Leadership, social consciousness, corporate vision. One could spend eons pondering their components. What wouldn’t cross the frontal lobe: burying one’s head in the sand in the face of uncomfortable questions.
Yet that, it seems, is the retail way, at least across broad swaths of the industry. In preparing a piece on the current state of the fur industry, published last Thursday, WWD approached 22 retailers around the world for their points of view. Only nine were willing to address the subject. Subtracting out the fur-free contingent, that number fell to four.
Those out of the fur business: YNAP, David Jones and Myer, by choice, and Maxfield and Fred Segal, by West Hollywood municipal mandate. Chief executive officer Allison Samek noted that Fred Segal has expanded the fur-free ethos to its other outlets as well. Dropping fur, everything from handbag charms to trimmed parkas to major outerwear, is a huge move. Whatever each organization’s specific arrival process, it must have also been a tough one that involved some loss of business. Yet all made and are at peace with their decisions. For those who sell fur, the topic is more challenging to discuss. Holt Renfrew president Mario Grauso and Matchesfashion ceo Ulric Jerome proffered thoughtful responses that started with customer awareness.
“We continue to listen to our customers’ wants and needs,” Grauso noted, adding that the company follows vendor-side activity as well. “As the industry changes, we look to change with it.”
Jerome cited a customer base “already very well-informed on the sustainability debate,” and said Matchesfashion vendors must agree to a Code of Conduct that, among other points, encourages the use of alternatives.
Barneys New York provided a statement that said it is “constantly reevaluating this topic,” while working to ensure ethical treatment of animals. Harvey Nichols forwarded its existing fur policy, which mandates that brands using fur must “adhere to the Animal Sourcing Principles as set out by the Sustainable Luxury Working Group.”
That’s it for the responsive set. Twelve retailers, including many of the storied names, declined comment; Tsum never responded. The 12: Galeries Lafayette, Harrods, Isetan Mitsukoshi, Lane Crawford Joyce Group, Le Bon Marche/24 Sevres, Moda Operandi, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Printemps, La Rinascente, Saks Fifth Avenue and Takashimaya. A rep for one asked politely that the store not be listed as a “no comment”: “We’d be grateful if we were just left out completely of the conversation.”
This is leadership? Journalistic frustration aside, it speaks to a sorry state of affairs at the highest echelons of global retail.
Retailers have intense, extremely difficult jobs as they try to best negotiate a landscape embroiled in seismic change, facing a volatile future while still playing catch-up in digital (the traditional brick-and-mortar types, at least), all while dealing with heightened competition and changing consumer tastes and expectations. Another headache they don’t need.
Yet some headaches come with the job.
Top executives often talk about leadership and vision. They love to tout their companies’ strengths (and who doesn’t?) — innovative instincts, bravado at the helm. They’ll proudly unveil new stores (Nordstrom’s New York men’s flagship); fancy renovations (Saks’ one-escalator-up beauty floor on Fifth Avenue, opening May 10) and newfangled pop-ups. When one has an au courant philanthropic angle (Harrods’ fashion Re-Told project, in support of charity partner NSPCC), all the better. They bask in the reflected aura of cool collaborators (Le Bon Marché, aglow with Virgil Abloh radiance, for February’s “Let’s Go Logo!”). And they love zeitgeist-y manifestations of social awareness (La Rinascente’s “The Green Life” installation). They’ll happily discuss all of the above.
What many won’t talk about, apparently, is any substantive matter on which there may be multiple legitimate points of view, and therefore, potential criticism of their positions. In light of one of the massive rounds of store layoffs last year, I queried several major retailers, including many noted here: Does an industry, even when challenged, bear some responsibility to displaced workers? To what degree? Then the response rate was almost zero. I let it go and shouldn’t have, so not this time.
Make no mistake: Fur is no one’s favorite subject — at least not among those continuing with it. When asked “where do you stand?” no designers who use fur exclaimed, “Yes! I’ve been dying to talk about this!” But many gave well-considered answers that acknowledged the issue as multifaceted and emotional. Not so the stores. Except for those noted, they went AWOL.
How can that be? How can they affect Garbo mode when presented with a question of such scope and significance — one that’s directly consumer-facing? And not a cryptic question at that. This isn’t an issue just starting to percolate for eruption down the line. It’s in full-on volcanic mode right now. If the suits hadn’t thought of it on their own or if they’d pushed it back of mind, surely that changed when Gucci, Michael Kors and Versace all declared their new fur-free status. Any top executive who hasn’t considered the question since then is improperly employed.
Fashion and retail are intrinsically involved in some issues that penetrate the larger culture and proactively engage in others. But only infrequently is the industry irrevocably central to such an issue. Like it or not, retailers are in the middle of the fur debate. If going silent on it is a strategy, it doesn’t work. Not for Saks’ parent Hudson’s Bay Co., founded nearly 350 years ago as a fur-trading business. And not for Harrods, Neiman’s, Nordstrom and any other store with a fur salon and/or ample fur presence online. They can’t hide.
These stores obviously have a customer for fur, or they wouldn’t continue to stock it. So where do they stand? Are they firmly committed to fur for the long haul? Engaged in ongoing monitoring and reevaluation? Planning their own transitions from fur?
Absent information, one can only infer. The obvious inference here is that the customer exists and the stores want to keep her/him; they want that business. But, they view her/him somewhat like the rich uncle everybody knows will get drunk at a wedding — an embarrassment, but a sure bet for an expensive gift. Just let’s not talk about him and hope the more refined guests don’t notice.
What would customers, both those who love fur and those passionately against it, think of that approach? What do investors and shareholders think of top management that shies away from tough, culturally resonant questions? The imposing silence — the refusal to even acknowledge the maelstrom — reads as fear-induced abdication of responsibility, which reads as the opposite of brave. And that’s not what retail needs now, or ever.
D.C. Dinner Debacle: “[The event] was meant to offer a unifying message….Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.” — Margaret Talev, president, White House Correspondents’ Association, from her post-dinner statement.
“Yeah, [you] should have done more research before you got me to do this.” — Michelle Wolf, onstage at the dinner.
Media chatter in the wake of Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner has covered, among other angles, the First Amendment, civility versus nastiness, the White House-press relationship and whether the decades-old event has outlived its usefulness. A sub-topic that’s gotten a little bit lost: Caveat emptor. It’s not as if they signed Anne Hathaway to host and she went all rogue on them. Michelle Wolf was hired for a gig and she did what she does. Now, she’s a household name, just in time for the May 27 premiere of her Netflix show, “The Break With Michelle Wolf,” on which the First Amendment should get decent play. Score one for the comedian.