MILAN — “It’s been a period of great learning. It’s a little simplistic and easy to say ‘How could you not know?’” but it’s not as evident as it could have seemed,” Marco Bizzarri observed on Monday.
Gucci’s president and chief executive officer spoke with WWD about his company’s new global program called Changemakers that is part of its ongoing effort to foster unity through community action and opened up about the backlash the Italian luxury group experienced following accusations in February that a balaclava-style sweater evoked blackface.
Gucci Changemakers follows the company’s announcement last month of the first of four long-term initiatives to achieve cultural diversity and awareness throughout its organization and activities globally, and includes a fund for a total of $5 million over five years and a $1.5 million four-year scholarship program in North America. In addition, Gucci is fostering a global employee-volunteering framework that will fuel the company’s commitment to creating lasting social impact in communities and within the fashion industry.
“Gucci Changemakers is a project that accelerated after what happened — which caught us all by surprise — but it was announced internally last year and is part of our corporate culture initiative that we actually launched four years ago as part of how we work,” Bizzarri said. “Today’s announcement is in respect to the launch of Gucci Changemakers in North, where there will be a focus on youth, the African-American community and other communities of color in North America. But Changemakers will be global, reaching the Asia-Pacific region, too, when it is rolled out there in June.” Gucci will channel $5 million into that fund as well.
“At the digital level, the issue grew exponentially,” Bizzarri said of the backlash. “As [creative director] Alessandro [Michele] explained, his creativity was not inspired by [what he was accused of — it was a tribute to Leigh Bowery]. We make fashion, not to offend cultures or people. From that a moment came, a moment of reflection with the African-American community and I learned a lot. It’s not an excuse, but I am Italian and so is the design team, so it’s not easy and it’s not a given to intercept products that can be offensive, which is why we have taken immediate action to introduce greater diversity in our corporate offices.”
As part of the first step focused on North America, Gucci will rely on advice from and support of a Changemakers Council, which is being formed, made up of community leaders and social change experts. It is being conceived to ensure transparency, accountability and long-term impact. At the moment it includes the following:
- Fashion activist Bethann Hardison, who attended Gucci’s fall show in February in Milan;
- Brittany Packnett, activist, educator and writer;
- Cleo Wade, poet and activist;
- Dapper Dan, Harlem couturier;
- DeRay McKesson, activist;
- Eric Avila, professor of history and Chicano studies at UCLA;
- Kimberly Blackwell, business leader, CEO, PMM;
- Ivy McGregor, chief executive officer, The IVY Inc., innovative vision strategic consulting;
- Michaela Angela Davis, activist and writer;
- Robert Carter, chair of Gucci Internal D&I Committee and Gucci project manager Dapper Dan Atelier;
- Susan Chokachi, Gucci, president and ceo, North America;
- Yaseen Eldik, lawyer and writer;
- Yasmeen Hassan, executive director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization focused on the rights of women and girls around the world;
- Yvette Noel-Schure, cofounder and executive vice president, Schure Media Group;
- Will.i.am, entertainer, entrepreneur and philanthropist.
A Gucci global director for diversity and inclusion is to be appointed.
The council will select nonprofit partner organizations in cities across North America, including Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, D.C.
The Gucci Changemakers Scholarship Program will have a focus on empowering more diverse talent in North America to access the industry through scholarships that will be available to college students across various disciplines with the ambition to work in fashion. This builds on the company’s recently revealed Global Multi-Cultural Design Scholarship Program.
“We have set up a learning program that can create greater cultural awareness among Gucci’s 18,000 employees,” remarked Bizzarri. “This does not mean [mistakes won’t happen again]. Perfection does not exist. It’s simplistic to criticize without understanding the background of people or the company who made the mistake. Mistakes should be evaluated in a different way depending on who made them. There must be a dose of common sense, the work we have done should have weight. It’s true, we live in a digital world that picked up the information [and turned it into a story]. That’s the difference between culture, knowledge and superficiality.”
Of the experience, Bizzarri said it has “very much enriched” him personally and given him the opportunity to meet and talk “with individuals of great relevance in the African-American community, with different points of view. You learn to better understand people you have in front of you, if you start from the principle that they are innocent until proven guilty and communication can only be improved if there is interaction and dialogue.”
The executive noted that “there’s an avalanche of people who are only waiting for you to make a mistake.” He quoted Enzo Ferrari, who said “people will forgive you everything except success.”
“I think that influenced how things went, it’s part of the world today and life but I am not part of this world,” Bizzarri said. “I am not a person ready to point my finger looking for the guilty party. I don’t feel better by doing that. I always try to understand what is behind a mistake. Conversation, dialogue, interaction should be at the base of everything, it’s the only way, and I don’t want to indulge [negativity]. Those that point their finger, have they never made a mistake?”
The fact that the balaclava backlash took place a year after the design was shown on the Gucci runway as part of the fall 2018 collection has been the subject of some speculation, with some observers wondering if Gucci’s skyrocketing numbers had anything to do with the sudden social media frenzy. “How it was all spun made you doubt [about the reality of things]. But we are turning it into a positive — the company and I, personally, we have learned a lot. If I told you that we won’t make any more mistakes I would be crazy, but we must all use some common sense, there should be less meanness. Obviously, it’s normal that if you push creativity you can make mistakes, otherwise let’s all just do a white or a black shirt and then you’ll never make mistakes,” Bizzarri said. Recognizing cultural differences is part of our values, and it has been so for a long time. In society today we have to take that into account, in communication and product at the same time, and we must be aware of cultures globally, not limited to a single one.”
The Changemakers Council will help select eligible students from schools across North America to participate in the Gucci Changemakers Scholarship Fund. Over the course of four years, Gucci and the Changemakers Council will select students to receive a $20,000 grant toward completing their college education. As part of the project, a volunteering program was initially revealed to employees last year, which allowed 18,000 Gucci employees worldwide to dedicate up to four paid days off for volunteering activities in their local communities. This represents up to 8,000 days of volunteer support in North America, the first region in the global rollout, where volunteering opportunities cover four main pillars: equality; support for refugees and the homeless; protection of the environment, and education.
As reported, Gucci in February said it would hire a global director for diversity and inclusion in each region; establish a global multicultural design scholarship program in partnership with colleges in 10 cities around the world and hire five new designers from around the world to fill positions in the Rome design office; launch the diversity and inclusivity awareness program for all of the company’s 18,000 employees, and introduce the internal global exchange program, which has already placed three regional employees in the corporate offices.
Bizzarri highlighted issues related to the hires. “It may appear easy to bring in people of different cultures — into a Roman maison — but it’s not as easy as if you were in New York. To find, move and integrate people. Bringing in different cultures is not so simple. Gucci is Gucci but especially today unfortunately there’s a level of bureaucracy, visas, permits and obstacles that make it very difficult to hire people and move them to Rome. There are parameters that do not depend just on us.”
Gucci at the moment is seeking to fill the position of global director of diversity and inclusivity, who will be based in New York and report to the chief people officer in Italy. “There must be a certain level of expertise and it’s impossible to find that here. To move here, it takes too much time, so it’s easier to have more localized structures, reporting to this person,” Bizzarri said. “It’s not easy to bring [new hires] to Italy. You have no idea how many people have applied, my mailbox is flooded by applications — as is that of my collaborators — but we are going through a specialist executive search firm. And we don’t want to be superficial, we are not doing this just to tick the box, we want the right person, who is more likely to come from outside Europe. Someone experienced, with talent and charisma, who has leadership. I hope we’ll find that person soon, but speed should not be to the detriment of the level of the person.”
About the scholarships, Bizzarri said “the difference you can make to an individual, the direct impact you can have with a contribution — it’s priceless.”
As part of the global fellowship program, Gucci will hire people who will be part of the Italian design team. “Meanwhile there are already five open positions in the design area now, which we are looking to fill from among 20 candidates from all over the world who will interview with Alessandro Michele next week,” Bizzarri said. “There is also the global exchange program for all employees, which allows internal mobility. We have already chosen three individuals who will come from the regional offices to our corporate office.”