People always change when they're in a relationship. They go from never watching football to being the biggest Cowboys fan ever. Or never being "big on rap" to knowing all the words to Tupac's songs. When you confront them, they're often defensive and clap back with "I was always into that!," as if they have amnesia. Sure, people change for their significant other, but it's hard to accept that change as authentic when you've known who the person was. This is the same feeling I have about the fashion industry when it comes to its inaction in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and the country's reckoning with racism.
As a Black fashion editor, I've scrolled past every brand's Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 email plea. Their "Our commitment," "A message from our CEO," or "We stand with the Black community" have all landed in my trash. These blanket statements lacked emotion and felt more like a sink-or-swim tactic — nothing that I had or have energy to give to. Brands who are suddenly woke expect us to believe them? No. It all seems a bit too superficial and transactional to me.
How Did We Get Here?
We've normalized wrongdoings. We've forgotten the importance of lending a helping hand. Surely this is not all brands, but it's a lot of them.
Brands will say, "We're all in this together." Clearly that has not been the case. We're all in this together when it's convenient for you. I keep seeing signs at protests saying, "Support Black people like you do Black culture." Fashion has long benefited from race profit through cultural appropriation. Curves and big bottoms were celebrated through Kim Kardashian when it was the Black woman who had it first (and was born with it). Gucci dressed Halsey in a velour tracksuit (gold chain and all) for an award show and fans suddenly took interest in this trend that originated from Black New York rap artists on the rise. H&M designed a hoodie that read "coolest monkey in the jungle," claiming they weren't aware of its racist connotation. Or fashion schools placing big red lips and monkey ears on models before a runway show. So no, "support Black people like you do Black culture" does not hold true for the fashion industry when they haven't supported the culture in the first place.
As a Black fashion editor, I refuse to give money to the brands practicing performative wokeness: the brands that are making a statement to reap the buzz.
Then, there are big fashion houses like Ralph Lauren that announced senior leadership would forgo entire salaries so they could continue to pay furloughed workers' health insurance during COVID. While this is great — it puts money into struggling families and reassures them of healthcare at a time when they desperately need it — it is also alarming. If senior executives are able to go without a salary, it makes me question why they were paid that much in the first place, creating huge wealth gaps. If you can financially sustain a life without a salary, then giving it up isn't heroic — it's the right thing to do.
Where Do We Go From Here?
If protest culture has taught us anything over the last few months, it's that our younger generations don't tolerate shortcomings. In order for brands to see sales and to garner a following, they must earn our respect. They must get specific about internal policies and action they're taking to implement change. We are no longer standing for blanket statements that denounce police brutality; we see that as a marketing tactic. On the surface, it tells customers what you're against without actually making change.
As a Black fashion editor, I refuse to give money to the brands practicing performative wokeness: the brands that are making a statement to reap the buzz. They are using race for profit, and I'm not buying it.
We don't want to hear about corporate solidarity. In fact, you're tone deaf if you thought that was all it would take. We want to see donations and brands with power exercise it for the good. We want to see commitment.
Commitment is shown through the brands that are meeting the growing needs of hungry children and outfitting healthcare workers with robes and masks. It's Alice + Olivia, who joined forces with No Kid Hungry to create their #masktogether initiative, guaranteeing one meal to a child in need for each mask sold. Brands like NOAH and Adidas, who treat their employees with respect and grace, pandemic or not. Through their labor laws, childcare policies, wages, and sanitary procedures, they make sure their entire supply chain is sustainable for the environment and employees. Or Puma and Old Navy, who have pivoted from making clothing to producing protective masks, gowns, and other supplies to help stop the spread of the virus. They've even given up their warehouse as testing centers.
On an antiracist front, I'm shopping any and all Black-owned brands. I'm shopping Brother Vellies, whose owner Aurora James is the founder of the 15 percent pledge, or Telfar, whose "Bushwick Birkin" is the only thing I tend to carry with me on errands. And I'll shop non Black-owned brands as well, the ones that get it at least. It's Nike and others who officially marked Juneteenth as a holiday and big technology companies who are hiring and promoting people of color. It's the beauty brands who have participated in the #pulluporshutup movement, and it's all the brands who have taken the 15 percent pledge to enforce that 15 percent of their store shelves will be stocked with Black-owned products.
Why Your Loyalty Will Make a Statement This Year
As the pandemic continues, consumers are very intentional with how they spend their money. We are inclined to support the brands that reflect our values and morals. We will be holding brands accountable to make sure their pledges do not contradict practices. We want brands that are helping fight big causes like world hunger and uplifting individuals or communities that are struggling and oppressed.
Who you choose to support will be the biggest fashion statement you make this year and beyond.
Who you choose to support will be the biggest fashion statement you make this year and beyond. For me, there are levels to this thing: Do I stop window shopping at brands like Reformation because the CEO was blind to the racism that occurred under her watch? Do I boycott all brands that now just appear to be "woke" or philanthropic? Or do I force myself to see their hearts and not their track records?
Typically, I enjoy spending my money and discovering brands that have some sort of sustainable element. I tend to alternate between vegetarian and vegan — companies that are leading the way in upcycling are just as interesting to me — as the ones that are providing opportunities to diverse and underserved communities. I'm excited to see small businesses grow as more and more consumers realize the impact of their dollar.
The fashion industry would be hard-pressed to dismiss the cries of consumers in 2020. The demand right now is simply too big to be ignored. The modern customer is smart and craves authenticity and transparency and that their voice be heard. Whether brands are promoting sustainability, philanthropic initiatives, or equality, consumers will be able to tell if it's baked into company culture or merely a marketing stunt. Fashion brands must tackle the root cause and implement substantive change on all levels that are necessary. Failure to do that could become a brand's swan song.