A Harvard Business Review study published in 2004, chronicling Burberry’s successful rebranding under the leadership of former Burberry CEO Rose Marie Bravo, gives a little insight. While Burberry was happy about their newfound popularity in the early to mid-aughts, the company was troubled that so many rappers and ‘urban’ (that’s code for brown, if you didn’t already know) were such fans of their wares. “A second issue had to do with the appropriation of the brand by non-target customers,” the study reads. “By 2003, Burberry items, both legitimate and counterfeit, had become increasingly popular among urban youth and hip-hop musicians… Although this brand affiliation was viewed a positive sign that Burberry had achieved aspirational status among youth, there was a concern that this affiliation could eventually alienate Burberry’s core customers.”
This concern that the stamp of approval from urban youth and hip-hop musicians, the majority of whom are black, is quite telling. Why wouldn’t a label want to be considered cool by a section of the population wielding such strong cultural influence? Doesn’t a brand like Dior benefit when Kanye West mentions it in a song?
So, what’s a brown person to do if they are lusting after Christian Dior, and grappling with the fact that they haven’t seen any faces similar to theirs in a Dior campaign? Supermodel Iman has a solution. The cosmetics mogul and vocal supporter of the Diversity Coalition recently told The Evening Standard that she refrains from buying items from those designers who do not include brown people on their runways or in their ads. “I walk the walk,” she said. “I can get another It-bag. I have my wallet. I make a conscious decision not to buy that stuff.”
And it seems there are several like-minded fashionistas who agree with Iman. On the aforementioned Fashion Bomb blog, the commentary has consistently echoed her sentiments. “We have to take a stand and not continue to support this labels that don’t want anything to do with us,” one commenter, Jei, wrote. “I think a lot of it also has to do with these black celebs that continue to endorse these brands by wearing them, singing/rapping about them in songs [sic] && so forth. They have first impact to these brands. They don’t support you or your people, you’re bringing them money… I would really like to see some support from them. I think that would begin to make an impact immediately. As said, I don’t think the fashion industry is going to change but doing so will affect their bottom line of business [sic] && that’s where it needs to start.”
Surely, it would be a loss to these labels to see a decrease in black dollars, if not at least in the visibility and free publicity they get from black public figures like actors, athletes, and particularly, musicians.
But would it be enough to change anything? If the aftermath of the Diversity Coalition’s letter is any indication, it could certainly make some designers reconsider their casting. But I imagine the loss of revenue and visibility would create an even greater sense of urgency for labels to include more people of color in their ads and on their runways. When there’s money to be lost, people are quick to change their behavior.
Of course, there is quite a simple solution to the problem of diversity on the runway and advertising. Designers could simply opt to use more people of color, period.