Where does fashion go from here when it comes to diversity?
That was the subject of a fashion and diversity panel Wednesday featuring Corey Smith, vice president of diversity and inclusion at LVMH Inc.; Carmen Arocho-Blanco, senior director of equity, inclusion and diversity at Tapestry, Inc., and CaSandra Diggs, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
The one-hour conversation was moderated by Nicole Chapoteau, fashion director of Vanity Fair, and sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Association, a not-for-profit business improvement organization dedicated to ensuring that Fifth Avenue remains a vibrant shopping destination.
In calling 2020 “The Black Square,” Chapoteau asked whether brands have continued doing the same things since posting that black square on their Instagram pages last June in a show of support for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, or have they made actual changes?
What was clear to Tapestry, as Arocho-Blanco noted, was that proclamations of solidarity weren’t enough and that “we’re all being held to a higher standard.”
“Personally, I see it less as a backlash and more of a rise in consciousness,” she said. “I’m really happy that consumers and employees are considering how brands they support show up and align with their values. It’s fueling these desires to fight injustice and be more engaged in decisions, and Tapestry is a value-driven house of brands….it’s in our DNA to embrace differences by design. We’re looking at this as a great opportunity to connect with our people on common ground and push this work forward.”
Smith, who started at LVMH last September after having worked close to 10 years at Major League Baseball, said 2020 did a couple of things for inclusion.
“Everybody leaned in, and everybody was involved in a conversation, that for people of color specifically has been going on for a really long time. It was awesome to see allies show up and a level of advocacy that may not have happened in the past. It’s time to get past talking about it, and start to engage and start doing things,” he said. “For LVMH, there have been a couple of steps taken since September. We’ve brought on about seven DEI leaders across all of our brands. The last six or seven months has been the recognition that they need this position in order to advance this conversation from just conversation to action. It says a lot about wanting to embrace change and recognize that change is needed.”
For LVMH, Smith said, “You have to define these terms for people, so there is no misinterpretation around what the strategy is.” He said he’s had to define what the words, diversity, equity and inclusion mean, and how they apply to the business. “Diversity is just the variety of skills and experiences and culture that people bring to the organization. Diversity is the mix, and inclusion is how you make the mix work. How you leverage all that variety and difference to enhance the business. People interpret difference as a bad thing. Difference is actually what you need to drive the business forward.”
He emphasized that if you get everybody in the same room for a business meeting, that’s what breeds the innovation.
“If everybody is homogenous and they all think the same, I guarantee the best ideas are not coming out of that room. If it’s a room of all men, I say, ‘go get me a woman quickly.’ Because I guarantee that she will have a different perspective on how to approach this just based on her experiences in the workplace,” he said.
At LVMH, the strategy is around three pillars: people, business and brand. People is about hiring and retaining, business is about operationalizing inclusion so there is a variety and mix at the table to enhance the brand, and brand is any of their logos and any of their 75 names under LVMH.
“The brand is all-encompassing, it’s the marketing and ad campaigns, the website, the social media, the in-store experience, that’s a branding opportunity. When someone walks into your retail environment, how does that feel, how does it make them feel?” asked Smith. “If that is not an inclusive scenario, there’s work to do from a branding perspective as well.”
The CFDA’s Diggs said 2020 accelerated the need for change, and that a lot of brands have stepped up and implemented programs. Now, the CFDA is using the findings from its diversity study with PVH Corp. and McKinsey to implement levers of change. Respondents in the study found they didn’t have the access to and awareness of opportunities that existed in the fashion industry. The CFDA is also launching a program called Impact, which identifies, connects, nurtures and supports Black people in the fashion industry. As reported, they are launching a talent directory Friday that will connect talent to brands.
The panelists were asked what changes must occur in the fashion industry so companies will not just listen and learn, but will actually do something.
“It’s never lost on me that this is business,” said Smith. “If you are not tying these conversations to dollars, it’s a harder sell.”
Because LVMH is a French-owned company headquartered in Paris, and Smith heads DE&I for North America, it has taken internal work to share a greater understanding of racial justice as it’s unfolding in America.
“A large part of what I’ve had to do is have conversations with my European counterparts on why these moments, even the last year, matter so much to us in the U.S.,” he said. “If you don’t have the historical context of disenfranchisement and marginalization and devaluating an entire population, it’s not urgent. Then you couple that with the European ideals and standards around beauty and aesthetic, and you have this compounded effect of not understanding, but also not recognizing that things are changing.”
To move things forward effectively on inclusion, it’s about ensuring diversity beyond the lower rungs of the business — it has to extend to leadership and decision-making roles.
“How do we affect change at the top? Our opinions matter, our voices matter and we have something to contribute to the organization,” Smith said.
For 10 years LVMH has had a gender initiative to increase women the top. Last week, it revealed a new initiative to replicate that model for people of color. Over the next five years, the aim is to increase people of color in senior leadership positions to 30 percent. “How we get that done requires a whole lot of work. Everybody has bought in, including Paris,” Smith said.
There’a similar strategy going on at Tapestry.
“A lot of what we’re trying to do is increase our BIPOC representation in leadership roles,” said Arocho-Blanco, noting that people from all backgrounds and groups should be in meetings where decisions are made. “We’re very well represented in retail environments.”
Tapestry is working on talent development and mobility practices, and has created partnerships externally with the Black in Fashion Council in order to not only have them advise on best practices, but also getting in touch with young Black talent and introducing them to a career in fashion. “We’re trying to reach to all parts of the community,” she said, noting that the Coach Foundation made more than $6 million in grants to underserved communities.
Through IMPACT, Diggs said the CFDA is working on the talent pipeline, too. They’re also tapping into HBCUs, CUNY, SUNYs and government agencies, and creating a talent directory to create a hub to centralize people of color talent. They released a digital platform, Runway360, which democratizes fashion and allows designers of color to be featured and gain visibility. On the platform are Harlem’s Fashion Row and Kevan Hall’s Black Design Collective.
Arocho-Blanco said personally, she’d like to see fashion be more open about what it takes to succeed in this industry.
“You do not have to be a designer trained in European fashion sensibility to come design at Coach, or Kate Spade or Stuart Weitzman,” she said.
Adding to that, Smith said, “[Fashion has] built this myth that in order to be successful in this industry, you’ve had to have worked in this industry. I think that’s the biggest fallacy ever.”
Talent can, in fact, come from other areas, other people. What’s more, he added, fashion can’t continue to perpetuate the idea that luxury or beauty can only look a certain way.
“The aesthetics and the ideals of what beauty is absolutely have to change,” he said.
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