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Steps Fashion Companies Can Take to Become Genuinely Anti-Racist

Start by treating the current moment less as a PR challenge than as a call for deep reflection and systemic change.
fashion brands step to become anti-racist

Protests that have erupted in the US and around the world since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white cop, are forcing a reckoning with white supremacy, unchecked police brutality and the racism firmly embedded in our homes, schools and workplaces.

It's a reckoning that fashion is not exempt from. For brands, navigating the current climate has resulted in a range of responses. Some companies have pointed customers to Black-led organizations and bail funds and outlined ways to break down systemic racism, while others are making their own donations or pledging a percentage of proceeds from sales. A third group are joining initiatives like #BlackoutTuesday or posting on social media about #BlackLivesMatter.

While all of the above approaches deserve a second look, the latter is particularly troubling when it comes from brands that aren't turning a critical eye on the racism ingrained in the ethos of their own operations. Without doing the work to dismantle internal practices that fall short of being anti-racist, one-off donations and statements do not effect the longterm change needed on a systemic level.

When brands that have historically stayed out of what their leaders deem to be "politics" suddenly post a black square in "solidarity" on social media — backed by little or no actual anti-racist action within the company — it communicates to Black people and their white co-conspirators that the brand sees the current headlines primarily as a PR challenge rather than a call to genuine reflection and structural change. As L'Oreal's example has demonstrated this week, that can result in even more backlash than merely staying silent would.

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Such posts also make it glaringly obvious that there are no Black people in decision-making positions within the company that feel empowered enough to explicitly say that social media is just the tip of the iceberg.

But this moment calls for more than short-term action or punchy ad campaigns. It calls for intentional commitments to long-term structural changes that go beyond the lifespan of a viral video of the murder of a Black man. It calls for the type of change that does not require Black suffering to be shared repeatedly on social media in order for white people to show empathy. It demands the type of change that will lead future generations to inherit and support brands that are truly anti-racist in their actions, their words and their ethos.

Hiring practices are a crucial point of consideration on the path to that future, and it's not just about the C-suite: if Black people are not given chances to gain valuable experience in entry-level positions, they miss the first step in establishing a trajectory that sets them up for later career success. It is imperative that Black people be employed at every level of a fashion company, not just the symbolic top or bottom of the company hierarchy.

Still, Black leadership at the top often can pave the way for more inclusive hiring throughout. When Edward Enninful took over Vogue UK as editor-in-chief in 2017, he inherited an almost all-white staff from his white predecessor, who claimed she "didn't look at what race" potential employees were when hiring. Under Enninful, Black representation both on the pages of the magazine and behind the scenes increased.

Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss is another fashion leader who's made Black culture central both to his outward messaging and internal practices. Jean-Raymond took real risks by focusing on narratives about police brutality and racism at his September 2015 show, resulting in buyers and venues backing out on him. His many shows since have focused explicitly on movements like Black Lives Matter in addition to celebrating other forms of Black culture and joy. But he's not stopped with what he puts on the runway: to attend a Pyer Moss runway show or event is to see firsthand that Jean-Raymond predominantly employs Black PR people, photographers, stylists, musicians and models.

And Rihanna's decision to launch Fenty Beauty with a truly inclusive range of shades — 40 shades of foundation alone — proved to the rest of the beauty industry that serving Black customers with products actually tailored to their skin could be extremely profitable. It wasn't long before other cosmetics labels started expanding their own offerings to follow Rihanna's lead. Her approach helped shift the industry toward a new normal with regards to makeup and Black women.

For brands looking to more heavily invest in Black talent internally, it makes sense to start with internships. The CFDA just announced a new initiative aimed at placing Black students within established fashion houses, but companies can also be proactive on their own. While the world's elite fashion schools may produce highly talented individuals, many of these educational institutions are more available to white students of certain socioeconomic backgrounds. For companies looking to implement actively anti-racist hiring policies, reaching out to schools that don't have high tuitions and specifically asking for students who are on scholarship is a good place to start.

If you find yourself working at or leading a company that is just now saying the word "racism" for the first time, don't deny it or get defensive. Accept where your company is and commit to forward motion always. Saying #BlackLivesMatter on your official channels is a good first step — if it's the first of many steps you plan to take. This is especially true for companies that advertise generously with Black celebrities and on Black social media pages. If your customer base is made up of Black people, you need to consider Black peoples' whole identities, not just Black wallets. It's imperative that leadership of such brands invest in Black communities on an ongoing basis.

And if your customer base is mostly white people, now would be a good time to re-examine why that is. How does what you put out — your marketing language, your models, your creative direction and your products themselves — create a space that Black people don't see themselves reflected in?

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The fashion industry is ripe for change. Sustainability is becoming increasingly mainstream, and environmentalism is now openly discussed by some of the biggest brands. Now, we are on the cusp of change around racial equity. Brands need to lean into this moment, not just from a public relations perspective but from a human rights perspective. Black people need white co-conspirators to join in ensuring that this is a moment in history that propels a significant cultural shift.

If you're leading a fashion brand and still wondering how best to respond in this moment, hire a Black person to do the labor of helping you enact the following:

  • Have your entire staff, including and especially the executive team and those at the forefront of hiring, undergo anti-racist training before embarking on any of the below. Bringing Black people into a workplace that does not acknowledge its own racism and is not actively striving to be anti-racist can be a source of trauma.
  • Make your company culture one that welcomes difficult conversations about race and accepts that discomfort for white people is necessary for change.
  • Ensure there is Black representation on your board and on the executive team and create an environment where they know they can talk about racism in the workplace.
  • Shift resources and invest in Black organizations as a standing item on your yearly budget. If your brand is geared towards a younger audience, get involved with youth-based organizations focused on racial justice. Don't wait for Black pain to be shared across the internet to get involved, and don't stop at one-time donations. There are organizations that have committed to these missions that are in need of ongoing corporate support.
  • Make your work environment a space where your Black employees feel empowered to gather, if they so choose. A racial justice committee can be a great starting point for ongoing work and conversations around accountability concerning racial justice at your brand. Be sure to include employees at different levels of your brand.
  • Make volunteering with a local racial justice organization a part of your company culture, especially if you have stores in Black communities.
  • If your company has a dress code, ensure that expression of one's identity is not policed by outdated assumptions about professionalism that are rooted in white supremacy. Banning certain hairstyles can have racist undertones as they are often applicable only to Black people (e.g. dreadlocks).
  • When recruiting staff, intentionally seek out Black talent. Your HR department may need to radically shift where they recruit from. Don't go the easiest route. Don't let current hiring freezes or budget cuts that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic become an excuse to not start thinking about more diverse hiring practices immediately. It takes research and time to seek out and build pools of Black talent — that background work and research can be done now, when there is no time crunch to make a new hire.
  • Commit to hiring Black models for your campaigns, particularly Black models who are not racially ambiguous.
  • Dismantling racism in creative spaces includes deeply examining who you hire for your creative projects. Hiring black people on your creative team and ensuring that you listen to their decisions and trust their taste is also critical.
  • Include education on racial justice as part of the brand's ongoing social media and marketing strategy, not just when an incident is in the news. 

We can emerge from this time with staff members that represent the true face of this country, with business practices that are aligned with what the community needs and with campaigns that resonate with the most marginalized among us, thus resulting in thoughtful products that add value to the overall spirit of the world and that acknowledge Black people as a truly valued part of the fashion ecosystem. 

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