The cliché used to be that the consumer votes with their wallets. Now American fashion brands are stepping up efforts for them to vote at the polls.
While Oprah Winfrey campaigned for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Atlanta last week and Taylor Swift helped spike voter registration by reminding her 112 million Instagram followers, American fashion brands big and small have been doing their part to ramp up voter turnout in advance of Tuesday’s midterm elections.
In these politicized times when an anti-establishment movement is taking hold in different parts of the globe, fashion — like art, music and other industries rooted in self-expression — is speaking up in different ways. While Democrats are battling Republicans to try to regain control of the House of Representatives, several executives and university leaders emphasized the importance of bipartisanship in their pre-midterm election messages.
Perhaps emboldened by Nike’s controversial — and much-heralded and criticized — campaign around the former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who protested against police brutality, brands are warming up to the idea of how supporting environmentalism and other social justice issues can woo consumers.
Last week, Emanuel Chirico, chairman and chief executive officer of PVH Corp., urged his fellow business leaders to speak out more on key issues given the absence of leadership in American politics.
“Our industry is facing many issues today, and as business leaders, we are being forced to deal with rapid change and unprecedented challenges. At the same time, we have seen many governments around the world, including our own, abdicate their responsibilities and not prepare for the future, whether it’s issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation, immigration and worker retraining. As a result, society is demanding more from the private sector and its business leaders,” Chirico said in accepting the Edward Nardoza Honor for Creative Leadership at the WWD Honors event.
“Whether it’s tax reform, taxes, immigration or just the general role of being a good corporate citizen, as business leaders we have the responsibility to engage in the important issues of the day. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. As business leaders, I challenge all of us to work to benefit all of our stakeholders, not just our shareholders. We also have the responsibility to consider the needs of our employees, our customers and communities where we operate. There is a leadership void today around the world and especially in the U.S. There are traditional institutions that our political leaders are not addressing. As business leaders we have a major role to play in filling this vacuum. I challenge all of us to engage on important issues that we all face, and collectively as an industry to make sure our voices our heard,” he continued.
Still there are dangers of a backlash — as evidenced by the online videos of consumers burning their Nike sneakers and some calling for a boycott, after the Kaepernick ads broke in September. Leonard Kim, an independent brand consultant, typically advises companies to avoid three subjects online — politics, religion and sex — via their respective company’s sites and social media, as well as their personal ones. Justice warriors often “bully up” online against companies and controversial personal posts by executives can be made public, he said.
“There is one exception to the rule: If you already stated your political beliefs on social justice when you first founded your company and it’s a part of your mission, then continuing to state your beliefs does not work against you since it’s embedded into your brand. When you are already established and begin to take a side, that’s when it affects the customer base,” he said.
Having said that, heading into the holidays, more shoppers are keeping tabs on where manufacturers and retailers stand on current social, environmental and political issues, according to a new survey from The NPD Group. Compared to last year’s survey, more respondents indicated that brands’ views would affect buying decisions in the crucial fourth quarter. Marshall Cohen, NPD’s chief industry advisory, noted how in this midterm election year, “political polarization and activism is on the rise” in the U.S. and “it’s bleeding into the upcoming holiday season, especially among younger consumers.”
Sixty-five percent of the survey’s Generation Z respondents and 55 percent of Millennials said they were particularly in tune to a company’s social and environmental issues. Gen Z’s conscientiousness is worth noting since those born after 1997 will account for 40 percent of all consumers in just two years. Younger generations want and “will pay a premium for brands that stand for something,” and that have corporate social programs in alignment with their own, Cohen said.
Leading the charge to the polls is Patagonia Inc., which revealed this summer that it will close for business on Election Day so that every one of its U.S.-based employees can vote. The company also made that commitment in 2016. In a post last month on the company’s site, chief executive officer Rose Marcario encouraged other companies to support Time to Vote in order to “encourage all American workers to be citizens and voters first.” Other companies joined the campaign to foster voter participation by offering paid time off, a day without meetings and resources for mail-in ballots and early voting, she wrote.
Marcario also wrote, “We also know that Russian propagandists worked hard on social media to influence our electorate, divide our country, and stoke divisions and hatred. In fact, they’re still at it. And we have all seen the impacts on our employees and their families; what were once good-natured spirited political debates have become hurtful divisions.”
Levi Strauss & Co., Walmart Inc. and Lyft are among the 400 companies that have since joined Time to Vote after Patagonia reached out to them, according to Dean Carter, head of human resources and shared services.
“I don’t know that our intent was to quantify this in any other way than getting more companies to participate. The response, though, has been overwhelmingly positive on social media, and all of our channels,” he said.
“We’ve always believed in civic participation all the way down to if someone is arrested while protesting for the environment, we will pay for their bail. This idea of giving people time off work [to vote] — we didn’t realize that maybe we were getting in the way. Statistics show that 34 percent of people who were unable to vote said it was due to conflicts with work or school,” said Carter, referring to a Pew Research Center study.
Levi’s leaders pegged civic engagement as a priority from the beginning of the year and voter registration was a natural extension. Through its employee-engagement programs, Levi’s brass “heard from a lot of employees who participated in the Women’s March and employees who have been stumping for different candidates across the country, wanting to know if they could use their volunteer time for that,” said head of public policy Anna Walker.
Levi’s has been working with Rock The Vote to get its own employees registered, and with HeadCount to give employees the opportunity to volunteer at different musical venues and Levi’s Stadium during San Francisco 49ers home games. In the U.S., roughly 10 percent of Levi’s population has either registered or checked or updated their voter status since July, she said. The company declined to pinpoint how many employees work in the U.S. “It is completely nonpartisan. It is not about party or political affiliation. It’s about getting people out participating, educated about the process,” Walker said.
Levi’s has also been selling a T-shirt through Time to Vote that benefits Rock The Vote, and the brand’s current commercial is aimed at getting out the vote. Levi’s effort has been nationwide. “We have big populations of employees in Mississippi, Kentucky, Nevada, Texas, Florida and Oregon. In all those states, employees have raised their hands to be voting captains to organize the voter registration and voter education in those local areas. The League of Women Voters and other nonpartisan groups have been brought in to help inform staffers about both sides of ballot issues. “In the last four weeks, we’ve focused more on become smarter about your ballot. That’s been sort of a personal interest of our chief executive officer — a feeling that a lot of people drop out of voting because of the complexity of the ballot or feeling disconnected from some of the issues,” Walker said.
Voters in New York will be meeting Monday outside of Rachel Comey’s SoHo store to board a bus to canvas nearby swing districts. The designer, who rallied a large New York contingency to attend the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in 2017, is joining forces with SwingLeft and Downtown for Democracy for the pre-midterm effort.
Like Nike Inc. ceo Mark Parker, Columbia Sportswear’s chairman and ceo Tim Boyle wrote a formal opposition in Oregon’s Voter’s Guide opposing Measure 105, which would strike down the state’s 30-year-old sanctuary law. Boyle said of that decision, “I believe that immigration is good for our country and good for our business. My mother fled Nazi Germany as a child and thanks to a welcoming environment in the United States, her family had a chance to buy and grow the Columbia Hat Company. It’s safe to say that Columbia Sportswear Co. would not exist if the U.S. had not let my grandparents into the country. As Americans we’re stronger because of the diversity of thought, opinion, race and ethnicities that exist in the U.S.”
As for how this resonates with consumers, Boyle said, “We are a global company with consumers all over the world. To the extent that they follow politics in Oregon, I think they will respond well to our stands on the need for tolerance and respect for immigrants.”
In regard to how the $2.47 billion brand may be more proactive about social justice issues in the future, Boyle said, “We will get involved as we see necessary.” Boyle, who donated $1.5 million for a homeless shelter in Portland, Ore., earlier this year, said most consumers approved. Contrary to speculation, Boyle said he will not run for mayor of Portland.
New Balance is trying to appeal to younger voters with #RuntothePolls, a digital campaign launched with the help of Betches Media, a company for “Millennial women to experience comedy and empowerment in an honest environment.” In addition to customized memes and content, a double-decker bus in New York City will be ferrying voters to the polls on Tuesday. Poll-goers can be picked up at such stops as SoulCycle’s East 18th Street outpost, Barry’s Bootcamp on West 20th and the New York Public Library.
Allie Tsavdarides, New Balance’s global marketing director for performance, said, “The #RuntothePolls activation is not about selling shoes or apparel, but engaging young women in a new way and encouraging them to get involved.” Through @nbwomens channel and Betches’ political site, Betches and Betches_Sup, New Balance is “striving to shine a light on the importance of getting out to vote,” she said. “This is just one of many ways New Balance is striving to surprise our consumers with unexpected partners and activations.”
Last month, Tory Burch rolled out a limited-run $68 T-shirt emblazoned with “Vote” and all of the net proceeds will benefit actor and activist Yara Shahidi’s “Eighteen x 18” youth group. There was also the #OwnYourVote social media campaign to drum up the burgeoning number of Millennial voters.
“Thrilled” by the response, particularly among young people, Burch said Friday, “Voting is an issue I am incredibly passionate about. It is an integral part of what it means to be an American and defines our country’s character.…Creating this T-shirt is not about partisanship, it’s simply about voting. To me, voting is an expression of patriotism. I never feel more American than in the voting booth.”
Marcia Patmos has joined a postcard writing group aimed at swing-state voters that was organized by Various Projects’ Elizabeth Beer and textile designer Rosie Kanellis. Fashion types, modeling agents, graphic designers, production people and other creatives have helped to pen more than 2,000 postcards so far. Patmos, who recently opened a Brooklyn store, said, “I have had a nice reaction to it from my wholesale and retail customers. Of course, maybe some have not said anything, but the ones that like it really like it.”
As part of a tomorrow-you-have-the-right-to-vote Instagram Story, Theory photographed 20 employees, who are committed to voting. Each portrait includes the employee’s name, department and “I am a Voter.” Anya Assante, director of communications and strategic partnerships, said, “We are encouraging others to vote. For the first time, we’re sharing perspective from our employees — something we have never done across social before.”
Meanwhile, as a lead-up to the midterms, Carbon38 partnered with the “I Am a Voter” campaign to create 300 limited-edition $52 “Rally” tanks — a staple with the brand — and 300 pins to try to drum up voting. The demand was so strong that the company quickly ran a second production run and restocked. All of the proceeds will support such grassroots groups as Democracy Works, Headcount, Nonprofit Vote, Rock the Vote, Vote.org, #VoteTogether, Voto Latino and When We All Vote. Carbon38 cofounder and ceo Katie Warner Johnson said, “We noticed heavier-than-usual traffic on our site and likely reached a broader demographic than just our core customer, since so many people are proud and compassionate about this.”
The women’s empowerment-leaning label Wildfang developed a “midterm collection” with T-shirts imprinted with “She Came She Saw She F+cki*g Voted” and “On the Left Side of History,” and other political-themed items. Wildfang will donate a percentage of sales to She Should Run. To celebrate voter rights, Bishop Collective cofounders Mai Vu and Dimitri Koumbis will be offering voters a 15 percent discount in their Lower East Side store. By wearing a “I Voted” sticker, shoppers will receive the savings of purchases for the American-made sustainable label.
Fashion schools in the U.S. are also doing their part to get their students to vote.
RISD president Rosanne Somerson will e-mail the 3,500 students and faculty members today to remind them to make their voices heard on Election Day. She wrote, “We live in a time of rhetoric that often incites fear and diminishes our common human experience. Our responsibility as learners, educators and researchers is not to respond with further rhetoric, but with bold action — and the boldest of actions is to participate in the democratic process. For those who can vote in the upcoming elections, it is not only our responsibility, but our privilege — a way for each of us to feel agency in a world where we may often feel powerless.”
In recent weeks, student-run groups like the RISD Global Initiative and the RISD Student Alliance have set up voting information tables on campus. There, students can get help with voter registration forms and absentee ballots. And RISD’s human resources e-mailed employees to make arrangements with supervisors if they will need time away from campus during normal work hours. If transportation is needed, Buzzfeed and Lyft partnered to offer discounted rides to the polls.
Canvassing and tabling has been under way at The New School for the past month in its main buildings’ lobbies. Joel Towers of Parsons School of Design said, “In the main university center, there are over 3,000 students plus faculty and staff going through there on a daily basis, so it’s impossible to miss it,” adding that lines were typically three to seven people deep on a regular basis. “Like all non-for-profits, we are nonpartisan. While our effort is to get people out to vote, we don’t take an official position on who they should vote for,” Towers said.
Earlier this month, The New School’s 14,500 students and faculty received an e-mail from its president and deans in response to the Trump administration’s consideration of defining sex in binary terms. Recipients were told that the university would never support that exclusion of communities “who are both here and beyond,” Towers said. (Parsons comprises about 55 percent of The New School.)
After mentioning an exhibition on campus that explores race and fashion, and his plans to take 500 students to the United Nations for a climate change lecture sponsored by the Danish government, Towers said, “equity, social justice, environmental justice are really threaded through our curriculum, and using design is a way of addressing these issues. So voting is a justice question and a civic responsibility question. It doesn’t feel in any way of the moment. It just feels very natural for what we do.”
Aware of the fact that The New School’s 10,000 students are part of that age bracket that doesn’t vote at high levels, Towers said, “We’re aware of the fact that making the political personal — in what ways does politics impact your daily life, your field of work and your future — on the finite side — needs to be talked about. Then we trust to the students that the decisions they make are informed as a result.”
Nicole Miller’s 75 employees can take time off if they plan to vote, but ceo Bud Konheim isn’t about to dole out advice. “We are making a conscious effort to not be part of the political conversation. Do you see what’s going on around the country?” he said. “We’re in the dress business. We like all the emphasis to be on taste and is this good design, good manufacturing — not politics. It’s a charged issue right now. People are finding a way to get hysterical about the right and left. It’s just really bad quicksand to try to walk across.”
Konheim continued, “There is no way we could give advice that would be taken universally as good advice — no way. The way the atmosphere is right now, someone would take offense either way. If there is nothing else to talk about, you’ve got a pretty empty life.”