Black Lives Matter reveals racism in fashion companies - How can we build systemic change?
Olivia Kellett is a staff researcher and writer at REAL Sustainability and writes a personal piece advocating for us all to understand our part in systemic racism and start learning now what we can do about it.
Modern Slavery, discrimination and, lack of representation and opportunities, are just a few of the issues at the core of the fashion industry.
The recent activity of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the global issue of systematic racism within our society to the forefront of all of our conversations and news channels. The movement has encouraged us to not only analyse our complicity and silence in the matter, but pushed us to educate ourselves and others about the complex topic of race.
Social media has played a huge role in the activity of the last few months. Mobile devices have captured and shared horrific instances of racial violence, such as the recent video of George Floyd’s killing, sparking global outrage and uniting people of all races together in solidarity to give voice to people of colour and immediate change. Social media has also provided a platform for many individuals to share personal experiences of oppression and discrimination after years of forced silence, in order to educate others and build global support.
However, this has also brought about a new era of accountability. As many influencers, brands and companies have posted in support of BLM, this has empowered many to speak out against industry double standards and reveal shocking instances of systemic racism by popular brands.
Here are just a few examples of fashion companies being accused of racism, exploitation and discrimination of people of colour and suggestions on how we can all create a more inclusive fashion industry.
The bohemian fashion brand recently came under fire after posting an exert from a poem by Maya Angelou, which read: “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value, no matter what their colour.”
The post was overwhelmed with comments by several former black employees stating the racism they faced whilst working in their stores. One previous employee commented that they had to ‘deal with racism working at Anthropologie the whole time’. Others were also outraged for the brand not doing enough to support the Black Lives Matter organisation, by adding links to donation pages and resources to learn more about the movement.
The brand faced further criticism when it was revealed that employees were instructed to use a code word to identify black customers. The code, ’Nick’, insinuated someone who would ‘nick something’ from the store, as reported by the evening standard and confirmed by former employees, was officially used during training of store clerks as a phrase to profile black customers.
Ex-employees have come forward to confirm the racial profiling throughout Anthropologie chains, stating that many of them received the same “training” in stores across the US, and were actively encouraged by management to ‘watch people of colour over the headsets’.
One ex-employee commented “I worked at Anthropologie and the racial profiling was sickening,” they added. “I refused to follow around mostly black people who were just minding their own damn business and respectfully shopping. Please change.” (Evening Standard)
One former employee added: “I thought Chicago was the only one who used ‘Nick’ as a form of saying ‘watch that black woman who just walked in.”
Since then the company has responded with an official statement, which read ‘We are still learning and reflecting on how we, as a brand, can improve diversity and combat racism. We are committed to doing better – to being better’. The statement also outlined how the brand would ‘do better’ by diversifying their team, donating $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund, and do more to educate their workforce.
However, the statement denied the allegations of racial profiling, stating: ‘We have never and will never have a code word based on customer’s race or ethnicity’, and added ‘Our company have a zero -tolerance policy regarding discrimination or racial profiling in any form.’
The statement did not sit well with followers, and the brand has faced more criticism for their ‘continuing ignorance’. One individual stated ‘I literally worked in your flagship store in NYC and was instructed to use this phrase. Not a surprise that you would blatantly lie but still a bummer now that you’d like to be considered woke.’
Reformation was the target of an expose by the fashion watchdog Diet Prada , and former employees who claimed on social media that the company had mistreated people of colour and for created an insensitive work environment.
Reformation gained popularity for their commitment to sustainability and their blasé, care-free ‘cool girl’ attitude. However, this notoriety has seemingly allowed the company to create an environment that excluded BAME. This mistreatment has completely shattered the ‘cool girl’ aesthetic that first captured customers attention, and it is unsure how the company will recover from the attention received by these claims.
The sustainable fashion company was another brand to show support to the BLM movement, posting a very simple Instagram tile listing five BLM organisations to support. The post was quickly deemed ‘laughable’ and criticized for ‘attempting to seem culturally and socially relevant’, by many black ex-employees who spoke out against the racism they had faced whilst working for the brand.
One ex-employee in particular, Elle Santaigo who had been with reformation for several years, spoke about her experience working at the brand https://www.instagram.com/p/CBBw_ABjUCi/. She stated, she had worked for the company for years as an assistant, whilst white women with less experience and less qualifications were constantly being promoted above her. Santiago described the experience of working for Reformation as ‘deeply traumatising’, adding “ I cried many times knowing the colour of my skin would get me nowhere in this company.”
Another employee who worked at a NYC Bond Street store commented about how people of colour were often separated from the often white store clerks, to work in the basement for inventory, where she mentions that they often had no heating during winters and no AC during summers.
Despite emailing management on more than one occasion they never received a formal reply, and were told by store clerks that if they didn’t enjoy working at the store ‘they could just leave’.
Within their stores, management team and clothing campaigns, the brand has been slammed for their lack of diversity and mistreatment of workers.
CEO and founder Yael Aflalo has officially resigned from her post as CEO, an anonymous hotline has been set up for current employees, and an investigation has been launched into the claims of racism within the company.
Fashion Nova, a popular fast fashion brand based in the US, has been accused on several occasions of exploiting women of colour, mis-appropriating black women’s bodies and ripping off designers from the African community.
The brand is well known for selling cheaper versions of popular outfits, for example those frequently worn by the Kardashian and Jenner family. The nature of the fast fashion brand has enabled Fashion Nova to demand short turn arounds, produce and sell a replica product online the following day. However, this comes at the cost of exploiting communities of colour. The federal Labour Department has found that many Fashion Nova Garments are stitched together by a work force in the United States that is paid illegally low wages (NYTimes).
After an investigation by the Labour Department was conducted in 2016, it was discovered fashion Nova clothing was made in Los Angeles based factories that paid their sewers ‘as little as $2.77 an hour and owed $3.8 million in back wages (NYTimes). These factories are often filled with workers who are undocumented and unlikely to challenge their bosses.
Aside from their complicity in manufacturing through unethical factories, Fashion Nova also is accused of stealing many designs from independent designers.
However, following the company’s announcement of support for Black Lives Matter many have pointed to its treatment of BAME designers.
Jai Nice, the creator and designer of Kloset Envy, recently took to social media to express her anger of Fashion Nova ‘stealing from the African American community’. The , brand had ordered several pieces of her clothing online, returned them (using the company name and address), and then shortly afterwards appeared to be selling a cheaper imitation online.
Another instance occurred when Fashion Nova reproduced an imitation of a dress by black designer Luci Wilden, founder of Knots and Vibes. Wilden upholds strong values in hand making all her clothing and avoiding manufacturing abroad to avoid supporting unethical working conditions. When it was revealed Fashion Nova had replicated her ‘Skin Out’ dress detail for detail, Wilden called out the brand for not only stealing the design, but selling it at a much cheaper price. Wilden wrote, ‘They’ve (Fashion Nova) mass produced this at a retail price of 40USD!! That makes their production price $13, meaning whoever crotched this was paid less than $1 per hour.’ She added, ‘Not only are they stealing my designs but they’re using it to exploit people and profit from it which is the opposite of what Knots & Vibes stands for!’
These are not the only BAME designers who say they have had their clothing designs stolen from Fashion Nova and sold at a cheaper price. A Black Femininity TV investigation featured the above examples and others. It’s available to watch here.
Fashion Nova has yet to respond to many of these allegations but is currently in court defending a claim from Versace over copying designs.
What we must learn from these brands
It’s important to note that these are not the only companies that have such allegations levelled at them. The allegations of racism, exploitation and misappropriation that have surfaced during the Black Lives Matter protests are infuriating and devastating to read. The sheer number of them indicates there is a systemic racism at the heart of the fashion industry and the sector still has more to do to create a more diverse, inclusive and respectful environment.
What we must do:
- Start buying from and supporting more ethical and independent designers, especially BAME designers.
- Whilst avoiding boycotting brands (as it is often the garment workers who face the punishment) we must do more to lobby fast-fashion labels to champion fair wages, safe working conditions, and equal workplace opportunities for all. Holding brands accountable for their actions and calling them out on social media is key.
Leaders in Fashion
- Create mandates and initiatives to promote BAME people within the workplace whilst promoting discussions on diversity and inclusion. Diversity in Leadership and higher levels of business is the only way to stamp out white supremacy.
- Uphold a zero tolerance policy on discrimination and racism. Including setting up and monitoring a grievance hotline.
- Models must represent the population in race, faith, size, body difference, age, gender spectrum
- Support initiatives such as La Marche, a platform for young BAME individuals in fashion, who host fashion shows, support young BAME fashion professionals and host events talking about the topic of diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry.
- Support organisations and donate to charities fighting against systemic racism and social injustice, such as:
- Stop Watch – Stop Watch is a national research and action organisation that works to promote fair, effective and accountable policing.
- Stop Hate UK – Stop Hate UK is a charity which provides independent support to those affected by hate crime and challenge all forms of discrimination.
- Keash Salon Hardship Fund – This hardship fund set up by the owner of the creative hair brand Keash aims to provide support for Black-owned hair businesses in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic
- La Marche – An organisation creating a platform to highlight and support young BAME fashion professionals. La Marche hosts workshops, fashion shows and talks celebrating your BAME professionals whilst exploring issues of diversity and inclusion.
- Black Minds Matter – Black Minds Matter is raising money to support black people struggling with their mental health during this particularly triggering time for the community.
- Black Lives Matter UK – Black Lives Matter UK is the official UK chapter of the global Black Lives Matter movement. Their mission, as stated on the official Black Lives Matter website, is “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes”.
- You can find more organisations and charities here.
- Ending systemic racism and other marginalisation cannot be treated as a tick box exercise by priviledged dominant culture leaders.
- Diverse management has been proven by many reports to deliver greater commercial success. Fashion brands must report sustainability and social inclusion initiatives, as seen in the Mckinsey report ‘Diversity Wins : How inclusion matters’ report.
- Check indicators and commitments to mandates and initiatives, such as committing to buying from black owned businesses. For example, mandates might be 10% of BAME leaders required or committing to buying from black owned businesses. From head office to store and supply chain, systemic racism must be addressed.
Conclusion – As consumers, designers and industry leaders we must hold ourselves accountable; doing more to educate ourselves and our peers on issues of racism and discrimination; calling out these issues as they arise and holding people accountable. We must cultivate compassion; listen and learn from the experiences of those brave enough to tell their story, and hold these examples as confirmation of the continued inequality and exploitation. Listen, learn and act.