORK – Earlier this month, Todré Land noticed something peculiar during an afternoon stroll on the Upper East Side: There wasn’t a single store window installation recognising Black History Month.

“I see a lot of emphasis on the Lunar New Year … and, we should certainly celebrate that,” said Land, who works as a business manager for luxury menswear at a department store. “I also see a lot of emphasis on Valentine’s Day — that’s great too, but … Valentine’s Day is a single day, Black History Month is a whole month and I wasn’t seeing any windows.”

It’s not just store windows in New York City. After several years where late January and early February were wall-to-wall with dedicated sneaker and apparel collections, advertising campaigns and brand-sponsored events honouring Black Americans, the calendar is noticeably clearer this year.

Brandice Daniel, founder of the BIPOC-focused marketing agency Harlem’s Fashion Row, counted roughly 20 corporate sponsors for HFR’s Black History Month Summit in February 2021. This year, HFR managed to secure two: The Gap and Hugo Boss.

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“I don’t know if it’s because brands are doing their own thing … they didn’t really provide an explanation when we did our outreach, they just passed on it,” Daniel said.

For what it’s worth, fashion’s embrace of Black History Month wasn’t always well received — brands’ cash-in collections and Instagram posts sometimes stood in for real progress on addressing racial injustices. Now, there are some signs that, as consumers grow tired of box-checking displays, brands are shifting their efforts to donations and internal projects designed to help Black employees.

But Black History Month’s fading importance on the fashion calendar is of a piece with stalled momentum on diversity efforts across the board. It also signals that brands may be steering clear of anything remotely political in an election year.

“I’m really just hoping brands are taking one step backwards in order to take five steps forward – to come back with something more thoughtful and innovative,” said Mike Sykes, sneaker expert and founder of The Kicks You Wear newsletter. “Black History Month exists to inspire people to learn and study Black history and celebrate these things – yes, we can do that all of the other 11 months but it’s important to recognise that Black History Month was created specifically for this thing.”

Is a Pullback Happening?

Overall, there is definitively less emphasis on Black History Month marketing this year, and while there has been more product, it’s led by a few large, multi-brand retailers, with individual brands doing less of the kind.

According to an analysis by Edited for The Business of Fashion, the number of marketing emails from US retailers explicitly mentioning Black History Month have been trending downward since an initial spike in 2021, the first observation following the murder of George Floyd. They fell 38 percent from 2021 to 2022 between the months of January and February, and 40 percent again from 2022 to 2023 during the same period. February 2024 is on track to continue the trend: Of the 726 US retailers Edited tracked, only 51 sent emails mentioning Black History Month.

At the same time, the analysis found a 31 percent uptick in the Black History Month-related products brands and retailers dropped for 2024 compared with last year. The increase, though, was driven primarily by multi-brand retailers — like Kohl’s and JCPenney. Nike and Adidas haven’t released BHM collections in at least three years. (Edited tracked emails mentions of Black History Month and the acronym BHM from the start of the year through Feb. 15; it tracked drops starting in December through Feb. 15.)

What Are Some Brands Doing Instead?

One reason fashion companies have shied away from Black History Month products is that the reception for brands’ heritage celebrations — from window displays and dedicated collections targeting Black consumers to internal celebrations for their workforce — has historically been mixed. Sneaker collections featuring kente cloth or graphic T-shirts with slogans like “Equality” didn’t always resonate with consumers — and to some, were perceived as offensive.

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“Brands are moving away from specific collections, such as graphic and slogan T-shirts, to showing their support through charitable donations or creating specific event experiences,” Edited retail analyst Heather Ibberson said.

Some companies have also explained their move away from product launches as a means to embrace more substantive, year-round support of Black talent and consumers.

In an emailed statement to BoF, a Nike spokesperson explained the company’s approach as a combination of both of those ideas — describing its new tact as an “evolution informed by insights from the community as to what the community needs” and noting that the company “[believes] that addressing inequality and inequity requires year-round action and long-term engagement.”

The brand says it has earmarked $8.6 million in funding this month alone for Black-focused nonprofits in cities such as Chicago, Memphis and St. Louis. Its Jordan brand has separately doled out $4.8 million to grantees that work with the Black community this month, the spokesperson said. Nike’s Black employee network will also roll out a slate of programming and the company will host a “Black Community Commitment” celebration at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.

An Adidas spokesperson said in an email that the brand hasn’t had an official collection in recent years, but will “instead focus on honouring the community through our yearlong … programming.”

The brand will, however, host BHM-specific events, including a premier event for the documentary series “Create with Purpose,” put on by its employee-led initiative Honoring Black Excellence (HBE). (“Create with Purpose” will honour Black women in the footwear industry and activists such as Wanda Cooper Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was murdered during a hate crime in Georgia in 2020.)

What’s the Best Approach?

Some Black creatives are wary of the “all-year round” approach — especially when there are signs that many brands are doing neither. Even if some companies are honouring BIPOC people every day, overlooking the heritage month lands as counterintuitive, critics say. Not to mention, sidestepping this year’s theme in particular, “African Americans and the Arts,” — which would have naturally played into fashion and beauty-related products and experiences — represents a lost opportunity for fashion brands that have seemed unwilling to put in the effort to design collections and campaigns that reverberate, they’ve said.

To their consumers and employees alike, how brands’ recognise (or don’t) Black History Month is an extension of their broader commitment to DEI. Complete silence — especially from brands that enthusiastically joined the DEI fray in 2020 — sends the message that companies’ don’t value their Black consumers and staffers and that companies’ aren’t serious about advancing diversity.

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In the best case scenario, companies should demonstrate a year-round dedication to supporting underrepresented groups and engaging with diverse consumers — as well as find meaningful ways to recognise official heritage months.

Apparel and footwear collections or other items like stationery and housewares are valued by some consumers — if for no other reason than that they can provide an easy, affordable way to display cultural pride. Others find these items exploitative or indicative of a cash grab by white-led companies.

If brands do decide to go this route, they should proceed cautiously and employ the expertise of Black creatives and DEI specialists who can flag sensitivities as well as offer creative input that resonates, experts say. Where brands have erred in the past is in relying on Black stereotypes or using low-effort templates to create dull collections that they hoped would pacify Black consumers, Sykes said. When those collections (perhaps predictably) didn’t sell, brands employed this as an explanation for discontinuing them.

“If you’re doing an activation or launching a product then you actually have to believe in that product or activation for it to be good and for it to be impactful for people,” said Sykes.

Companies’ cultural observations should always be paired with year-round initiatives and policies, including management bias training, diverse hiring practices and mentorship programmes. Brands’ contributions to minority-focused non-profit organisations and projects (like apparel and sneaker collections that celebrate diverse ethnicities or historically Black colleges and universities) should also remain ongoing.

Black creatives like Land have raised their hands to help their companies find more thoughtful ways to celebrate the occasion rather than overlook it or rely on a dated approach. Land has been spearheading the Black History Month celebration at the department store where he works — his suggestions included an employee talent show that draws on this year’s theme, where proceeds would go to a Black-focused non-profit.

“I got involved because I felt like whenever Black history was addressed [by companies], there was always this emphasis on Black pain and Black struggle,” Land said. “There’s other parts of my Black experience that we can also explore and we don’t do a good job of that … primarily because in a lot of retail companies, we don’t have a lot of people that look like me in spaces of authority that can help shape the information that’s coming out.”

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