What would it take for fashion to finally reckon with the way it treats Blackness? The loss of Black life, unfortunately.
The May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of (now former) Minneapolis police officers served as a catalyst for a wave of global protests against racial injustice and in support of Black Lives Matter. Within days, almost every major company in the U.S. had branded their websites and social media pages with messages of solidarity.
That's when it got real.
Several BIPOC fashion retail professionals and industry insiders responded to these messages with anecdotes of anti-Black and racist experiences with some of the very brands that were so quick to proclaim that Black lives mattered. All of a sudden, celebrity and influencer favorites like Zimmermann, Reformation and Everlane faced some very serious allegations.
Consumers, then, have a choice to make: Should they remove the offending brands from their closest? Or just promise not to shop there anymore?
When your favorite brand gets called out, what you're wearing can quickly become a statement. And like every other consumer, I needed to decide what statement I was going to make.
The decision on where to not spend my money is usually fairly easy. I'm a plus-size Black woman, and, as a general rule, I don't support brands that are racist, fatphobic, anti-LGBTQ or sexist. But even though the plus-size fashion market has exploded in the past ten years, for the size 12+ crew, there still aren't many alternatives you can turn to. Especially sustainable ones. So, how can I be upset when plus-size brown and Black women don't automatically cancel a brand, given that we don't have that many options to begin with?
The responses to this made me realize I'm not the only one struggling with the idea of letting go of some of my faves. But then again, if I don't, what message am I sending? That as long as you serve looks, you're allowed to be problematic? That my expectations of brands end with my problem of finding clothing in my size?
What should we expect, and accept, from brands? More importantly, should brands even be concerned that shoppers have these expectations?
"Everyone should be concerned," says fashion retail consultant Anne Cashill. "[These] stories are coming out and there's a greater intolerance right now. People will be swift because it is completely unforgivable."
The public can be very fickle. And with fashion already suffering the impact of months' long losses due to Covid-19, being cancelled could be the final nail in the coffin. (Between that, a nation-wide call to defund police and a very tumultuous U.S. presidential election, I'm pretty sure we're living in one of those "defining eras" my history teacher Mr. Trantham was always telling us about in school.)
Though we don't really have data on whether the internet's "cancel culture" has any substantial impact on a company's bottom line, the quick responses of some of these brands to allegations of racist behavior is a good indicator that they take it seriously.
Within days of the initial call-outs, Reformation's founder and CEO Yael Aflalo stepped down from the company, stating in an Instagram post that she had "failed" and was "sad and regretful" that she had "ignored" BIPOC employees in the past. It's hard for me to be objective here — I really like the Reformation items I currently have in my closet (they fit well and I like the idea that I'm shopping at a sustainable brand), but, on the other hand, I've been the Black woman in corporate America's offices. How can racism be that rampant in your company's culture and you just don't know? And if she truly didn't know, what kind of culture was she fostering where BIPOC employees didn't feel safe coming forward?
Unfortunately, in fashion, that's more the norm than an outlier. And Cashill believes that may be part of the problem.
"A lot of people are intimidated with going to HR," she says. "There is a real concern about job security and reputation." In the fashion industry, sometimes your reputation is how you eat; so maybe employees suffered in silence and leadership was none the wiser.
Even if you ascribe to the "few bad apples" theory, leadership still has an obligation to address these sorts of allegations. And perhaps, if you truly love a particular brand that appears to have misbehaved, them making a statement and promising to make changes can be enough. I have come to realize that for me, it's not: There has to be action, and I'm not sure I can, in good conscience, keep patronizing a company where all they promised me was that they would "do better." Yes, but how?
Cashill has at least a starting thought: "[There has to be] a full-on campaign to get your employees very clear on what is unacceptable. Let your employees know that diversity is important and certain behaviors will not be tolerated."
Making it clear that racism, sexism, anti-Blackness, homophobia, transphobia and fatphobia won't be tolerated in any capacity moving forward — regardless of the past — would put my mind more at ease. Transparency into how those changes will be facilitated, that would be even better.
Still, there are some brands where I'm not sure even that would be enough.
Take millennial-favorite Everlane, which has been banking on its cool sustainability image for years. Even before former employees published a seven-page manifesto detailing an alleged "toxic" and "anti-Black" culture at the company, Everlane was involved in what some called union-busting. Add the recent accusations made by "Ex.Wives.Club" — the catchy name for the group of former Everlane employees that authored the aforementioned document —and it's starting to look to me like whatever greenhouse gases Everlane saves in its manufacturing process, it makes up for in the cost of human capital.
Can I advise you to stop shopping at Everlane? Not really. Not only would it be hypocritical, but it's your money, and you can spend it how you like. However, I'm urging us to be thoughtful about our role as informed consumers. There's power in the wallet, and after all, isn't that how things really get done?
Sometimes applying economic pressure is the only tactic corporations understand. If my fellow BIPOC fashion workers and creatives no longer have to endure toxic working environments and are allowed to fully be themselves — without fear of retribution — then I wager it's worth foregoing a pretty dress. You know what they say: You're not fully dressed without your convictions, anyway.