You wouldn’t believe it if you looked on the runway, at an ad campaign, or heck...anywhere, but people of color are buying more luxury goods than ever. Nielsen just released its consumer report on black Americans, and the market research firm's findings were, to say the very least, quite eye-opening. With black buying power expected to to reach $1.7 trillion by 2017, the report notes how increasingly important it's become for brands to market to black people. Sadly, getting companies to realize this has been a struggle. According to the report, $75 billion dollars was spent last year on television, magazine, internet, and radio advertising, yet only $2.24 billion was spent on media focused on black audiences. A puzzling figure indeed.
Just a glance at any runway or fashion magazine will show you the same sort of mentality extends to the luxury fashion market. In most cases, you'd be hard-pressed to find any brown faces at a show or in a campaign. Take this past Fashion Month, for example. Even with a series of strongly-worded letters to the governing bodies of the industry, written by activist Bethann Hardison's Diversity Coalition, the runways were still overwhelmingly whitewashed. Even Kanye West pointed out recently, "currently in fashion—and the way that fashion world works—there’s no black guy at the end of the runway in Paris, in all honesty.”
The fashion industry at large has grappled with this disparity, offering up all manner of excuses for this ongoing, unsettling trend. We’ve heard it all- from reasons of "aesthetics" to pointing the finger at modeling agencies for not having enough black girls to choose from in the first place. Another popular narrative says that brands are looking to sell to their customer base, which doesn't happen to be black. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
A July 2008 study revealed that blacks spend more on luxury items (clothes, cars, jewelry) than their white counterparts. Indeed, the study's authors found that even though blacks often have fewer means, they spend 28 percent more on those types of goods. On average, blacks will outspend whites by $1,900. Granted, whites consume more luxury items, thanks to their higher incomes, but the fact remains that even with smaller budgets, black people are sacrificing significant chunks of money to the luxury gods.
Claire Sulmers of The Fashion Bomb, a website aimed at the "multicultural fashionista," has seen it for herself. With blogging tools like RewardStyle, she's able to track what her majority-black readership is buying, and how much they are spending. And boy, are they spending: "The women we write about love to wear Givenchy, and our readers have responded in kind, snatching up several $500 t-shirts and $1,500 sweatshirts," she told us in an e-mail.
Internationally, the story is similar. The emerging community of "black diamonds"—wealthy African professionals—is also taking a notable interest in designer goods. A 2012 Reuters story documented several of these "black diamonds," detailing their fondness for Gucci jeans and Mont Blanc bracelets. Given that Africa has the fastest-growing segment of high-net-worth-individuals (a marketing term for really rich people), it's not surprising.
So yes, there’s certainly a willing, spending audience there for high-end brands to cater to. And this spending audience wields a lot of cultural influence. According to the Nielsen report, 73% of whites feel that blacks influence mainstream culture, even though they make up a much smaller segment of the population. But if black folks are determining what's cool, why are brands so hesitant to add black faces in their ads, or even to their fashion shows?
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.