NEW YORK, United States — Since the killing of George Floyd this past May ignited renewed demand for racial justice and overriding systemic change across society, companies in every corner of the fashion and beauty industries have been called upon to engage more meaningfully with Black consumers and Black-owned businesses, as well as with their own employees, many of whom are demanding action. Four months later, after much reflection, conversation, education, and more than a few PR crises, where are we, specifically?
Statements have been drafted. Consultants have been hired. Promises have been made. As businesses ask themselves uncomfortable questions, and confront their uncomfortable answers, many are taking steps to overhaul a system that has never been fair. But what must be done to keep momentum rolling — to ensure that this moment is about more than symbolic gestures and timely alignments, and that leaders are contributing to the implementation of new practices that will genuinely alter the way in which business is done? And what are the factors hampering more substantive progress from taking root?
Equity is ‘the mandate’
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had this type of widespread and sustained attention on anything, not even Me Too,” says Bonnie Morrison, a brand consultant and director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s newly formed programme to promote Black talent within the industry. “For people of colour, this is an unprecedented time to have the eyes and ears of everyone. Nearly every corporation, no matter where their heart is, realises this is an imperative, and co-occurring when all businesses are looking at how to re-balance themselves after the staggering financial losses of Covid.” Working toward a more equitable world, she says, is more than philosophy, “it is the mandate.”
In response to the blanket offers of allyship making their way around the internet this past June, Brother Vellies Creative Director Aurora James called upon retailers to do something specific and concrete: acknowledge Black demographics — and spending power — by broadening their product assortments to reflect the racial diversity of the consumer base in the United States. She challenged everyone from purveyors of luxury fashion and beauty to grocery giants and big-box chains to commit 15 percent of their shelf space — a reflection of the approximately 15 percent of Americans who are Black (13.4 percent, according to 2019 US Census estimates) — to Black-owned brands.
James now runs the 15 Percent Pledge as a fully operational non-profit. Members sign contracts, which outline their commitment to accountability, and James and her colleagues work with them to customise what the pledge looks like for each business and to create a roadmap for success. Six companies have officially stepped up to the plate.
Positioning brands for success
For the fashion and beauty industries, the root issue is this: in order for companies to stock more Black-owned and Black-founded brands, especially in the luxury sector, there must be more such brands positioned for commercial success, say retailers.
Indeed, LVMH-owned Sephora, which operates 447 stores in the United States and was the first company to take the 15 Percent Pledge, said the main challenge thus far is not finding the shelf space to stock more brands — digitally, where Sephora tests most new products before bringing them into brick-and-mortar stores, shelf space is endless — but finding the brands, themselves.
In the prestige space, says Artemis Patrick, Sephora’s executive vice president and global chief merchandising officer, “it’s harder; there aren’t as many brands. Founders of colour tend to have less access to resources — things like financing and connections.”
Fundamentally, it’s about capital, access, mentorship and visibility. And it starts at the very beginning of a brand’s journey.
Historically, less than 1 percent of venture capital money has gone to Black individuals.
“Historically, less than 1 percent of venture capital money has gone to Black individuals,” notes James. “It’s not that Black people aren’t already ideating on amazing products or creating them on their own, it’s that they don’t have the resources to package them and put them out in a way that’s going to work for those resources.”
Moving forward, investors must explicitly seek out Black founders. “We all have to widen the aperture of the entrepreneurs we get a chance to meet,” says Nick Brown, managing partner at Imaginary, the early-stage venture capital fund he co-founded with Net-a-Porter entrepreneur Natalie Massenet. “Everything starts with the founder. When you become more proactive, you get exposure to many, many more entrepreneurs in the space.”
Investments in companies like Bread Beauty Supply, the Australian hair care company started by Maeva Heim which launched this past July at Sephora, as well as Good American and Clare (both of which have Black chief executives), have helped Imaginary build the foundation of a larger network. Because of these relationships, “we see a lot more Black founders. We need to continue doing that,” says Brown.
It’s not just financing that investors provide; it’s advice, experience and connections. In other words: access to the inside track. Of the slick brands that seemingly come out of nowhere fully formed and hit the ground running, Brown explains, “the reason they look great is they’re founded by people who are insiders in the system — whether that system is their education, their training or their access to capital, they’re beneficiaries of being an insider. And when you’re not, you’re at a total disadvantage.”
Recognising how insular the fashion industry can be, RAISE Fashion, a collective of veteran industry leaders from companies including Saks and Net-a-Porter, recently formed with the mission of offering emerging Black designers pro bono professional mentorship and tactical support.
Sephora pivoted its Accelerate incubator, conceived five years ago to nurture female-founded brands, to focus exclusively on entrepreneurs of colour in the coming year. “The programme absolutely helps us scout brands we may not have found otherwise,” says Patrick. “We find them early on and help them grow, so they can be in it for long-term success. Ultimately, this commitment is so much bigger than improving representation of products on shelves.”
Part of positioning a brand for success is simply getting the word out. A new crop of portals and directories are proving to be invaluable resources for anyone — investor, retail scout, editor, consumer — looking to discover brands from Black creators. Antoine Gregory conceived Black Fashion Fair, a website launched during New York Fashion Week, as an A-Z database of Black designers and a source of community. Black Owned Everything, a platform curated by Zerina Akers, the fashion stylist celebrated for her work with Beyoncé, offers a particularly great edit of fashion, beauty, food, and home goods.
It’s about creating space
And not just on the shelf, but in the ranks of the industry. The other pipeline to keep in mind is people. As with fledgling brands, seeking out and investing in people early on, so they gain the necessary fluency within a field and can be properly groomed for success, is what will change the face of fashion and beauty.
While it is imperative that companies integrate more people of colour in decision-making executive and board-level positions at the top, putting the pieces in place for a new generation of talent to flourish ultimately starts at the bottom, with recruitment and mentorship.
A simple problem everyone says they have is from the jump getting Black talent in the door.
“A simple problem everyone says they have is from the jump getting Black talent in the door,” says Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor in chief of Teen Vogue and co-founder of the newly formed Black in Fashion Council, an organisation dedicated to advancing Black professionals in the fashion and beauty industries.
Part of the BIFC’s mission, explains Wagner, is to serve as a resource for both candidates exploring career opportunity and businesses actively headhunting. “As a Black woman who comes from the Midwest, there was no one who came to Wisconsin and talked to me about fashion. I learned about it from TV,” says Wagner. “We are passionate about helping young Black kids everywhere know about these companies that care about inclusivity. We’re going to be doing a job fair that’s virtual and one day we will be going on tour to different community colleges and schools, getting that exposure to them earlier so they can get the right experience to get those jobs.”
An obvious benefit of a more diverse staff is increased cultural proficiency. Not only are companies that are more in touch with the world outside — and inside their own walls — bound to create more inclusive, creative, inspired products and campaigns, and to connect naturally with a broader swath of consumers, but they will be poised to navigate business with a dexterity that comes from having a spectrum of voices in the room.
“Companies get in trouble when they try to create programming for a particular group and clearly no one was a member of that group,” says Morrison. “With an integrated workforce, you have a better chance of avoiding, or swerving away from, missteps. You have people who can say, ‘this is culturally sensitive,’ and ‘this is how things have to be addressed in this community, in this region.’”
It doesn’t end with adding personnel. For shifts in corporate culture to be seismic, and to result in lasting inclusivity, companies must examine how they operate daily, says Morrison. In the future, she envisions businesses following “kind of a university model — we’re in school seven months a year, and the administration is working on all the different touchpoints of what it means to be a part of the community, around the clock. Campus life,” she says.
It is vital that the existing corps, especially people in leadership roles, understand what is expected of them today. “In this new professional model we’re fashioning, we have to know there are people who are broad-minded, ethical, who understand this stuff,” explains Morrison. “What is the company doing to help the person be an exceptional manager? If you’re not buying into these new codes of work, then being boss is not the job for you.”
Don’t fill quotas, make matches
The internal audits companies have lately been encouraged to undertake are a critical way in which to gain some badly needed perspective and set new goals. Pledging to do better is about improving representation, but it must be about more than cosmetic quick fixes designed to boost numbers. More crucial are the matches a company makes, whether hiring new talent or integrating new brands. To work, long-term, it’s got to be a fit.
Though everyone may feel pressure to make radical change now, the best advice might actually be to slow down. “Where we will get it wrong is if we move with haste,” says Morrison. “Find the balance between moving quickly and taking the time, so the changes we make are sustainable.”
Find the balance between moving quickly and taking the time, so the changes we make are sustainable.
The 15 Percent Pledge’s contract with West Elm, for example, is spread over five years. “I don’t want them to turn around and make a bunch of purchase orders to hit that fifteen percent,” says James. To do it right, she says, the home décor retailer should “take the time to check channels they’d never normally go down to seek out those businesses.”
Ditto Violet Grey, the niche beauty e-tailer founded by Cassandra Grey that deals in luxury staples vetted by an elite corps of beauty industry pros and Hollywood celebrities. Grey has been working to increase representation at Violet Grey, adding diversity in recent months to both her board and her brand matrix. Violet Grey’s signature edit — heavy on skincare and results-driven products where “people really want trusted recommendations,” says Grey — is a specific, tight assortment, to say the least. The care such a curation requires is precisely what James is looking forward to. “We want to see Cassandra’s edit of Black-owned brands,” says James, who has spoken with Grey about her goals for her company. “No one says you have to do this overnight. We just want to know she’s working on it.”
‘It’s not a checklist, it’s a journey’
When Sephora was first considering the 15 Percent Pledge, “we looked at how we could make it happen from an operational standpoint,” says Patrick. “What we loved about Aurora’s pledge is she looks at it long-term. She has a pragmatic view; it is about building a foundation.”
In recent months, Sephora has added Adwoa and Accelerate alum Bread Beauty Supply to its family of brands. Alongside Pat McGrath Labs, Briogeo, Golde, KNC, Shani Darden, and LVMH-backed Fenty, that brings its total of Black-founded lines to eight; just under three percent of the retailer’s overall assortment.
As Morrison reflects, “there are some gains we can make and see in the short-term, but the most potent expression of whether or not we’re successful is what companies look like in five and ten years. It’s not going to correct itself immediately. That’s what ‘systemic’ means. It means it may be under renovation for a while.”
As Sarah Tam, chief merchant at Rent the Runway, says, “it’s not a checklist, it’s a journey.” Among the top five largest apparel purchasers in the US, and the second business to step up to the 15 Percent Pledge, Rent the Runway is a good example of a company crafting a long-term diversification strategy designed to benefit its brand partners as well as its own expanding business model.
That’s what ‘systemic’ means. It means it may be under renovation for a while.
One of the ways the clothing rental company is increasing its inventory of Black- and BIPOC-founded lines, while broadening its business beyond wholesale, is by entering into co-manufacturing agreements with a number of designers. By covering upfront costs and assuming many of the operational details, it is able to help fledgling brands get off the ground, and into production. The company — which has exceedingly detailed information on its customer’s fit preferences, as well as deep expertise sourcing fabrics with “inventory longevity” — collaborates with designers to create collections built to perform on the site. “The goal,” says Tam, “is to manufacture for them long-term, and to create a sustainable line they can wholesale elsewhere.”
Tam lists Pyer Moss, Victor Glemaud and Autumn Adeigbo as emerging Black designers currently enjoying great success on the site. Wales Bonner is joining the mix in November, and “we are writing orders for more brands,” says Tam, though she is mum on the specifics. Customers have not been shy about making recommendations, with Telfar, Tongoro and Fe Noel topping their requests.
Being accountable is part of being in business
To help companies gain outside perspective and provide feedback on how they’re doing, the Black in Fashion Council, in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign, created the Corporate Equality Index. It is a report card that goes beyond recording diversity statistics to grade corporate policies vis à vis the treatment of Black employees. Seventy businesses — from Capri Holdings, Ralph Lauren, Cartier, Gap, and L’Oréal to Condé Nast, Hearst, and IMG — have committed to work with the BIFC thus far, pledging to create more equitable and supportive workplaces for Black employees, and to be held accountable for their progress. “For us, the CEI is creating a new standard and giving people actual guidelines so, ok, you can have certain numbers and meet benchmarks, but what are you doing to make people feel welcome, heard?” asks Wagner. “Every company is in a different place right now,” she continues. “Wherever you are, we want to be a resource and to help.”
A lot of these companies get stuck on the accountability part. They just don’t want to be accountable.
Committing to change is admitting where you are and where you need to go. “A lot of these companies get stuck on the accountability part. They just don’t want to be accountable,” says James. “It’s a lot of heavy work and emotional labour and tough, tough conversations. There’s a lot of shame in these numbers. There are people who can own where they are and commit to doing better and there are people who want to be defensive and explain how it won’t work.”
It’s understandable that companies unaccustomed to radical transparency may not want to answer to outside organisations. They do, however, have to answer to their customer. And, as James points out, in most cases — from luxury fashion to mass retail — the customer has plenty of options for where to shop.
“This is the time when you want to stand up,” says James. Ticking off her wish list of brands she hopes will take her pledge — colossuses from Walmart, Target and Home Depot to Whole Foods, Fresh Direct, Ulta Beauty, Revolve and Net-a-Porter — she remarks, “they have the resources to figure this out. People at McKinsey can help them figure this out — I’m happy to refer them!”
While Ulta has yet to join its staunchest competitor, Sephora, in taking the 15 Percent Pledge, president Dave Kimbell acknowledged in an emailed statement, “we know there is more work to be done,” and promised, “we’re not sitting still.” Without divulging specific goals, Kimbell says that Ulta — which did take Sharon Chuter’s Pull Up For Change challenge — commits to building a more diverse workforce as well as continuing to sell more Black-founded brands in its over 1,200 stores.
“The 15 Percent Pledge is a commendable effort and we very much align to its intent,” wrote Kimbell. “As the nation’s largest beauty retailer, we have a responsibility to support the growth of Black-owned brands across the retail industry and balance this ask with our duty to set our brand partners up for their greatest success.” Ulta commits to “significantly increase” the number of Black-owned brands it carries, continued Kimball, noting popular brands Uoma Beauty, Beauty Bakerie, Flora & Curl, and Juvia’s Place, already in its stable, and of which Ulta is the exclusive retail partner.
Everyone wants equality but they don’t want their piece of the pie affected.
Minneapolis-based Target, which pledged $10 million towards social justice reform and rebuilding efforts after the death of George Floyd in its hometown, has been at the top of James’ wish list since day one.
In early September, Target released its Workforce Diversity Report (based on 2019 information), revealing that people of colour comprise fifty percent of its entire 350,000-person workforce, twenty-four percent of its leadership team and nearly half of its board of directors. The corporation announced it will increase representation of Black employees across the company by twenty percent over the next three years.
While Target did not comment on specific goals regarding increasing the number of Black and BIPOC brands carried in its stores, “we’re committed to continuing to grow and accelerating that growth,” wrote a spokesperson. “We’ll source and design significantly more products from Black creators, designers, vendors, agencies, contractors and suppliers.”
In response to my question of why not take James’ pledge, the spokesperson replied, “we’re encouraged by the important conversation that this pledge, and other initiatives, are sparking across the retail industry. When we look at our size, scale, and resources, we know we can have impact in many ways holistically across our business to create positive change so we’re dedicating our efforts in this way.”
The bottom line
The bottom line is that companies must be about more than the bottom line. “Today more than ever, businesses have a moral obligation to change the communities they build,” says Tam.
“When you talk about evening the scale, one thing comes down and one thing goes up. Everyone wants equality but they don’t want their piece of the pie affected,” reflects James. “An ally is coming to terms with the idea that their share has to come down a little bit.”
It goes back to stakeholder capitalism: the notion that businesses today have responsibilities that extend beyond just making money, and must answer not simply to shareholders, but to a wider set of stakeholders — from suppliers and their own workforce to society at large. In the end, what is good for these stakeholders may prove to be good for shareholders, too. After all, how can a company thrive long-term if it is not in sync, and in touch, with its employees, its customers, and its place in a changing world?
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