Fashion has awoken, but isn’t woke enough.
There is still opportunity for the industry — which prides itself on being so in touch with the zeitgeist — to meet this extraordinary moment in American history and go beyond diversity and inclusion to truly welcoming everyone into the fold.
It’s going to take real — and for some, very personal — work to shake the status quo that for too long has been good enough for the privileged majority and thus has become entrenched in a way that is both unfair and was broadly unaddressed.
But now it is an issue that’s more urgent than ever.
While the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising animated discussions around LGBTQ rights and diversity issues a year ago, the topic was blown wide open this year by the killing of George Floyd — another Black man dead at the hands of police.
The video of Floyd gasping for breath and ultimately dying while a white police officer — Derek Chauvin — kneeled on his neck proved to be just too much racially tinged police brutality to be tolerated. People in thousands of cities and towns across the U.S. — and the world — joined the largely peaceful protests and forced the issue to the front of the common consciousness.
If there were questions whether corporate America — in the throes of the COVID-19 shutdown and facing financial meltdown — still had the capacity to address diversity, it was answered in the flood of new, vocal supporters to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many retailers, apparel and beauty firms took new and strong stands against racism and in support of the protests, donated to groups working on the issues, promised to look into their own practices. Away from fashion, corporate America mobilized at last: the National Football League embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, the Aunt Jemima brand was retired and more.
And all this happened alongside Pride Month celebrations — rainbow-hued collections and all — in the midst of the pandemic. There has also been real progress on the LGBTQ legal front with the recent Supreme Court’s ruling that it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
But a lot of the progress going forward is going to happen away from the spotlight now trained on the issue of diversity. People and organizations are going to have to look within. Many opinions on privilege, what racism is today and what it means to be a supporter of minority groups will have to be reexamined.
Michael Bush, chief executive officer of people analytics company Great Place to Work, said: “The best companies, the best organizations, they are embarking on a path of learning, they are reading, they are studying, because people who think they understand why things are the way they are, that’s part of the problem, because they’re wrong.”
People in the majority need to move beyond a sense of individualism that hangs too much of their place in the world on their own efforts, he said.
“Racism isn’t bad people doing bad things,” Bush said. “Racism is moving through the world not realizing how the world reacts to you and believing you’re moving through the world the way you do because you worked hard individually. It’s full of bias.”
To change, Bush said corporate leaders need to stop and listen and take some time before responding. And they need to be trying to understand.
A good litmus test is a ceo’s reading list.
“What three books are you reading related to related to racism?” Bush said. “If you’re like, ‘None,’ and aren’t going to, I don’t think you’re going to move.”
He suggested “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo — the number-one nonfiction book on The New York Times Best Sellers list — as a good place to start. And then there are plenty of places to turn. Nine of the top 10 books on the bestsellers list last week focused on race or social justice.
People seem to be listening and, hopefully thinking, more than ever before.
It’s a hard pivot for fashion, which was just finishing preparations to celebrate Pride Month when Floyd was killed and the protests started.
Instead of stopping to pat themselves on the back and celebrate the LGBTQ community — there’s been some progress, but not enough as there are still very few LGBTQ ceo’s and business leaders in fashion — the industry found itself behind the curve on another dimension of diversity.
One tenet of the push for corporate inclusion is that having a more diverse set of voices at the top will lead to better decisions — and, as numerous studies show, better financial performance.
C-suites and boards are still dominated by straight white men. That, in essence, is the old boys club that, whether on purpose or not, benefits from a society and system that has held and continues to hold others back.
But there are some small cracks in the system.
In the Fortune 500, there are five Black ceo’s, including former J.C. Penney chief Marvin Ellison, who is now head of Lowe’s, and Jide Zeitlin at Tapestry. The number of LGBTQ ceo’s is smaller still, at four, including Jeff Gennette at Macy’s Inc.
There are others as well — Neiman Marcus Group also has an LGBTQ ceo in Geoffroy van Raemdonck — but the list of major players with real diversity at the very highest levels is vanishingly small. And that’s a loss.
“Macy’s is America’s department store and we serve a very diverse set of customers and communities,” Gennette told WWD. “The diversity of our teams is certainly helpful as it allows us to have a greater understanding of what the Black experience is in our company and our country today. But it isn’t our Black colleagues’ responsibility to educate the people around them. We’ve made a call for our non-Black colleagues to self-educate and have shared resources with both our colleagues and customers.
“No human is one-dimensional,” Gennette said. “Each of us brings all of our experiences to bear when we try to empathize with any minority group. This week’s convergence of the victory on LGBTQ rights from the Supreme Court and the continued peaceful demonstrations demanding fundamental change to end racism was powerful and very encouraging to see.”
While the COVID-19 shutdown and slow restart has had a crushing financial impact on fashion — with Neiman Marcus and many others driven into bankruptcy — the desire for equality is a personal and professional endeavor separate from the balance sheet.
Van Raemdonck said: “We’re at a very important time in history, evidenced by momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the recent Supreme Court ruling expanding LGBTQ+ protections in the workplace. At Neiman Marcus Group, we recognize our responsibility to speak out against racial injustices and societal inequities and to take pivotal action to ensure we have a company culture of acceptance and belonging. As a gay man, driving meaningful actions and serving as a catalyst for change is a responsibility I take seriously.”
Even as these and other executives have been fighting for LGBTQ equality, they now face an even more systemic problem in battling racism and determining how to embrace the ongoing rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In the fashion industry, there is a great deal of white privilege both at the board level and management levels,” said James Miller, who is gay and ceo and chief creative officer of The Collected Group, which operates Joie, Equipment and Current/Elliott. “I don’t think race has been focused on enough.”
The company had not historically been vocal on issues of race, although it was working on the matter internally. Miller, however, has not shied away from thorny issues and this year Equipment launched a gender-fluid line in collaboration with The Phluid Project.
Miller said the many conversations he had while developing and selling the gender-fluid collection helped prepare him to step out early as the Black Lives Matter protests began.
The ceo personally took control of the brands’ Instagram accounts and started with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. — “There comes a time when silence is betrayal” — and has digitally engaged with people on the issue on behalf of the company.
Miller said he wanted to do it himself because: “These are delicate conversations. We are a predominantly white-based organization and I don’t believe everyone is equipped to wander into a discussion on race on a public platform.”
Internally, Miller said the Collected Group has sought to be more thoughtful in hiring. “Just because we have open positions doesn’t mean we have to fill them tomorrow,” he said. “If you’re looking to fill a seat in our company purely out of speed, that is absolutely the wrong way to go about this.”
Miller said his company is also doing things “that push the boundary of normalcy” — he pointed to donations of Personal Protective Equipment to what he said was the forward-leaning women’s corrections department in Arizona — and taking on less comfortable topics.
“Why is fashion synonymous with making you feel good?” said Miller, noting consumers are ready to move beyond pure aesthetics and to brands that represent more.
Customers are an important part of the equation.
Brands are used to a delicate dance, chasing consumer dollars while also trying to lead in various stylistic directions, looking for fresh ways to connect. This often begins with a kind of composite view on who is a brand’s customer and then a marketing apparatus that tries to find people who fit the profile.
That approach has historically missed large groups, from Black and LGBTQ people to plus-sized and older shoppers. It can also restrict appeals to select groups of consumers to a calendar of specific events.
Now the Black Lives Matter protests have pushed the absolute necessity of diversity to the fore, making it all the more clear that minority groups don’t just exist for one month of the year — be it Pride Month in June or Black History Month in February — but deserve and need regular attention.
“Companies have to do a wholesale rethinking of their customers,” said Todd Sears, founder and principal of global business network Out Leadership. “That’s not a new idea, it’s just not an idea that every company out there has paid attention to before this. It’s like Black Lives Matters has ripped the Band-Aid off.”
It is not just companies, but the people who keep them humming who need to take a fresh look at the world and their place in it.
Sears said allies — people who are a part of the dominant culture, but open to and accepting of minority groups — need to make clear that they are supportive.
“Allies have to come out,” he said.
Companies — and the people who run them — also have to create cultures that are able to move beyond the ideas of just diversity and inclusion.
“Diversity is getting invited to the dance, inclusion is getting into the room with the dance, but belonging is getting asked to dance,” Sears said. “That you ultimately feel like you’re a part of something — that’s easier for some companies than others.”
And more companies are awakening to the fact that a diverse workforce can also be a stronger workforce.
Chantal Gaemperle, executive vice president of human resources and synergies for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said teams are more efficient when people can express their potential in an open working environment where everyone can be themselves.
“In order to be yourself, you need to be able to express your differences,” Gaemperle said.
In the luxury business, which is about making people dream through exceptional experiences or create high-quality products, the company has to be able to capitalize on such differences, she said.
“It’s not just corporate babble to say that diversity and inclusion are business enablers — it’s proven,” she said. “I think we can make a link with the economic performances of groups that are diverse in the composition of their talent to be able to reflect — you see it with what we’re living today — a world that is going through perpetual change and to have these different perspectives.”
The current crisis has highlighted the necessity of local proximity, especially when it comes to subjects of cultural sensitivity, she said.
“Our role at the group level is to say that this subject is fundamental, it is something that has to be spread with our practices, but each region can choose its focus according to local priorities,” she said.
“It’s a particularly strong subject in the U.S. right now, with a push for more transparency when it comes to sharing statistics,” she said.
“It’s a question we have, we are thinking about this — I can’t say I have all the answers — it’s a sign of the times, today we are living in a very complex world that is changing all the time. We have to stay humble when it comes to this, and we have to above all listen,” she said.
And the many diversity and inclusion programs in fashion are just a starting point for the industry at large.
“The conversation is changing from one of inclusion and representation to one of opportunity,” said Corey Chafin, principal in Kearney’s consumer practice and lead author of the upcoming report, “Unstoppable for 50 Years: LGBTQ+ Pride Marches Forward.”
“It’s not just about saying we reserve two spots on our board for this demographic. That’s insufficient,” Chafin said. “What they need to focus on is, ‘Are we providing the right opportunities for all our employees?’ As you get closer to the top you do see the numbers start to trail off; what you can’t measure is why.”
Companies need to look at “trigger moments,” or at just what step minority employees are leaving. “Once you identify those, then you can set up some interventions around that,” he said.
So, if a retailer has broad representation among sales associates, but a much less diverse group of store managers, they can track that and start to figure out how to move a more diverse group of people up through the ranks at that key juncture.
Many companies were tracking diversity already, but clearly aren’t using that information to redress the ongoing imbalance the higher up the corporate ladder one looks.
“There’s a realization that the dominant culture thought that it understood the experience of various minority cultures and in fact it doesn’t,” Chafin said. “It doesn’t understand the history and the nuance.
“We have to dig deeper to get to the ‘why’ and to get to the ‘why,’ you really have to understand the lived experience of those groups,” he said.
There is space now to get to that understanding.
“It’s the moment for diversity to step forward, more than any moment I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said.
Right now the broader white community has been awakened and is focused on the issue.
“Black people have been screaming and yelling and talking about this for years…and it took this vicious murder on TV to open the eyes of many white people,” said Kelly Charles-Collins, an employment trial attorney and ceo of HR Legally Speaking. “They didn’t have a choice, but to pay attention [to the killing of Floyd, who was held down, a knee on his neck, for eight minutes and 46 seconds]. “They didn’t have a choice but to pay attention. It was so long. It was so callous. It was so in their face that they didn’t have a choice, but to pay attention.
“The discomfort that white people feel at this moment is going to go away,” Charles-Collins said. “They will be able to go back to the, I don’t see, I don’t hear, I don’t know.”
To be part of the solution, fashion companies are going to have to go beyond words and take action, weaving equality into their operations by incorporating it into strategic planning and by making sure people have spaces to express their feelings.
That requires “acceptance that your culture is not as welcoming or as inclusive as you thought it was,” she said and then acting. “Knowing is good, but applied knowledge is what makes a difference.”
There is also hope in the next generation.
“Gen Z seems to be enlightened in all the ways in how the world is diverse,” Charles-Collins said. “For them, I think the challenge will be how do you challenge [the status quo] in a way that creates sustained change. And they need the rest of us to help in that. It’s systemic, so the system has to be dismantled. The people who benefit from the system have to want to change it.”