There’s an ugly truth in fashion.
For all of the industry’s “wokeness,” many of its smart and capable LGBTQ executives climbing the corporate ladder all too often smash into a rainbow glass ceiling on their way to the corner office.
The amorphic, but complex, barrier is made up of conscious and unconscious biases, typecast expectations, silence, misunderstanding — and fear. It protects the status quo and reinforces the image of the chief executive officer as most often a straight, white male. It denies retail, fashion and beauty companies leadership that is as diverse as their customers.
There are some cracks, small openings where people with skill, determination and bravery found companies that were open enough for the top job to tilt toward the LGBTQ.
Still, even as the fashion and beauty worlds come together — in some cases, in a self-congratulatory way — to celebrate Pride Month and mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, out of the 100-plus major fashion companies and brands around the world, there are only a handful of LGBTQ ceo’s.
Jeff Gennette is ceo of Macy’s Inc.; Geoffroy van Raemdonck is ceo at Neiman Marcus; Joshua Shulman is ceo of the Coach brand; Robert Hanson is chairman at John Hardy and until recently was ceo, a title he also held at American Eagle Outfitters Inc. Sue Y. Nabi, ceo and founder of skin-care company Orveda, went by Youcef when she started working at L’Oréal, and went on to lead both the L’Oréal and the Lancôme brands, transitioning along the way. Mario Grauso heads Holt Renfrew as president.
While this is far from a complete list, the representation of the cohort at the ceo level remains surprisingly sparse, especially in an industry that could be expected to lean-in on the issue given its reputation for openness on the creative side of the business.
A half-century after Stonewall, having an LGBTQ person’s name next to those three letters — ceo — is not only rare, but incredibly powerful. It signals an undeniable and genuine openness to employees, shareholders, other executives and, perhaps most importantly, young people exploring their own identity and looking to the world for role models.
“What I think was lacking when I grew up was, there were no role models,” said Neiman’s van Raemdonck. “Now that I’m a ceo, I have a responsibility to be a role model. The best role model I can be is to be who I am.
“I almost think, let’s not have the conversation, let’s role model it and if someone needs the conversation, let’s have the conversation — showing it and inviting people to embrace it. I’m not asking for permission. I’m not asking for feedback,” he added.
Clearly, though, there are a lot of people who need that conversation now.
“There’s a momentum now, and I think we need to keep our effort behind the momentum,” van Raemdonck said.
Prior to Neiman’s, van Raemdonck’s career path saw him serve as ceo of St. John Knits and group president at Ralph Lauren overseeing Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and he held senior roles at Louis Vuitton. That gives him first-hand trans-Atlantic experience with corporate diversity.
“In the U.S., it’s more of a topic, it’s more of a conversation and I think that leads to positive conversation…inclusion is on the table,” van Raemdonck said. “In Europe, it’s a little bit more organic, but I don’t know that the outcome is necessarily different.
“I do feel in the U.S. this ability to speak about it and make it part of the conversation so that we have a proactive education about LGBTQ values, leaders, I think that’s the difference, and I think that’s very, very positive,” he said.
The diversity conversation is a long one — a generational back-and-forth that is happening everywhere — in the media, all over social media, on TV, at kitchen tables, in the office and in the boardroom.
“I have to bring my authentic self to work, period,” said Hanson, who before John Hardy and American Eagle was global president of the Levi’s brand at Levi Strauss & Co.
Hanson grew up in Northern California, had a supportive family and went to work at Levi’s — “there were no greater conditions for me to be authentically myself than that,” he said.
“I view it as my obligation to show up,” Hanson continued. “Part of showing up is having the courage to not be confrontational, but to leverage interactions with people in power — boards, other senior executives, investors — to engage and to educate and to encourage a shift in their perspective.”
It is boards of directors that choose ceo’s and are therefore best positioned to chart a new, more diverse course.
“As my career was growing and I was getting mentorship from a number of directors on the board, the reality that I faced was a moment in time when I moved from being mentee to mentor on this topic,” Hanson said. “The directors, while well-intentioned, hadn’t walked in my shoes. It was just an opportunity to expand the perspective of a director who obviously I worked for. Those conversations are tricky, but critical.”
By nature, boards are obsessed with shareholder value and they aren’t generally looking to be pioneers when it comes to social or cultural causes. Often, they are looking for a ceo from central casting who looks the part — which can limit not only the chances of LGBTQ candidates, but also those of women and minorities.
“The boards who choose these ceo’s, they expect this kind of toughness or this masculinity that goes with it,” said Kelly Charles-Collins, an employment trial attorney and ceo of HR Legally Speaking. “And then when you’re talking about a gay male, there is a femininity that’s associated with that…I think that’s part of it — the masculinity that is associated with the title.”
What can be overlooked in the process is how discrimination, in society and at every level at work, can force the rising LGBTQ executive to be extra prepared, extra resilient and extra smart just to get to the c-suite.
“In general, people have fear, fueled by a lack of information and get distracted by this piece of information that can make them forget completely about this person’s accomplishments,” said Michael Bush, ceo of diversity data company Great Place to Work. “People don’t acknowledge that truth. This person must really be good because they’re now in the room with me after overcoming so many challenges that most do not have to experience, so this is a unique person. It is much harder compared to women in breaking the glass ceiling.”
But that last challenge in the boardroom — where the glass ceiling is ultimately broken — is just one of a number of overlapping factors that has led to fewer LGBTQ people in the top job.
Todd Sears, founder and principal of global business network Out Leadership, said there are just four openly LGBTQ ceo’s in the Fortune 500 and he pinned part of that on demographics.
It takes time to pick up the skills and experience needed to lead a company and Sears said the average ceo in the U.S. is in their mid-50s.
“Any of the ceo’s who are in their mid 50s would have entered the business world probably 30 years ago,” he said. “If you think about how possible it would have been to be ‘out’ in their career 30 years ago when it was still considered potentially a disease — literally it would be career-ending to be out 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago. That is a hangover in terms of leaders at that level.” (The AIDS epidemic also whisked away a significant proportion of the generation of gay men who would be the right age to be ceo now).
While things have started changing for LGBTQ people in the office and at home — the recognition of the right of LGBTQ people to marry in 2015 was a milestone — there are still plenty of hurdles.
“We have no federal protection and a lack of federal leadership,” said Sears, noting people can be fired for being LGBTQ in 29 states. “We’ve made huge progress on the policy front, but policy does not equal culture.”
And culture often resides in a million everyday interactions between individuals.
“The number-one reason people come out at work is knowing their colleagues are supportive,” Sears said, underscoring the importance of having visible allies from the straight community. “Allies have to come out because gay people don’t know you’re an ally unless you tell them. If a straight white dude publicly says he’s a LGBT ally, the overall engagement of women and people of color in his organization go up.”
Allies are becoming more apparent for aspiring LGBTQ executives, with many top leaders vocal in their support for diversity.
“At LVMH, we are committed to fostering a culture of respect, equality and inclusion for all,” said Chantal Gaemperle, group executive vice president of human resources and synergies. “This is a basic principle, a fundamental right. Being the leader in luxury, we must act with exemplary behavior to also inspire others to take action and make this world a better place that welcomes everyone.”
Gucci ceo Marco Bizzarri said, “The LGBTQ community is well-represented throughout our organization, including at the senior executive level, it could not be otherwise. Gucci is pledged to guarantee equal rights to all.”
Béatrice Lazat, chief people officer at Gucci’s parent, Kering, said, “We believe diversity is a source of creativity, innovation and thus performance. That’s why we are committed to giving everyone their chance and why we believe that our dynamic, diverse, multicultural workforce is at the heart of our success.”
And Micaela Le Divelec Lemmi, ceo of Salvatore Ferragamo, noted, “Our diversity policy aims to stimulate awareness and sensibility among employees of the group toward inclusion in the wider sense of the term.”
The LGBTQ business leaders interviewed for this article stressed the benefits of diversity to the larger organization and also underscored the importance of LGBTQ role models in the upper echelons as kind of the key that unlocks a world of possibilities.
“Every time we find out about someone who’s successful who’s gay, it’s good. It just proves that there’s one more way to do it,” said Ryan Cotton, managing director at Bain Capital, who sits on the boards of Canada Goose Holdings Inc., Blue Nile Inc. and Michaels Stores Inc.
“There’s always been a place for gay people in the fashion world,” Cotton added. “That’s allowed a lazy liberalism to set in. ‘We have tons of gay people.’ You do, but you only have one narrative for those people.” That narrative, which has generally placed LGBTQ people on the creative side of the industry, changes as more LGBTQ people move up the corporate ranks.
“Every level I reached at Bain, I’ve been the most senior gay man,” Cotton said. “I’m writing the script. I feel a lot of responsibility, but I also feel the need to be very careful about that responsibility. I never want to cross that line and be patronizing [while mentoring a colleague]. You don’t want to make it part of their career, what you want to do is create a world where it’s a nonfactor.”
Before taking the lead at Tapestry’s Coach division, Schulman started his career in the early Nineties under Robert Duffy and Marc Jacobs at Perry Ellis, where he was an in-the-closet account executive.
“In that moment very early on, they were part of both my professional development, first and foremost, but also the people in the company gave me the idea of what it would be like to be an out professional in the industry,” Schulman said.
“I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my career,” he said. “One of my goals was also to be one of the presidents or ceo’s of a department store and, frankly, at that time, there were no examples of that. Then flash-forward to today, kids growing up or coming into the industry can see Jeff Gennette at Macy’s, Tim Cook at Apple and [presidential candidate] Pete Buttigieg.
“You want to create a culture that has ultimately a diversity of opinions and a diversity of background, first and foremost because it’s the right thing to do,” Schulman said. “An important byproduct of that is, it’s good business.”
Mark Lee was Schulman’s boss while ceo at the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent brands, before becoming ceo of Barneys New York.
“As I became a ceo, I always believed in mentorship and always believed in trying to train and bring up the ranks and truly give equal opportunity across gender — men/women, young/old,” he said.
“It just needs commitment from the chairman and board and ceo, and then down through the senior officers and the senior management of the company,” Lee said. “There’s no shortage of gay people — at least in all the companies I worked at.”
Grauso at Holt Renfrew said: “I’m surprised there aren’t more LGBTQ c-suite execs because on the whole I have found our industry to be welcoming and supportive.
“I think we, as LGBTQ execs, need to tell our story whenever possible to encourage and support LGBTQ youth. They need to know they have just as strong a chance as anyone else if they work hard and achieve success. Perhaps they need a roadmap that our personal resumes could encourage. At the same time, organizations have a responsibility to ensure an inclusive culture where all talent feels safe, engaged and that they can bring their whole selves to work.”
LGBTQ people who rose to the top of the business world have in many cases had to prove that they are multidimensional and transcend the notion that they are perhaps only creative types.
Nabi at Orveda said she “always tried to fight against this idea in people’s mind, probably in my manager’s mind” as her career progressed.
“When it comes to dealing with real business, when it comes to talk about money, about investment, making big decisions, this was something that was not really open,” she said. “I’m probably creative, but not only — I’m also a business person. This idea that the LGBTQ community was confined to the creative field is something we need to fight. For me, this is the next big fight.”
Nabi was born in North Africa and moved to France at 16, studying engineering, biochemistry and business before landing at L’Oréal in 1993. It wasn’t until she was in her mid 30s and just before she ascended to ceo of the flagship brand that she began to transition.
“I was leading 500 people — I decided to be true to myself, I decided to tell people to call me Sue,” Nabi said, noting her attitude was, “’Judge me on my results, don’t judge me on my personal choices.’
“When I made this choice, it was not major, it was subtle” made with “small touches,” she said. “Touches here and there to become who you are. I like to do things in the way that people get used to it.”
People did get used to it. Nabi’s transition and openness helped bring new talent into the organization.
“I attracted a lot of people who were maybe not very comfortable with who they were in the business world,” she said.
And Nabi became more comfortable.
“One-hundred percent of my energy became concentrated on achieving goals and doing things instead of, ‘How am I going to be perceived?’” she said. “All these questions that you ask yourself, they disappear because you become very transparent and everything is there. There is no more questioning the fact, there is just you are who you are and that’s it.”
Nabi said her boss at L’Oréal at the time, Lindsay Owen-Jones, encouraged her to broaden the L’Oréal brand and move it beyond what she described as “young, blue-eyed models.”
That, of course, is the promise of diversity. Employees are more free, new talent is brought in, opening a wider aperture on the world that lets brands better connect with customers.
But Nabi said many companies can do better and “really walk the talk” on diversity.
“My feeling is that this is a box to be ticked in most of the big corporations, not something genuine,” she said. “It’s needed because it’s good for the image and that’s probably the limit with it.”
Not treating diversity seriously can lead companies to bad places. Brands can lose their meaning if they fail to appreciate the world is evolving and they keep talking to consumers in the same way, staying with the status quo instead of adjusting.
“There is a new world,” Nabi said. “It’s very complex and all together we are learning how to talk to this world.”
To meet this challenge, top executives are going to have to exist beyond a company’s financial statements and avoid sealing themselves off from their customers by seeing the world too narrowly.
“Diversity is not yet considered an added value in management, while for creative roles I feel that this is seen as a fertile characteristic,” said Giovanna Brambilla, partner at Milan-based executive search firm Value Search. “This richness is not as recognized on the management front. ‘Business is business’ is still a strong belief. I have been working in this sector for 20 years and the situation was very different also when it came to creative roles, but there has been a positive evolution in recognizing that diversity brings improvements.”
Diversity might simply be coming to the industry, one way or another, no matter what the inertia of the corner office says.
Fashion knows what disruption looks like from the rise of the web and social media and influencers and the rest — and the same is happening in diversity.
Take Fran Dunaway and Naomi Gonzalez, the lesbian couple who founded underwear brand TomboyX, which bills itself as making “comfortable underwear that fits your body and how you see yourself.”
Dunaway noted that less than 2 percent of female-owned companies make it to $1 million and that less than 2 percent get access to institutional money.
“Now, we want to show that, not only can we break through those barriers, but we want to prove that we can build a really amazing business,” Dunaway said.
“There’s a way to make a beautiful business based on inclusivity and not exclusivity,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of divisiveness out there. There’s a lot of hatred out there. We absolutely have a lot of work to do, but I think we do it by continuing the conversation. And we love being a brand that can kind of start those conversations.”
They aren’t always easy, but those conversations can reveal people and society.
“I think we are living in such an interesting period, chaotic and upsetting and changing,” said Christoper Bailey before his final show for Burberry last year.
Bailey is a rare figure in that he led one of fashion’s most prominent brands from a creative aspect and then from 2014 to 2017 took on the mantle of ceo as well.
The ability to even attempt that kind of multitasking is remarkable on its own. And the world would be a better place if the accomplishment could just stand at that.
But intolerance and bias can flourish when left unexamined and there is always something to learn when they are overcome. It’s worth noting — perhaps vital to note — that for a brief stretch there Bailey did it all, he oversaw design, honed the vision and ran the company, and he did it as an openly gay man.
“My final collection here at Burberry is dedicated to — and in support of — some of the best and brightest organizations supporting LGBTQ youth around the world,” Bailey said as he prepared his exit, which featured a collection with rainbow theme. “There has never been a more important time to say that in our diversity lies our strength, and our creativity.”