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On Racism, Fashion Must Do More Than Speak Up

After yet another senseless killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police in the United States, the fashion industry has a duty to its customers and society at large to use its privilege and power to drive systemic change.
A graffitied store window on luxury mecca Rodeo Drive after demonstrators protested the death of George Floyd | Photo: Getty
  • The BoF Editors

Over the last week, the United States has exploded with rage and sadness after the senseless killing of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of the police.

George Floyd's killing on May 25, after a police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes, has sparked riots across the country, with people pouring into the streets in protest despite a deadly pandemic that has caused over 100,000 deaths in the nation.

The sportswear giants Nike and Adidas lent swift public support to the protests, even as their own stores were looted. But thus far few fashion labels have spoken up. American designer Telfar Clemens was early to the cause. And a handful of major fashion brands have made statements.

After being criticised for launching a campaign for a new handbag on Thursday amid growing protest, Louis Vuitton made a statement on its Instagram, featuring a video commissioned by men's creative director Virgil Abloh along with the caption: "Make a change. Freedom from racism towards peace together. #BlackLivesMatter." Gucci posted a poem by the black artist Cleo Wade, who 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." Michael Kors and a few others also posted images and statements of support. But most major houses have been conspicuously silent.

The fashion industry has long profited from black culture, appropriating its "cool" to sell luxury products. Gucci's "borrowing" from Dapper Dan is but one example. In recent years, the fashion industry has made billions of dollars from streetwear styles linked to black culture, selling logo tees and sneakers well into the hundreds of dollars.

Lately, many fashion brands have jumped on the inclusivity marketing bandwagon, largely to better appeal to a new generation of consumers. But where are these same brands now?

Many are not used to taking a position on socio-political issues. After all, fashion is supposed to be a fantasy, and neutrality was long thought to be the safest stance.

But at one level, fashion brands must care because their customers care. Today's consumers increasingly expect the brands they buy to align with their values and speak up on socio-political topics. Today, almost two-thirds of shoppers make buying decisions based on a brand's position on social or political issues, according to a 2018 global study by Edelman of 8,000 consumers across eight markets.

Nike and Adidas, whose customer base is young and diverse, understand better than most that a brand's position on cultural politics is shaping up as a decisive factor in driving loyalty.

But beyond the business logic, brands have a moral obligation to tackle racism. Companies do not exist solely to benefit shareholders. They have duties to a wider set of stakeholders and society at large.

It starts with speaking up. However, that is not enough. Companies also need to take action.

One of the most important ways to drive change is to create a talent pipeline for people of colour. Fashion remains a largely white industry. Abloh and Balmain's Olivier Rousteing are the only black creative directors at major brands, and there are almost no black CEOs. (Tapestry's Chief Executive Jide Zeitlin is a notable exception.)

Gucci, for one, has established a fellowship program aimed at recruiting 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 human resources departments.

Retailers and investors must also commit to backing more black-owned businesses, whether that's by buying black-owned brands to sell in their stores — as Brother Vellies' designer Aurora James posited in a recent Instagram post — or by investing in black-owned brands so that they are able to scale and reach broader audiences.

A first step might look something like the one taken by direct-to-consumer beauty brand Glossier, which recently announced that, in addition to donating $500,000 to organisations fighting racial injustice, it would also make $500,000 in grants to black-owned beauty companies.

It's time for fashion brands to do more than make statements and commit to doing the hard work it's going to take to combat racism. Remember, racism is not just an American problem, it's a human problem.

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