How do you create structural change in the upper echelons of fashion for Black professionals?
For model, activist and businesswoman Beverly Johnson, that is the fundamental question for not just the fashion industry but corporate America. Days after launching the Beverly Johnson Rule, which calls for companies to commit to “meaningfully” interviewing at least two Black professionals for any openings for executive boards, c-suites, top editors and other influential positions, Johnson is now mapping out a strategy to see that through. Eager to see “a real shift,” she said, “It doesn’t involve anything but a commitment to where your heart is. We also know that the bottom line is going to be great.”
Talking about change won’t result in systemic change, said Johnson. “We’ve been in this movie before. And I’m trying to create a new movie.”
Over the next few days, Johnson will be putting together a multimedia campaign, shooting videos and photography with Michael Letterlough Jr. With the help of her fiancée and business manager Brian Maillian, she plans to draft a letter to send to various companies seeking their support and explaining how they can adopt her rule. Johnson is considering approaching the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Condé Nast’s Anna Wintour about how to expedite her strategy to create structural change. In August 1974, Johnson became the first African American model to land the cover of American Vogue.
Referring to what is needed to execute her signature plan, she said, ”We want to let people of influence to know that this is something that is doable. It really doesn’t take a lot of energy and time and money. We also want to explain possibly how it worked in other industries. To really be able to say, ‘Yeah, we did this, look what we’re doing now and look where it’s brought us.”
Retrouvé’s cofounders Jami and Klaus Heidegger have committed to Johnson’s rule, making their company the first to do so. Johnson said she has heard from six or seven other companies, including from a few in the fashion sector, who started their own namesake companies that she didn’t identify.
With millions of people calling for change, Johnson discussed what the most effective way is to make sure that actually happens. “What keeps people’s interest is when they actually see it. When they can come out and say, ‘Well, so-and-so made a pledge…’ You have people saying, ‘I’m going to buy Retrouvé and I’m not going to buy from other people.’ People get that message. If we can bring on a few people, then that’s what really keeps it going,” she said. “Also, what keep things going is when we see something implemented that is actually working – not just lip service,” she said.
While Johnson described the CFDA’s recently unveiled initiatives — such as scholarships for Black college students and donations to the NAACP — as great, she said ensuring more Black professionals have senior-level and c-suite jobs is crucial to changing the fashion ecosystem. Johnson said she is open to helping luxury brands and other companies improve their diversity efforts by serving as a board director or on diversity and inclusion boards.
On another front, another one of her projects is being fast-tracked. Warner Bros. is developing an eight-part series based on Johnson’s best-selling memoir “The Face That Changed It All” that she hopes to release via Apple TV.
“Now with what’s happening in the world, you move up because it’s very relevant. Now they are really pushing us to the front of the line, which is great. There is a sense of urgency because of this moment that we are living in today. We are now finally having that conversation about race and racism in America that we have never had before,” said Johnson, adding that Mara Brock Akil is the producer.
Helping to make more people familiar with the work of Black professionals and creatives like Akil and Letterlough is another element of Johnson’s commitment. Giving them the opportunity “to be seen, heard, interviewed and join in an industry that they love so much” is key, Johnson said.
Johnson also is a partner in the start-up shoe company Thesis Couture, a label that “reengineered” stilettos, she said. The patented technology was developed by former head of talent, innovation and design at SpaceX, Dolly Singh. “Our biggest sales to date have been in bridal, so bridesmaids don’t have to take their shoes off [due to uncomfortable stilettos].”