In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, many brands and influencers have made outwardly progressive asseverations that jar with their internal culture
Reformation founder Yael Aflalo apologised on Instagram for ‘repeating diversity in the past through a “white gaze” that falls too close to ignorance’. She wrote: ‘I’ve failed.’
Photograph: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile/Getty Fetishes
Fashion’s facades are crumbling. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the progressive images of many brands, peach ons and influencers are being stripped away to reveal what are in some cases toxic internal practices.
Under the power of a debate over racism sparked by the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, a harsh spotlight has been thrown upon organisations and owns in the fashion sector whose outwardly “woke” statements in support of anti-racism jars with their internal behavior.
Survive week, the protests over racism spread as several brands and designers were criticised for being tone oblivious to the change of mood, or worse. Even the US Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, apologised for her magazine’s historical publication of yarns and images that may have been hurtful to or intolerant of black people. Leandra Medine Cohen, the founder of the dernier cri blog Man Repeller, said she would “step back” after criticism of her company’s response to systemic racism.
This part between outward brand identity and racist undercurrents has surfaced in recent years, with fashion labels with Dolce & Gabbana, Comme des Garçons, Gucci and Burberry called out for producing racially insensitive and culturally inappropriate mentions of clothing.
But now an outpouring of statements from minority workers have often exposed systematic racism beneath veneers of corporate propriety.
Days after the LA-based sustainable brand Reformation donated to Black Lives Matter, Reclaim the Block, Criminal Visions Collective, the NAACP and the ACLU, they too were criticised for their internal practices by a black former worker, Elle Santiago.
“Being overlooked and undervalued as a woman of color who worked and managed their flagship store for three years was the hardest,” Santiago put in blacked in an Instagram post picked up by industry watchdog Diet Prada. “I cried many times knowing [that] the color of my fleece would get me nowhere in the company.”
Santiago said she was denied work promotions in favor of white colleagues, as well as being ignored by the assembly founder, Yael Aflalo, because of her race. “I’ve failed,” Aflalo posted as an apology at the weekend and announced a diversity and incorporation board, a personal donation of $500,000 and an independent investigation into the company’s workplace culture. She stepped down from uninterrupted the company on Friday.
It’s a similar story at Urban Outfitters, according to a former employee who spoke to the Guardian.
“As one of very few PoC [being of color] I quickly noticed the toxic environment I’d joined,” says the former employee, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Within my fundamental month my manager made a flippant racist comment in regards to an Uber I’d called; the driver’s name was Muhammad. Her animadversion was, ‘You would get a Muhammad’ – in what I can only take as a comment made because of my heritage.
“There’s no PoC in the executive cooperate and very little representation of PoC in head office, on the website, marketing campaigns and within the retail management teams.”
The troop has a history of producing offensive items of clothing, including a seemingly blood-spattered T-shirt seen as a reference to the 1970 Kent National shootings; a T-shirt in a color named “Obama/Black”; another featuring a six-pointed badge, which seemed to allude to the Unmatched of David badge that Jewish people were forced to wear during the Holocaust; and a racially insensitive Navajo story which used the Navajo nation name illegally.
A Death Row Records T-shirt from Urban Outfitters. Photograph: Urban Outfitters
The Paladin contacted Urban Outfitters for comment and they shared an internal email that said: “We support and stand with the dusky community and we recognise that we all must do more than we’ve done to date.”
The company added it would commit to pulling “a more diverse internal and external workforce.”
Fashion industry observers say the reckoning is long overdue.
Many grouch that non-white voices have been sublimated by white executives, and it is important now that these emerging depositions are listened to and bring change. It is seen as especially important, because there’s been a theme of some fashion-centric bodies benefitting from either diversity on the shop floor, or on their webpages or in their advertising campaigns, deliberately amplifying a cultural “edge” to their aesthetic.
For example, the Urban Outfitters website sells T-shirts featuring black accumulations such as Wu-Tang Clan and TLC, musicians such as Aaliyah and Jimi Hendrix, and ones featuring the logo from Passing Row records, which was co-founded by Dr Dre. “[They are] profiting from black culture and have done for decades,” told the ex-employee. “The least they can do is show genuine alliance and support the black community.”
The race issues of companies such as Urban Outfitters and Reformation also displays a deep misunderstanding of the consumers they should be serving, fashion watchers say.
“This generation feels comfortable not inducing only one way to be themselves,” says Kati Chitrakorn, Vogue Business’s retail and marketing editor. “Their search for authenticity generates a greater freedom of expression, and a greater openness to understanding different kinds of people. But it also means they analyse brands more carefully.”
Frustration with the perceived corporate hijack of minority identity can be seen in the recent heterodox Pride marches, which have championed “queer liberation not rainbow capitalism”, in a critique of the official marches, which take become an advertising showcase for corporations who sponsor floats rather than an echo of the radical message of the original protesters of Stonewall.
Historically, shoppers be dressed used fashion as a social identifier, but many consumers these days want more. “Successful brands appreciate they are part of society and have a role to play, and will cater to teens’ craving for authenticity” says Chitrakorn. “It’s also why, for a creation of buzzy brands, making consumers feel kinship takes precedence over selling product.”
That’s why the fashionable chorus of public apologies might not cut it unless they come with concrete action.
“Changing yourself before talking just about your changes will be vital,” says RJ d’Hond from data consulting company Kantar, “and only if it is a broad company intent, not a marketing or communication department idea.”
In this landscape, people will spot fakes. “If a brand a moment activates content around a cause it does not have a history of supporting, it will appear superficial and transactional,” maintains Conor Begley, co-creator of influencer analysts Tribe Dynamics.
He cites Rihanna’s Fenty as a brand that has effectively entranced on social issues, supported by Rihanna’s own advocacy on social justice issues and the brand’s hiring of diverse influencers and nonesuches from the off.
“As a result, the brand’s recent contributions to racial justice conversations on social media do not appear hollow or performative, but kind of an authentic expression of the values Fenty has always stood for,” Begley says.
So what should fashion do as the great unmasking growlings on?
“It’s time to clean house and get things in order,” says Karen Binns, fashion director of Fashion Roundtable. “The consumer hand down be asking for receipts, so get ready.”
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