Luxury fashion needs to reflect a world where Black lives matter.

By Balthazar Malevolent


When Guccio Gucci introduced the Gucci brand in Florence in 1921, he certainly didn't think that one day his business would need to speak to a mass movement fighting for Black Americans' civil rights. The company was born out of the traditional leather manufacturing in Tuscany; it only spread outside of Italy some 30 years later and eventually delved into ready-to-wear over 20 years after. Just 15 days after the company opened its first store in New York City in 1953, Gucci himself passed away. The fact that his company is expected to adequately address a historic civil rights movement today, speaks not only to Black Lives Matter's global power but also to the evolving nature of consumer relationships with the brands they want to buy from.

Gucci show.

Various luxury fashion brands have always had to sell far more than well-made products; they trade in nebulous ideas of value and meaning just as much as in tangible materials such as leather, silk and chiffon. What has changed in the approximately 100 years that Gucci and its contemporaries, such as Prada (founded in Milan in 1913), Chanel (founded in Paris in 1909) and Burberry (founded in London in 1864, a few generations older), have existed are the values that their products are expected to connote, and the audiences they are focusing on.

The recent month's renewed international attention to the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted how far those companies have come to meet a global audience that needs their purchases to reflect inclusive values. It's a sharp turn from the exclusivity paradigm that the fashion world has so often pulled on with an iron fist — the one that says, not slim or white or rich enough to wear those clothing? Very bad indeed!

"The whole point of the luxury brands is that you create attraction, and that's a sense of identity. That significance must include the internal as well as external image of the brand. Luxury brands both need to convey that their products are made with people of color in mind to be acceptable to the conscious consumer, and that their businesses have internal diversity policies to appeal to the increasingly critical millennial workforce.

A failure to predict how a conscious customer may view those products has already had negative effects on those brands. Prada's "Pradamalia" figurines attracted fast condemnation in December 2018 for their resemblance to blackface; February 2019 saw widespread outrage against Gucci and Burberry for sweaters evoking blackface and a noose, respectively. These products were not even the most offensive ones released in recent memory by any fashion company (they weren't even the most racist thing produced that season by a fashion brand). Yet certain goods have, so to speak, been a flashpoint in pushing luxury brands to face greater scrutiny from the public.

It follows then that internally recruiting practices are now attracting the same attention as an ad campaign. First came the news of Miuccia Prada and her staff undergoing sensitivity training in February 2019, followed by the announcement that the company would launch a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, headed by Ava DuVernay. Burberry announced a slew of internal diversity initiatives later that month. Gucci launched its multi-tiered initiative Gucci Changemakers to combat racial inequity in March, and later hired Renée Tirado as the global head of diversity, equity and inclusion. In July, Chanel appointed Fiona Pageter as its first ever global head of diversity and inclusion.

The thing about diversity officers is that they have kind of a tough task, because they need help within the company to do their job. So it's all very well and good to employ a diversity officer to help you diverse your staff, and then your ethics or marketing strategies or whatever you've made a boo of. But getting that really having an effective hold in your business is another story.

When announcing the hiring of their diversity and inclusion officers, these luxury brands couldn't have realized that only a year later corporations from around the world would be asked to make their efforts to fight racism in public. Making those diversity promises means setting yourself up to be publicly accountable for changing customer standards — but these companies often face a tightrope of difficulties in authentically transmitting company values to a large, heterogeneous market at a moment when millions of eyes are well-tuned to any misstep.

Companies realize that being inclusive, embracing diversity, empowering everyone to feel a part of their business is actually good, strategic conduct. So that was inside and now I guess the same sort of mindset has shifted to the outer part. It doesn't just have to make sure our immediate target client is happy. Yet we ought to look at ourselves as the world's strong corporate citizens. And where the world is headed?

One is to reflect what cultural norms and values are today. Then the other is to focus, or refract, if you prefer. And to ask, Imagine this other world and do you not want to live in this world? The obligation held by these organizations is to change.This means ensuring that the boardroom consists of black and brown faces, queer faces, trans faces, ensuring that all the individuals depicted in ads are more reflective of the population. Make sure the people who work on projects come from different cultures, different backgrounds of the society, so there are different faces at every level of production and every level of the company.

In 2018, filmmaker Jade Jackman scouted Dolan-Sandrino for appearance in a short film made for Gucci, titled Future is Fluid. She joined the Gucci's Chime for Change advisory board the following year, which has worked for gender equality since 2013. "My dream is to have more Queer Black and Brown kids every time I enter the room," she said. Since then, Dolan-Sandrino has appeared on panels organized by Gucci and contributed to the company's Chime Zine, edited by the community activist Adam Eli; in her writing for the zine and other experiences with others affiliated with the company, Dolan-Sandrino states that she was first and foremost known as an artist for her work.

"I have to really write about what it's like to be trans," she said. "Those things are most often phrased as, Why do you matter? Why are You Existing? And in the end, the Gucci thing is that it's never been a problem. The problem has never been why I need to show you just how important it is that I have rights.

But the fashion industry is still a small, insular market, even if there has been a significant diversification in the industry. "This little island that at one point was so elitist that none really thought about it," Bethann Hardison, the legendary model and activist, said. "This island has not been getting any larger. Yet the population has risen significantly," she said. Hardison has been championing greater fashion diversity for decades, dating back to her establishment of the Black Girls Alliance with Iman in 1988. She joined the Board of Advisors of Gucci Changemakers in 2019. She cites the brand's education commitment through diverse communities as vital work.

Last month, as part of the first Changemakers Scholars class, it announced the 20 students who will earn $1.5 million in support over the next four years. "No money came in. Gucci already had its money cut out. They have never taken away the initiative and they could have. It really surprised me," she said of their ability to pull off the plan in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

In October 2019, the company also introduced a design fellowship program to build job opportunities for students from underrepresented groups, which includes collaborations with schools such as the University of Lagos and Bunka Fashion School in Tokyo.

Burberry has begun plans to support 50 students over the next five years. Both Burberry and Gucci have since introduced implicit bias training through corporate departments, warehouses, and retail stores over the past year.

Prada sponsored a conference on corporate social responsibility, entitled "Shaping a Sustainable Future Culture." Gucci created a US$ 5 million fund to help 16 community-based organizations including Houston's Writers in the Schools and the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, and Chanel pledged US$ 1 million to support grassroots, racial justice groups. It is not often possible to observe such internal machinations from the outside, but this June, when a new wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted across the United States, fashion companies were once again called upon to make their position from racism public.

Gucci posted a poem from Cleo Wade on its Instagram, followed by another post announcing NAACP, Know Your Rights Center, and Campaign Zero donations and that it will close U.S. operations as a day of mourning on June 4th. In an Instagram message, Prada also committed to advocating for social justice, while Burberry pledged a donation to Black Lives Matter, and Chanel shared three black squares in a row.

"One of the things I'm hoping this comes with is that fashion will be a lot more vocal and will want to make mistakes in order to know, rather than walking around on eggshells. This is what a lot of companies end up doing, they don't want to offend anybody, but they're doing nothing at all by not offending anybody." In true cultural revolutions to take place there needs to be a strong moral foundation, a concept that philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses in his book The Honor Code: Why Moral Revolutions Happen.

When major cultural transformations occur in society, it's important to have real morals through that. It's not because someone tells us to do it, or not because it's good for us, that the people have to feel like it. This is what we have to do because we know this is the right thing to do. That's not just black and white, that's a human moment.

With Black Lives Matter, what you could see was the knee of this guy on a man's face. It influenced a lot of people to see it. And black and white has nothing to do with it, this is a real moment. You can't see the impact of those scholarship programs, unconscious bias training or recruiting a diversity and inclusion officer in a year.

After all, undoing century-old traditions takes more than mere months. But the public pressure has risen to such a degree that brands that do no more than surface-level ads will probably not last another 100 years.

More brands such as Rick Owens or Alexander Wang are getting involved in this movement every month.

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