An illustration by Mona Chalabi for the 15 Percent Pledge.

As fashion asks itself how to do better with matters of racial equality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, one New York-based fashion designer is offering big retailers a game plan.

Aurora James, founder of the accessories line Brother Vellies, has established the 15 Percent Pledge initiative — calling upon retailers such as Net-a-porter, Shopbop and Amazon to dedicate 15 percent of shelf space to majority black-owned businesses. According to U.S. Census data, the black community represented about 13.4 percent of the country’s general population in 2019 — hence James’ concept for a ballpark 15 percent commitment from retailers, as to include those of mixed-race.

“We are all trying to figure out at every level what we can do to help. There are real and serious changes that need to happen across this country,” James told WWD. “The first thing I’m asking for is economic equality. As a business owner and retailer myself, I’ve seen the devastation black business owners have been dealt. During the pandemic they are the demographic most likely to be closing businesses during this time. If retailers commit, this represents a lot of money and is profitable,” she added.

Protests continue to ripple across the U.S. and activists are calling on big businesses to do better in their handling of racial issues. James feels that taking a long-term approach and putting money in the pockets of black-owned business owners is a sustainable way to chart a path forward. She estimates that support from Target, Sephora, Whole Foods and Shopbop could pump $14.5 billion of profits into the black community over a sustained period of time.

The designer asks businesses to take a three-step approach as they consider adapting her pledge initiative: to audit and take stock of black support in a store’s designer or business roster; to admit wrongdoing and space for improvement, and to then set realistic targets toward increasing support of the black community. James also hopes that companies will have transparent dialogue with the public as they conduct their respective audits.

While the 15 Percent Pledge was hatched on Instagram only late last week, James is already in discussions with companies including Rent the Runway and Heyday about signing on.

“It’s not about attacking, it’s about doing the work, it’s about saying ‘This is where we are at.’ We all have made mistakes, it’s not about posting a diversion — it’s about owning it,” James said.

“We are not asking people to do this overnight, that’s not possible,” the designer added. “It’s going to mean that they will start looking around and taking stock of what brands and businesses are available. It’s about asking what kind of economic support they can pledge to help some of these businesses develop.”

In its short history, the 15 Percent Pledge has already garnered many followers with a taste for data analytics — some volunteering to independently audit retailers’ brand rosters and assess their commitment to black-owned businesses.

James is also in discussions with publications to take a 15 Percent Pledge – asking them to increase their coverage of black designers. She also hopes to initiate dialogue with design colleges and venture capital firms about extending more resources to designers of color.

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