MILAN — Communication can be a minefield.
Observers have weighed in on how to avoid pitfalls and on ways to be reactive — and proactive — as a number of fashion brands have recently come under fire despite posting their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and their stance against racism and discrimination.
Celine was called out for rarely casting Black models and accused of “performative activism” on social media, while Virgil Abloh issued an apology for his comments on looters as protests were taking place to condemn the killing of George Floyd, following accusations that the creative director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton and founder of Off-White was not showing enough support to those demonstrating against police brutality.
Meanwhile, Salvatore Ferragamo was taken to task by “13 Reasons Why” actor Tommy Dorfman, who had photographed a campaign for the Florence-based company earlier this year and attended the brand’s women’s show in September. He alleged that “the people who run this company are racist, transphobic and are not body-positive. They will say ‘But we have cast Black people and trans people’ which is true, but only by force of hand…And they fail to treat them equally.”
The actor’s claims were made in a series of Instagram Stories in which Dorfman shared Ferragamo’s Black Lives Matter post, which showed four women’s arms linked and a quote by Nelson Mandela. Dorfman and social media have criticized Ferragamo’s image for the light to medium skin tones represented.
“We were surprised by Tommy Dorfman’s assertions,” a Ferragamo spokesperson told WWD, adding that the company had “no evidence” of Dorfman’s claims. “We have always been a very inclusive company.”
Ferragamo’s casting of models has been diverse for years, on and off the runway, including the transgender activist Dara Allen for the Vara campaign photographed by Dorfman.
A market source close to Ferragamo said the company is “trying to understand where these accusations come from as they clash with the Ferragamo family’s values.”
Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm, said “every time there is a battle for civil rights, there may be someone who will raise their voice loudly, but the tone is raised so that the voice is heard. When the suffering has been so much and nobody listens, you tend to raise your voice.” For this reason, a fashion company “must understand the scope of what is happening, and accept a louder voice, even if it seems louder than necessary.”
Ferreri praised Gucci and Prada’s decision to set up diversity and inclusivity councils to prevent situations, rather than having to manage them each time. “We hope that in the future these won’t even be necessary, that we have metabolized certain values and they become automatic. But it’s better for a company to admit it’s not ready to face certain issues and that it is gearing up to be ready. There is a need for enormous flexibility, patience and civic sense to have a general picture of the situation, so that certain values will be finally internalized.”
Serge Carreira, lecturer in fashion and luxury at Sciences Po, said when a brand is criticized by a former collaborator, the effect is even more damaging.
“Indirectly, there is a perception that this personality has an almost intimate knowledge of the house due to their former relationship,” he said. “If that personality breaks with the brand or criticizes it, the message can have a bigger effect on the perception of the values of that house.”
In the best case scenario, the brand can establish a dialogue with its critic, as L’Oréal did with Munroe Bergdorf, the Black transgender model who criticized the French cosmetics giant for sacking her in 2017 after she spoke out about white supremacy and racism. After speaking with Delphine Viguier, global brand president of L’Oréal Paris, Bergdorf said she was resuming her relationship with the company, which has invited her to join its U.K. diversity and inclusion advisory board.
“It’s about finding a common action that allows both the house to reaffirm its values, convictions and commitments, and the personality to be faithful to their public message and their identity,” Carreira said.
He cited the example of Hermès, which revealed in 2015 it would tighten requirements for suppliers of crocodile skins after British actress Jane Birkin called for the crocodile leather skin handbag style named in her honor to be rechristened until fairer treatments of the animals were put into practice.
“I think dialogue is always the best solution, rather than hasty reactions on both sides,” he said. “Silence can be interpreted as tacit agreement, which would then require some kind of action or apology.”
When a house does make a mistake, an apology is just the first step toward making amends. “Once you’ve been called out, that information is out there,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to think that it’s just going to go away, which is why it’s necessary to follow up an apology or a dialogue with concrete actions.”
An image and crisis management consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said “companies and their management must take responsibility, always, and take immediate action. The response must never be bland, whatever the message and must be strongly identified with the corporate values of the brand. The message inside and outside the company must be identical.” A diversity and inclusivity council should by now be part of any company — a given — she contended, for daily discussions on these themes.
A marketing expert who also asked not to be identified admitted the issue was “very delicate. When there is a strong social statement that has been brewing for a long time, and in this case is accelerated by the pandemic, customers expect brands to take a stance on issues that are relevant globally,” which can range from the #BLM movement to sustainability and attention to the environment, for example.
“Consumers expect ethics and brand transparency and so many companies have included these topics in their communication. But these must be scrupulously defined, in line with the values promoted and followed over time, embraced until the end, in an assured and proud way, aligned with the brand’s positioning, history, purpose and values. Once the strategy has been activated, you must be able to sustain it.”
Reacting to critical situations is key, she contended. “To stay silent does not smooth the problem. In addition, the responses must be carefully and consistently examined. We have seen many brands responding to negative reactions and making matters worse.”
One way to respond is “to bring to light past initiatives that can discredit the accusations, in a soft way, without shouting messages, for example pointing to previous collaborations supporting diversity and sustainability.”
She also emphasized that “underestimating critics just because they come from social media is a great risk given the resonance and how integrated these tools are in our reality today.”
To be sure, getting into a war of words with a critical influencer is probably the least productive response, concurred Carreira.
“It risks amplifying the negative impact on the brand,” he said. “If on the other hand the personality is criticizing the brand just to participate in a current debate, it’s slightly different. In that case, it’s more about setting the record straight.”
Still, he advises brands to tread lightly when dealing with critical perceptions of their actions. “This is a time to question accepted opinions and behaviors that may directly or indirectly offend a community, and to understand how you can become more conscious of this and to have a more inclusive and diverse approach,” he said.
While the raft of recent controversies may make some brands hesitant to work with outspoken influencers, it will encourage others to align themselves with public personalities who reflect the concerns of their generation, Carreira said.
“In order to take this approach, a house has to be coherent and consistent in its convictions and its commitments,” he said. “It shows the profile of influencers themselves is changing. It’s no longer just about lifestyle. They reflect the concerns of young people today, who appreciate fashion, beauty, luxury, brands and creativity, but who are extremely critical and have strong convictions regarding current events.”