The ‘cool’ brands with virtually no morals or ethics. The systemic problems in these brands begin with racist corporate cultures, continue with racist working conditions, and culminate with racist retail cultures.
Is it surprising that Black Lives Matter is exposing the corporate cultures and retail cultures in the fashion industry? No, but even the most unlikely of brands foster and promote anti-Blackness and racism, all the way from the top to the bottom of the fashion food chain. The go-to fashion watchdog on Instagram, Diet Prada, recently posted about the racist work cultures at Reformation, Zimmermann and Anthropologie.
The Corporate Culture: Reformation
Reformation’s corporate culture has come under fire. The brand is known for its ethos on sustainability, but it won’t hide its racist corporate culture any longer, as revealed by a former employee. The LA brand reserved for the ‘cool girl’ influencers and celebrities has been cancelled due its racist corporate culture that has been exposed as Black Lives Matter came to the forefront of fashion again in recent weeks. Reformation, like other brands, posted a vague post regarding Black Lives Matter and giving donation links to their customers.
They also reached out to former employee Elle Santiago. She denied their request for a call and chose to publish her issues with Reformation. She detailed her experiences working with the brand, the indirect and direct racism she has faced as a Black woman, and the racism that other people of colour face in the fashion industry.
Santiago details the racist culture perpetuated by Yael Aflalo, and the lackeys who carried out that culture, which culminates in her stating that “You will never allow a Black woman to sit at your table because then you wouldn’t be able to talk the way you all love to talk”. The company’s founder, Aflalo, judged and ignored Elle Santiago then allegedly denied her opportunities for growth at the company. Santiago stated she was repeatedly denied chances for promotion to store manager, in spite of performing store manager duties, then being asked to train white female hires outside the company. The post showcases how the racism in the company’s corporate culture ventured into their retail culture as Aflalo said they were “not ready for that yet” when it came to casting Black models.
The toxic retail culture is further exposed by employees coming forward about the unsafe working conditions in the store in New York City which has not been renovated. The brand’s pledge to sustainability is no longer enough to save them from their racism. The racist culture of Reformation thrives off of being thin, white and uncaring of the struggles that people of colour face. Their marketing is tone-deaf at best and they hardly push for extended sizing. They are aware that they can do more, they just don’t seem to want to, and it’s hard to believe that even as they declare they are going to make serious changes. Reformation hasn’t done it before in regards to their other criticisms
Yael Aflalo may have stepped down, but Reformation has moved past sustainability, and they are no longer unique. They are just another mass label that has poor ethos. I’ll believe they have the potential to change when I finally see that change enacted from their corporate culture all the way down to their retail culture successfully.
The Working Conditions: Zimmermann
Let’s move on to Zimmermann, another bohemian brand that seems to make it hard to be a Black employee in the fashion industry, and we are not surprised again. There was a leaked presentation guide that outlined how to achieve Eurocentric beauty standards while prohibiting braids, plaits and top knots. They chose to join other brands who went with performative activism and allyship by quoting Desmond Tutu. This resulted in various interns detailing their experiences with the brand and demonstrating how there is anti-Black discrimination at the company. This was backed up by the leaked guideline released a few weeks ago.
The makeup section of the guidelines features a list of products to strive for results that are attained by white famous white models, such as Candace Swanepoel, but is nothing compared to the section on hair. They call for hair that is “soft, textured loose waves, or blow-dried straight”. However, it refuses “high buns, top knots, plaits, braids”. Therefore, Black employees are expected to not wear their according to their cultural identity or wear it how they naturally would.
These guides were circulated until September 2019. If a company targets an employee on the basis of their hair or hairstyle, it is a form of racial discrimination, as reported by the NYC Commission on Human Rights in February 2019. The updated version, however, said that hair could be worn in its natural state but only if they refrained from using top knots, buns and braids.
In response to the brands performative activism, former employees describe the anti-Black culture that exists throughout the brand, with one detailing the mocking of Black models and their hair. There have been former Black interns who have described how they weren’t allowed to attend any of the runway shows as they “didn’t understand the brand” while others could. These posts of performative activism and performative allyship are revealing of the toxic culture for the people of colour in the fashion industry.
Zimmermann posted their own statement about how they wanted to start doing better. Again, there is little hope that these apologetic statements by brands are all but PR exercises, and faith cannot be restored until brands put those changes in place. It seems that brands don’t understand the concept that white isn’t always right. It’s a systemic issue because there are more cases.
The Retail Culture: Anthropologie
The systemic racism that exists in the fashion industry is profoundly felt in the retail industry, too. I know I’m not the only person of colour who has been followed around the store by staff or security on the basis of my skin. As a brown woman, I understand how people respond to me shopping in their stores when I’m by myself, and how that changes (or not) depending on who I’m with. I have been repeatedly convinced that it was all in my head. Okay, so how do you explain the fact that Anthropologie supposedly has a secret code name for Black customers? It’s time to stop the gaslighting.
Anthropologie quoted Maya Angelou and described how “Community is the foundation on which our brand was built”. The post has now been taken down from the Instagram page. A few former employees from Anthropologie then revealed the discriminatory code word used for the Black people that enter the stores. I can assure you that the community doesn’t racially profile possible and existing customers. They never mentioned that Black Lives Matter in their post, they could have just said All Lives Matter instead, after all they don’t seem to want to put off their very white target demographic.
The comments were revealing of the discriminatory practices executed in the stores and directed by upper management. The racial profiling of people of colour in retail spaces is nothing new. Zara has their “special order” while Moschino has “Serena”, but Anthropologie has “Nick” to refer to Black shoppers, as reported by multiple employees who have confirmed that stores in North America use the code name. They are told to keep an eye on Black sutlers, in those comments, there are even Black shoppers confirming how they have been followed in the Anthropologie stores.
Its corporate culture is no better. They can promise to take better action in the future by diversifying their company, yet they asked Lydia Okello to work for free on a Pride Month campaign in exchange for an outfit from Anthropologie. They essentially asked a person of colour to do free labour.
Their latest post is gaslighting the experiences of Black people and other people of colour in their stores. This PR exercise is a blatant lie, own up to your actions, then actually implement change.
Nobody is surprised by the racist culture in the fashion industry. These examples are here to show how there is nowhere left to hide. As a brand you need to implement change to be actively anti-racist. You also need to stop gaslighting the experiences of people of colour, we’ve all had enough, and do more than post a little Black square and quote about doing better.