NEW YORK, United States — When the Black Lives Matter movement became a part of the US’ national discourse in 2014, fashion mostly remained on the sidelines, leaving the public posturing to media pundits and political candidates.
But over the past half-decade, the minds behind the industry’s biggest brands have learned that they cannot afford to be silent. That doesn’t mean they know what to say.
Long-simmering outrage over racial discrimination and police violence against black Americans reached a tipping point last week with the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Mass demonstrations have taken place in major cities from Los Angeles to London, with images of protesters marching, and in some cases clashing with police, overshadowing even the pandemic in newspapers and on cable news.
To address the sadness and rage expressed by millions of people this week, fashion and beauty brands have largely followed the same playbook they used for Covid-19, the Australian wildfires and countless other crises: post messages of support on social media, sometimes accompanied by a donation to a well-known nonprofit. Their goal is to signal they share the same values as their customers. And it also happens to be great for brand awareness. Over the course of one week, the earned media value — or measure of reach for social media posts — for the hashtag #blacklivesmatter rose from $173,000 to $63.5 million, according to Tribe Dynamics.
This time, however, many of those Instagram gestures fell flat. Take Louis Vuitton as an example: the world’s biggest luxury brand by sales posted a video on Sunday, commissioned by men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh, of a black man riding a horse, with the caption, “Make a change. Freedom from racism towards peace together. #BlackLivesMatter.” Many who saw the post took to Instagram and Twitter to question the brand’s response (some also noted that the brand’s parent, LVMH, had donated €200 million to rebuild Notre Dame but had not announced a contribution to causes affiliated with the protesters).
Abloh fared little better. He posted an image on his personal Instagram indicating he had donated $50 to a bail fund, and elsewhere condemned looting. Social media users wondered how the multi-hyphenate designer landed on that amount. “People should donate whatever they want, but man…Virgil Abloh really just donated 11 percent of one Off-White belt,” one said. Louis Vuitton declined to comment. Representatives for Abloh did not respond to BoF’s request for comment, but the designer issued a statement to The New York Times before rescinding it. Later, in a lengthy Instagram post, Abloh apologised for signalling anything less than full solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, adding that he’s donated more than $20,000 to bail funds and related efforts.
Fashion is learning the hard way that consumers are raising the moral bar for the brands they patronise. As much as companies are increasingly accused of greenwashing — using the language of sustainability to drive sales without committing to meaningful change — they are also being scrutinised for whether they live the values of diversity and black empowerment that increasingly appear in their advertising. Race is a particularly sore spot in fashion, where brands have a long history of exploiting minority cultures to sell clothes and accessories.
Saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ is literally the bare minimum.
In a time of mass demonstrations and boiling racial tension, white letters on black backgrounds and one-time donations are seen as too little, too late. Many consumers want evidence of real change, whether that’s factoring diversity into hiring or supporting the underprivileged communities that provide inspiration for so many designs.
“Saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ is literally the bare minimum,” said Ericka Claudio, a social impact strategist who works with brands in media, fashion, and entertainment. “Putting your resources behind supporting black lives and advancing black success is really what’s required to dismantle racism in this country.”
Actions speak louder than Instagram posts
There are some brands that have won praise for their response to the protests. Glossier was among the first to post about the protests, and committed to donating $500,000 to social justice organisations.
Streetwear resale platform Grailed contributed an undisclosed sum to groups including Black Lives Matter, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Committee to Protect Journalists. The company also went beyond offering support with its messaging, highlighting the debt it owes the black community.
“This issue is particularly important to us because the black community is such a huge part of the Grailed community and fashion industry as a whole,” Chief Executive Arun Gupta told BoF. “We would not be where we are today without the black community and black culture.”
Reebok posted to its Instagram profile twice over the weekend, stating: “Without the black community, Reebok would not exist. America would not exist. We are not asking you to buy our shoes. We are asking you to stand in someone else’s.”
Nike released a commercial inverting its famous slogan, “For Once, Don’t Do It,” that urged consumers not to turn their back on racism. The video received more than 450,000 views on YouTube and 13.5 million views on Instagram since Friday. Adidas retweeted the ad.
Despite not making an explicit monetary contribution or pointing to resources within the commercial, the response was largely positive online. That may be because Nike has a history of loudly supporting social and racial justice causes, as evidenced when the sportswear giant publicly supported NFL star Colin Kaepernick in his peaceful demonstration against black oppression.
Other companies that haven’t been politically outspoken in the past are scrambling to catch up, as brand after brand finds itself at the centre of an online backlash.
Over the weekend, Jackie Aina, a beauty influencer with 3.4 million YouTube subscribers, tagged brands including Revolve, Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova in posts, accusing them of profiting off black consumers and borrowing from their culture while doing little to promote equality.
Aina tweeted on May 29, “Fashion Nova reached out and I wrapped a call a few hours ago with their CEO. Post call, I followed up with an extensive course of action and plan to have a follow-up call with them.”
Fashion Nova did not respond to BoF’s request for comment.
The Business Case
As cultural politics becomes an ever-more powerful current in the consumer landscape — and more importantly, an imminent moral imperative — it’s important that brands deepen both their understanding and effectiveness in addressing the issues.
Investing in the racial and economic parity of all people, especially black Americans, is not only about encouraging purchases and building brand-to-consumer relationships in the short-term; It helps promote long-term financial security for individuals, and ultimately, increases consumer spending, according to a 2018 report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation titled, “The Business Case for Racial Equity.”
The Kellogg research found that closing the racial equity gap would increase US apparel spending by $52 billion between now and 2050.
But those dollars aren’t up for grabs willy-nilly. Nearly half of black adults surveyed said they expect brands they purchase to support social causes, 16 percent higher than the total population, according to Nielsen. Brands like Nike, while understanding black consumer spending power, prioritise being on the right side of social issues, setting the framework for customers to then trust in a brand’s values.
A New Playbook
However, a haphazard, reactionary approach is no longer sufficient. Brands need to build credibility on these topics before the crisis moment arrives, experts say.
“Put your money where your mouth is: brands can avoid the perception that they are merely capitalising on a social issue by actively working with a change-making organisation,” said Sandrine Charles, founder of Sandrine Charles Consulting, which counts Kith, Nordstrom x Nike, and Aimé Leon Dore as previous clients.
Actively hiring, retaining and promoting people of colour is especially important, as having a diverse staff internally will help shape a company’s response to sensitive issues for the better. Bias training is another crucial component, to ensure that a company’s internal culture changes beyond the hiring process.
“It’s not my place to address brands and tell them to be [politically correct] in a time of crisis because it will elevate their profile of equality,” said Charles. “They must first embody those characteristics and want to support and embrace the community. They should look within themselves and affirm that they are already supporting communities when not in times of crisis.”
Companies should also work with outside partners and experts to develop the right approach. Grailed said it maintains quarterly goals for diversity and inclusion, and partners with organisations including Pursuit, InHerSight and Recurse Center to ensure it sources job candidates from diverse backgrounds.
Bringing in outside voices in a particularly fraught time can also help with the response.
“There are plenty of black [public relations] professionals available and ready to get to work in need of work right now, especially during a pandemic,” Claudio said. “Hire a black person full-time, create the budget, the role and the platform, and lead with that … And if you don’t know any, now’s a great time to get to do an open call.”
Brands also need to move past the idea that the right message is enough. In the last week, many companies have directed customers and social media followers to educational resources or offered ideas about how to contribute.
Streetwear brand Noah included a link to anti-racism resources with a note from its founders. Women’s workwear brand M.M. LaFleur sent out a newsletter on Sunday outlining how it will send regular emails spotlighting women of colour and political candidates. The message included resources on how to protest safely and anti-racism guides and organisations.
“At the end of the day, I want to make sure that we don’t stop at being angry and sad, and channel all of this energy into meaningful action,” M.M. LaFleur Founder and Chief Executive Sarah LaFleur told BoF.
Luxury’s Messaging Problem
Luxury brands, in particular, have struggled to respond to the protests. Like Louis Vuitton, many opted for simple messages of support, often against brand imagery.
Gucci, which hired a chief diversity officer in 2019 after repeatedly promoting products steeped in racist imagery, posted on Instagram a Cleo Wade poem calling for an end to racism. Prada posted a statement on Monday to its Instagram, “The Prada Group is outraged and saddened by the injustices facing the black community and stands in steadfast support and solidarity against racism. We raise our voice and continue to work with our Diversity and Inclusion Council to fight for racial justice everywhere.” It’s worth noting that these brands have already announced corporate diversity policies, and may continue evolving their policies and practises, despite not providing an immediate outline for what that looks like. (The larger the brand, the longer it may take to organise communications, after all.)
Valentino, whose creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli has made inclusion a focal point on the brand’s runway and has referred to “the opulence of diversity” in haute couture presentations, posted a photo to its Instagram page over the weekend saying “Black Lives Matter,” and that “Valentino stands with the movement for black lives.”
These messages might resonate more if they reflected a history of support for the black community, experts say.
“[Brands] must want to communicate their support to the black community. It cannot be an 11th-hour Hail Mary because everyone is watching and waiting for them,” Charles said. “If it’s not at the root of the brand then it will only be a Band-Aid situation that will repeat itself every time something like this arises.”