How Brands Genuinely Can Better Support Black Lives

10 Jul , 2020

written by Natscha Von Uexkull

The murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police on May 25 caused outrage, awaking us from our quarantine-induced stupor and sparking what has alternately become a signifier of real systemic change and a throwaway hashtag. I am, of course, referring to the sudden and undeniable presence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is far from being a new term. In fact, the movement stemmed from the first use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on social media in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. It has, however, gained considerable traction over the last few months, forcing individuals, brands, and companies to acknowledge their part in the uncomfortable presence of systemic racism within their company culture.

Fashion — an industry famous for its lack of diversity as much as its enviable culture of luxury and promiscuity — has come into the spotlight, with brands suddenly emerging to voice their support of the cause. Most major fashion and beauty brands have made public pledges to increase the diversity of their workforces, to varying degrees of success. Dazed have helpfully compiled a list of brands who’ve posted in support of BLM, such as JW Anderson, Alexander McQueen, and Christopher Kane.

Although it features many high-profile brands such as Nike, smaller brands are arguably taking more meaningful action than posting resources (a la Marc Jacobs and Jacquemus) by putting their money where their mouth is, such as A Sai Ta of ASAI donating all the profits of his Rihanna-approved dress to charities including BLM. Meanwhile, the world’s face of  fashion, Anna Wintour has faced criticism for voicing her support of the cause yet making  little attempt to enact the change she speaks, despite being in the ’best position to change culture’ in her role as Vogue editor for the past 32 years.

And in the midst of the action (or inaction) being taken by the fashion brands themselves, several Black professionals are leading initiatives in an attempt to hold the fashion industry accountable. These have emerged largely in response to a statement released by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which gained criticism for its ‘performative’ response dealing with racial inequality in the industry. Most notable among these was the Kelly Initiative, whose Take Action PDF’ asks the CFDA to take accountability for its lack of diversity and refusal to listen to 250 Black professionals who have been longing for change.

Two other exciting initiatives to keep your eyes on are Black in Fashion Council and the 15 Percent Pledge. The 15 Percent Pledge is founded on the very simple but effective concept that, as Black people in the U.S. make up nearly 15% of the population, major retailers should ‘commit a minimum of 15% of their shelf to Black-owned businesses’. Created by Aurora James, founder of footwear and accessory label Brother Vellies, this initiative highlights how black-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 crisis and offers major U.S. retailers the opportunity to inject money back into Black communities. You too can make your own contribution to this cause by signing their petition here or by tagging your favourite brands who’d you’d like to make changes in one of their Instagram posts.

Black in Fashion Council is a ‘collective’ founded by long-term friends Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Sandrine Charles of Sandrine Charles Consulting. The professions of its founders are relevant here, because Peoples believes in ‘using our own networks’ to create meaningful conversations with a wide range of industry professionals, in order to unify the cause. Stuck in the current confusion of Instagram’s endless stream of news, resources, shaming, and bragging, this sounds like a welcome break from, as Peoples puts it, ‘people shouting different things at the same time.’

As of yet, Black in Fashion Council remains in its early stages and none of the brands it’s working with have been announced, but it has already received the support of over 400 black models, stylists, executives, and editors, with an executive board filled with prominent personalities including GQ Deputy Fashion Director Nikki Ogunnaike. You can keep an eye on its progress here.

Alongside creating a directory of Black fashion and beauty professionals for employers, Black in Fashion Council will work collaboratively with the Human Rights Campaign in order to create an equality index score for organisations to participate in. Importantly, Black in Fashion Council’s goals are not aligned with the so-called ‘cancel culture’ but aim to provide advice and resources for people and brands to make necessary changes if they score low. By ‘holding them accountable’ there is a possibility for productive dialogue, avoiding the issue of activism ‘begin[ning] and end[ing] with a hashtag’.

Certainly, there is a fine line between genuine activism and falling into the dangerous ground of what I’ll call #blackouttuesday-ism. Is it better to take a stance rather than no stance? It sometimes seems that certain brands will be vilified either way, including of course Gucci of the infamous ‘black face’ jumpers. As we’ve explored above, shaming people into submission is definitely not the solution. It's about creating dialogue that will bring about genuine understanding. It seems to me that the painful issue here is that many feel it’s not only a little too late but also words rather than actions. A case, in other words, of ‘performative allyship’ over ‘real allyship.’ The former has become something of a trend on social media, particularly Instagram. One of the essential components of such an Instagram post is that the person posting about issues of a ‘marginalized’ group is from a ‘nonmarginalized’ group. More importantly, said post is either unhelpful or in some cases damaging to the ‘marginalized’ group the individual is professing to support. I’m sure we’ve all fallen into this trap a few times and maybe we’re just trying to help, but how can we be real allies to the cause? My favourite bit of advice from Holiday Phillips is ‘Do something that no one will ever know.’ That way, you’re not making this about yourself or the social capital you might gain through supporting a popular issue. Fashion is all about fleeting trends. Let’s not make Black Lives Matter another one.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this! Why not comment below or share with your friends to start a dialogue?

#blacklivesmatter #fashion #supportblackbusinesses #15percentpledge #takeaction #notjustatrend


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