The mirror. Sometimes it catches us off guard, revealing a scar or scab, a truth-telling character line or woeful flaw we didn’t know we had. Is that me? It can scare the bejesus out of us, but the shock of it draws us closer to the glass, wary, humbled, and intent on closer self-discovery and correction.
This is a mirror moment.
When George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, the world changed. Suddenly, after thriving for centuries, racism would no longer be tolerated. As the fight for social justice amped up and continues the world over, this industry has done what it typically does when tragedy strikes — it has stood up and spoken out, now embracing the concept of self-education and engaging in check-writing. Of the six- and seven-figure kind, to organizations working to stem racism and fight for equality. Those checks are essential, and companies and executives who write them deserve acknowledgment.
Another kind of check is equally important. The fortunate among us get one every two weeks or so; some of us even get it for doing something we love (or that we love most of the time). Yet even before the coronavirus shutdown forced 30 million people in the U.S. onto employment, access to the sources of such checks was far from equal.
Race-based employment inequality is an undeniable reality. We see it every day. The imbalance pervades our world, a world in a powerful position to do something about it. It’s not in a unique position; many industries can do the same. But our reality is here. So the thought occurred to ask many of the giants of the industry to hold a mirror to themselves and their organizations, and to reflect on what their companies look like on the inside, from selling floor and stockroom up through to the bastions of power.
The point isn’t a “gotcha.” I’m in no position to getcha. Through the course of my employment, over more than 30 years and through five owners, the company I work for has stayed pretty white, certainly through its management ranks, though earnest diversity efforts are now underway. Nor is the point a surprise reveal of how underrepresented Black people are. We live in this industry. We know what it looks like. In the United States in particular — as the COVID-19 crisis has brought into high relief — many people of color work the most essential retail jobs, yet they are sorely underrepresented across management tiers. We know that.
We know, too, that this is an overwhelmingly good and decent industry run by mostly good and decent people who want to do the right thing. Still, even as diversity has become a major focus, with emphasis on women and the LGBTQ community, the issue of racial diversity — along with career development and advancement of people of color — hasn’t gotten equal attention. In some cases, it’s gotten no attention at all, until now.
It’s pertinent to ask companies whose leaders are writing checks and making statements — and in many cases, developing D&I initiatives or strengthening those already in place — to look at their current employment realities. Are they fair, diverse, with equal opportunity for all?
Requests went to a wide but by no means complete range of companies — groups, brands and retailers — across fashion, beauty and retail, from mass to luxury. Their scale ranges from Walmart, which employs an enormous 2.2 million people, to companies with staffs in the low thousands. The “methodology” (term used very loosely) queried the companies on their employee populations inclusive of recruiting, hiring and career development. In the case of groups, only the umbrella organizations were approached, and not their brands (even the most powerful ones), for two reasons. First, as with sustainability, diversity and inclusion should be, and typically are, overarching pillars. Second and less philosophical: to impose parameters on an unwieldy process. So, Chanel and Hermès, yay; Dior and Gucci, nay. For the same pragmatic reason, the entire media sector was excluded, save one company, WWD’s parent, PMC. Though an outlier in both company type and size (1,000-plus employees), it seemed inappropriate to ask challenging questions of others and not ourselves.
All companies were sent 16 questions, some purely quantitative: How many/what percentage of employees are people of color, and Black specifically? How many of each work retail vs. corporate? How many hold corporate management positions vs. in-store management positions?
Others questions were broader: How do you define diversity? What D&I programs do you have in place? Of what are you most proud? What can you do better?
In every case, WWD requested a comment from the organization’s highest-ranking executive. Most often, they didn’t provide it. However, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Tory Burch sent statements, Armani’s an emotional personal position piece. Chief executive officers who responded directly — Burberry Group’s Marco Gobbetti, Capri Holdings’ John Idol and PVH-times-two: Manny Chirico and in-the-wings and current president, Stefan Larsson.
The company responses ranged from forwarded web site links to every question answered, paired with additional nuanced statements. Respondents all strongly decried racism, and many noted financial contributions to social justice organizations. Companies cited a great deal of listening-and-learning, which is essential, as long as it doesn’t become the racial-equality equivalent of anti-gun violence thoughts and prayers: distraction from recalcitrant inertia. Some responses veered off-topic; numerous companies offered updates on their progress in hiring and supporting women — terrific, but not the question. Regarding racial demographics in general, virtually all European companies pointed out that laws change from country to country, and that many forbid the accumulation of race-based employment data for privacy purposes. While that’s true, laws of the home-base country do not extend to outposts, at least not those with separate subsidiaries; in the U.S., companies are free to gather such information when self-reported by employees.
Despite some numbers avoidance, in this moment of self-reckoning (the cultural moment, not this survey) most respondents answered thoughtfully and shared worthwhile information, some about new courses of action and concrete actions already in place and some, moments of deep reflection. Gap Inc. will double the number of Black and Latinx employees at all levels in U.S. headquarters offices by 2025, and will increase by 50 percent the number of Black employees in U.S. “Store Leader” capacities. Kering aims no lower than to “reimagine the diversity and inclusion paradigm.” That, according to Kalpana Bagamane Denzel, whose title — “Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Talent Officer” — indicates that the group views D&I as equal and inextricably linked to talent acquisition and retention. On an introspective note, Estée Lauder Companies forwarded an internal memo sent to employees from chairman William Lauder and ceo Fabrizio Freda in which they addressed Lauder’s people of color: “We are both keenly aware that we come from a place of privilege…and cannot truly understand what it feels like to be marginalized.” Not a revelation, but a truth powerful in its articulation.
All respondents acknowledged that their companies have not done enough. Most charged themselves with the need to force rapid and meaningful change by increasing the number of people of color, and Black people in particular, among their employee populations, and, as those numbers increase, ensuring those workers have career development and advancement opportunities equal to those of their white counterparts.
Today through Wednesday, WWD presents the responses. “The Numbers” come primarily from the companies, either in survey answers or pulled from web sites. (Thank you, researcher Nora Bayer.) Some companies break down racial demographics quite specifically, listing as many as seven potential identities; others do so more obliquely: “ethnically diverse; non-ethnically diverse.” All breakdowns listed reflect U.S. employment populations only, and only those employees who self-identify.
Companies are presented alphabetically, more or less, (save for Adidas — communications snafu), while allowing art director Tess Donlevie creative license to shift within each day. That arrangement eliminates any unintentional suggestion of status by placement.
All of these companies can significantly impact fashion’s employment picture. It starts with a good hard look in the mirror.