Slow to react, slower to open their purses – even after widespread racism scandals, the industry still isn’t getting it right
On the evening of April 15 2019, a fire started in Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral. Three people were injured. No one died. Images of the cathedral spread around social media as quickly as the flames ripped through the historic church’s roof, and within a day, the donations flooded in. Hundreds of thousands of euros, millions of euros, hundreds of millions of euros. Kering (Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga) CEO François-Henri Pinault promised €100m, and LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Fendi) CEO Bernard Arnault pledged €200m. The total amount of donations pledged was so large, that within 10 days, the BBC was asking: “Has too much money been given to rebuild it?”
13 months after that day, across the Atlantic, America is burning as protests unfold across all 50 states. There is not just one fire. There are not just three injuries. And sadly, awfully, and yet, unsurprisingly, there are also deaths. We know their names: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee. These are just the latest: every day seems to bring another victim of police violence or white vigilantism. 1 in 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police in the USA. Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans.
So what does a French cathedral, an icon of European architecture and history, have to do with police brutality in the United States? Put simply: companies and CEOs were a lot faster to donate money towards the church’s repair than they have been towards Black Lives Matter.
“Notre-Dame is much more than a cathedral. It is a symbol of the Western world’s cultural hegemony, and a symbol of white greatness by extension,” says Paris-based fashion critic Pierre A. M’Pelé, aka Pam Boy, noting that the building serves as a reminder of the “exclusionary” heritage that has shaped our societies. “Fashion brands being so responsive to the Notre-Dame fire is ideologically driven, whether they know it or not and whether they admit it or not.” Such a church, he argues, is a symbol – and symbols “are used to prevent change (from happening). They remind everyone that the world in its current state is the only option.”
As escalating protests spread across the USA over the weekend and at the start of this week, many brand accounts remained noticeably silent, even as their stores were vandalised and looted.
While some companies – such as Nike, which has built a large part of its reputation and profits on its Air Jordan line – were quick to take a stand, other brands only posted after followers demanded they speak up in the comments. When they did, in many cases the responses were vague: white on black text statements focussed on diversity and inclusion rather than police brutality or Blackness. They were immediately followed by calls in the comments for brands to open their purses and donate. It was only Tuesday – over a week after the protests began on May 26 – that major luxury players began to announce donations.
To Antoine Gregory, a New York-based fashion consultant who has worked with labels like Telfar and Pyer Moss, the posts brands did make were clearly in response to the lobbying of Black followers. “What I’ve noticed in this industry is that until Black consumers make a loud enough effort to be heard, brands will absolutely remain silent,” he says.
“What I’ve noticed in this industry is that until Black consumers make a loud enough effort to be heard, brands will absolutely remain silent” – Antoine Gregory
Another reason for the delay? Some brands may not see anti-Blackness as in-keeping with the luxury aesthetic or image they strive to uphold. “Fashion houses were slow to donate to the Black Lives Matter Movement because a social revolt isn’t glamorous enough,” reasons Pam Boy. “It stains the pristine image that fashion and luxury houses thrive on. It’s a lot less sexy to say that Black Lives Matter than to contribute to saving a building that’s going to stand the test of time.” Two other high profile recent causes: Australia’s bushfires (for which Kering gave $1m AUD, and Balenciaga made a t-shirt) and Covid-19 relief efforts (which saw the entire industry rally remarkably and brilliantly to build hospital wings, manufacture hand sanitiser and PPE, and donate) did not seem to warrant the same hesitancy.
Although many brands began to pledge support at the start of this week, often their vague statements offered little insight into any action they might be taking either internally or externally. In many cases (including Prada, Versace, and Fendi) posts did not mention a donation. To many, this wasn’t enough: as Gregory puts it, “It is not enough to stand in solidarity without any deliverables.” When brands – such has Kering and Burberry – did note that a donation had been made, the monetary amount was almost exclusively unspecified.
“Fashion houses were slow to donate to the Black Lives Matter Movement because a social revolt isn’t glamorous enough... It stains the pristine image that fashion and luxury houses thrive on” – Pam Boy
Tuesday’s controversial viral #BlackOutTuesday trend also gave some major brands the opportunity to post a row of plain black squares to their Instagram feeds, rather than meaningful messages of solidarity, pledges for money or promises of action. There have been other misses: according to GQ, the designer Jonathan Anderson posted a caption saying “there is only one race”, later replacing it with an image of James Baldwin and apologising after criticism. Celine, the fashion house led by Hedi Slimane and owned by LVMH, posted a statement to Instagram saying that the brand “stands against all forms of discrimination, oppression and racism” – but had not posted an image of a Black model since June 2019.
The last few years have seen various brands struggle in light of high profile racism scandals; from Prada’s Blackface keyring, to Gucci’s imitation of a Dapper Dan design on the runway and Blackface balaclava, and Comme des Garçons’ cornrows fiasco. These moments have resulted in the establishment of diversity councils in the case of Gucci and Prada, and apologies in all. But in many instances, it’s taken internet pressure – often spearheaded by Black Twitter or fashion watchdogs Diet Prada – to galvanise change. “Fashion has a history of changing reactively and not proactively,” says fashion historian and Dazed 100-er Shelby Ivey Christie, whose Twitter is a vital resource of Black fashion history. “Brands aren’t truly vested in combating issues like racial profiling, police brutality and police abolitionism... The priority seems to be (the) optics of change and not actually change.”
“Brands aren’t truly vested in combating issues like racial profiling, police brutality and police abolitionism... The priority seems to be optics of change and not actually change” – Shelby Ivey Christie
“If Black Twitter did not call-out Gucci for knocking off Dapper Dan then there would be no Atelier in Harlem,” says Gregory. “If the Gucci store was not looted in Atlanta we would not have read a poem the following day asking for peace and love. If your solidarity with the Black communities that buy and support your brand only comes after backlash, that is not solidarity.”
Whether images of Rodeo Drive graffitied with phrases such as “eat the rich”, or the internet roasting of Virgil Abloh, the Black designer of Off-White and Louis Vuitton menswear who was perceived to have donated just $50 to a cause (on Tuesday, he revealed he had donated over $20,000 and would continue to donate), fashion has found itself as a talking point during these protests.
Often, the conversation centres around looting, as videos of store break-ins circulate on social media (Abloh also apologised for comments criticising looters, in a statement that discussed his own experiences as a dark-skinned Black man in America). “Luxury fashion brands have been targets for looting because they are arbitrators and benefactors of racism themselves,” says Christie. “They appropriate Black culture, they gatekeep Black people out of the industry and they have put images and messaging out that is rested upon racism. I think people are more aware of this now more than ever, in the wake of last year’s Blackface items and the conversation.”
“If your solidarity with the Black communities that buy and support your brand only comes after backlash, that is not solidarity” – Antoine Gregory
If any of those scandals proved anything, it’s that brands need to commit to upholding diversity long-term – not just in external communications, like how many models feature in campaigns, on runways, and on Instagram, but internally behind the scenes and in other ways, such as lobbying for law changes.
“Brands have to earn the right to say Black Lives Matter,” says Gregory. “The industry needs to commit to action. Commit to hiring more Black people in positions that give us visibility because diversity is not your campaign featuring a Black model. Commit to using their resources to help reform laws that cost us Black lives.” It is not simply a matter of making a post on Instagram expressing solidarity and considering it job done, especially if you’ve already promised to do better. “We don’t need any more performative activism,” he says. “We need action.”
Editor’s note: After the publication of this article, a representative from Gucci reached out with further information on the work they have been doing “as part of a comprehensive and concerted DE&I action plan” launched in 2019 with the announcement of the advisory council already mentioned.
• Launch of $5 million North America Changemakers Impact Funds, which has donated $1.5 million to 19 NGOs working at grassroots level to support disadvantaged Black and Brown communities across North America
• $1.5 million Changemakers Scholarship Fund to help minority students enter the industry
• The Gucci Design Fellowship giving fashion colleges from 10 cities around the world the chance to have a student participate in a one-year internship in Gucci’s Rome design office