In June 2023, Rihanna announced that she would be stepping down as CEO from her lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty. The billionaire celebrity is slated to be replaced by Hillary Super, the former CEO of Anthropologie Group. Super is no stranger to the industry having worked in fashion for over 30 years, with tenures at Guess, American Eagle and Gap.
In a statement given to Vogue, Rihanna stated: “This is just the beginning for us, and we’re going to continue to expand in ways that always connect with the consumer. I’m so grateful and excited to welcome Hillary Super as our new CEO – she is a strong leader and is focused on taking the business to an even higher level.”
Savage X Fenty has always been publicly praised for its job well done in having an inclusive approach when it comes to showcasing its lingerie both online and on runways (even if its supply chain practices are more than wanting). But while the music icon (and fashion industry titan) praised Super’s takeover of the company late last month, conversations started developing on social media about how this changing of the guard was a missed opportunity for Black leadership at the C-suite level.
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The fashion industry is notorious for its lack of diversity in higher-up positions, despite often aiming to profit off of people of color with targeted advertising and cultural appropriation. While promises for more diverse hiring and DEI initiatives arose from fashion’s biggest brands during the 2020 summer of heightened #BlackLivesMatter protests, three years later, the question of whether these promises were kept becomes crucial if systemic change is ever to take hold.
Promises Made, Promises Kept?
In 2020, the tragic murder of George Floyd brought about over 450 large scale protests across the US and throughout the world – displaying the institutional mistreatment of people of color – particularly Black people. Among these protests were the Strike for Black Lives, where employees across the US conducted a walkout in protest of systematic racism in the workplace. With pressure for companies to respond to demands for change and accountability, many began to react by hastily committing to diversity initiatives. The fashion industry was no exception.
In the wake of these protests, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) responses from clothing businesses became more prevalent, with many brands rushing to print and sell slogan t-shirts, publicly committing to corporate philanthropy, and promising long-lasting changes in hiring practices to give people of color – and specifically Black people – a seat at the table.
The New York Times released an article in 2021 questioning diversity in the fashion world. The article examined the DEI initiatives of 69 brands. Of those brands, the article found that only four designers or creative directors at those companies were Black.
At the time of publishing, the four listed were Virgil Abloh head designer of Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s wear, Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, Rushemy Botter, a co-designer of Nina Ricci and Kanye West.
Today, Virgil Abloh has since passed away in late 2021, Kanye West and his brand Yeezy have been ousted from the public eye due to anti-semitic remarks – cutting ties with Adidas in October 2022, and Rushmey Botter announced his exit from Nina Ricci in January 2022.
The DEI commitments initiated by brands in the Summer of 2020 were launched in what felt like an overnight to meet the public’s demands, but with three years having passed since these changes were first promised, has progress remained, or are brands starting to quietly roll back their diversity initiatives with the public eye no longer on them?
Four months ago, Marjon Carlos, journalist and public speaker, sparked a debate on Twitter when she questioned the validity of the original initiatives set out by large brands brought on by the onslaught of change. In the Twitter video, Carlos scrutinized whether the promises made were genuine or just performative allyship expressing that brands have hired Black people in leadership roles, featured them in campaigns, donated money to foundations, but many are now “back to business as usual.”
Carlos went on to say that during this time, she received a surreal amount of career growth, gaining opportunities she could only dream of, opportunities she says have now vanished without any change to herself or content. She’s not alone in these observations.
TRACKING INTERNAL CHANGES
In 2021, one year after promising more diversity, The New York Times set out to find if the fashion industry had really changed for the better. The news media conglomerate investigated the claims made by brands, focusing on 64 women’s wear brands “whose products set trends, whose designers have become celebrities and whose imagery sometimes depends heavily on Black culture.” The article found that there were inconsistencies between each brand and how they represented their DEI initiatives, with nine European companies providing no answers, stating that they were legally unable to participate. Many of the responses ranged from companies and brands citing privacy concerns as the reason for lack of employee records and diversity demographics.
While privacy is, of course, important, so is transparency. How are we to know if brands are upholding their promises if there’s no regulations in place demanding they provide the information?
Adidas reported an increase of 5% in corporate roles and 10% (+3%) in leadership positions for Black and LatinX employees. While Burberry has continued to report ethnicity based pay gaps: with the average ethnicity pay gap narrowing to 2.7% from 7.5%.
In the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, Remake reported that companies were quick to set progressive hiring targets, but have been slower to meet those goals.
The brand Marks & Spencer aimed to comprise 15% of its senior management teams of ethnic minorities by 2022. By that year, ethnic minority representation was only reported to be 6.8%. The most recent measures in Marks & Spencer’s 2023 Annual Report demonstrate representation to be at 5.4%, with the previous 15% commitment pushed back to 2025.
However, among other brands Remake assessed, there are companies that have shown significant progress towards their 2020 DEI commitments.
Under Armour claimed to ensure that the company’s executive team was 30% filled by BIPOC talent generally and 12% filled by Black talent, specifically, by 2023. A June 6th update showed the brand exceeding this commitment (albeit a slight change in the measurement) with 40% of leadership positions filled by BIPOC talent, and 16% filled by black talent. Notably, the brand also reports 25% of Director positions filled by BIPOC talent, and more specifically, 9% of Director positions filled by Black talent.
Reformation’s efforts in 2022 boasted “working to improve representation at all levels of the company” and adopting “equal hiring practices and tools” in partnership with a diversity hiring and retention company. The outcomes of this claim were not publicly evident that year. However, currently updated information within Reformation’s Q4 2022 Sustainability report indicates that Diversity is up 12% and Inclusion is up 5% from a 2021 survey result.
It Starts At The Top
Governance in the corporate setting typically takes on the most control and is responsible for the policies and processes within an organization. It has a significant impact on how the company operates internally and externally. Brands like Bestseller, Burberry, MUJI, FashionNova, Savage X Fenty and Zalando demonstrated that they have somewhat diverse boards that reflect the regions in which they operate. (As of 2023, Bestseller and Burberry both report on gender diversity, but do not report on ethnic diversity within their board.)
Leadership at an executive level plays a role in governance by making key decisions that influence the organization. Initiatives set out at this level will typically be planned and executed by lower level leadership such as managers. Typically, a company’s culture and employees will emulate its executive leadership. Some companies, such as Adidas, Burberry, Hermes, Levi Strauss & Co., and Zalando, linked executive and leadership pay to publicly disclosed DEI targets. Others brought in DEI professionals to help them change.
Nike, Inc. earmarked $10 million for HBCUs and Hispanic-Service Institutions (HSIs) in the fiscal year 2021, in the form of scholarships and academic partnerships to increase intern and direct hires.
As of 2023, Adidas reported an increase of 5% in corporate roles and 10% (+3%) in leadership positions for Black and LatinX employees. Burberry has continued to report ethnicity based pay gaps with the average ethnicity pay gap narrowing to 2.7% from 7.5%.
While not explicitly disclosing targets, Levi Strauss & Co. and Zalando have shared their DEI statistic records. Hermes, notably, has not.
Levi Strauss & Co. last published a 2022 DEI report to continue measuring and reporting on ethnicity data amongst Executive, Top Management, Corporate and Frontline Workers.
Zalando published its 2022 DEI report, which reported progress on its following commitment: “By 2025, we will ensure equity in policies and practices (hiring, promotion, development) by conducting audits to proactively identify and eliminate biases and systemic barriers.”
Initiative promises also saw many brands vowing to hire more talent of color. From models to designers, the talent acquisition process can make or break a company’s DEI initiatives. When examining how brands hire talent, their use of job descriptions and application questions throughout the interview process can increase the likelihood of a brand losing out on talent without intentional consideration for DEI in its language or overall hiring process. Everlane; Gap Inc. (GAP, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta); Nike, Inc.; Ralph Lauren; and REI — demonstrated taking class, gender and race into account in the regions during their hiring practices.
Everlane shared commitments to inclusive hiring practices, establishing that the brand has: “[built] partnerships with organizations serving underrepresented communities to effectively market our open positions, and overhauled [the] structured interview process to eliminate bias.” The brand also reports interview training to ensure that these commitments are enacted practices.
Gap Inc. reported: “We acknowledge the overall rate of change in our FY 2021 progress is slower than expected, which we partly attribute to external headwinds, a slower pace of hiring overall, and higher attrition rates.”
Nike shares that it is in the process of “setting clear and ambitious targets and building the strategies and pipelines to increase diverse representation at Nike.”
Ralph Lauren has shared that it has extended its commitment “to include interviewing diverse candidates for every open VP and above position.”
REI reports that it has extended its bias training into 2023, through: “a 30-minute e-learning module with a 60-minute facilitated follow-up discussion session for store managers who are new in their role or new to the co-op in preparation for seasonal hiring.”
Most, if not all, of these explanations are vague, and leave a lot to be desired in terms of transparency. While it’s a positive trend that companies are committing to hiring talent of color, the way that brands have expressed their strategies for going about that is still questionable.
Following the Money
In addition to hiring DEI professionals, internal management changes have emphasized corporate philanthropy as a potential avenue for DEI improvements. Philanthropy creates the opportunity for brands to make changes outside of the organization. It allows a company to tap into its resources and give back to the communities it serves or leverages. However, it can be deemed performative if internal and external initiatives are not aligned.
In 2022, Remake reported that it had become “more common for fashion companies to donate to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and to allocate certain percentages of their internship positions to students from these schools.” Since then, corporate philanthropy among retailers and brands that have disclosed DEI targets has become somewhat of an industry standard. Most notably, Nike, Inc. earmarked $10 million for HBCUs and Hispanic-Service Institutions (HSIs) in the fiscal year 2021, in the form of scholarships and academic partnerships to increase intern and direct hires. Additionally, Ralph Lauren has committed $2 million to HCBUs over a five year period, which includes facilitating career pathways for Black talent through internship, recruitment, mentorship and development programs. In 2022, Remake reported that it was too soon to see if corporate philanthropy would contribute to new talent acquisition and diverse corporate leadership. This remains true in 2023.
Most progress in transitioning DEI initiatives is taking place at the governance level, while talent acquisition and retention are more resistant. Like most trends in fashion, the industry is approaching this transformation by taking a top-down approach to addressing structural inequality. Arguably, DEI initiatives should be consistent at all levels of an organization. Through the support of external partnerships with independent organizations like the Black in Fashion Council and The Fifteen Percent Pledge, companies are more aware and advised to ensure Black representation at every level of fashion’s decision making process – from design to distribution.
Although we have seen a large shift in narrative, tone, and intent behind DEI initiatives, structural change has primarily fallen on the shoulders of communities of color to implement. Furthermore, brands seldom carry out their DEI initiatives outside their value chain.
With 80% of the global apparel labor chain identifying as women of color, the broad reluctance over supporting workplace rights of not only direct employees, but subcontracted workers, is a significant issue.
From contractors, suppliers, vendors, distributors, and advertisers, fashion’s enthusiastic approach to DEI, application has remained stagnant in these areas.
Regarding production processes (contractors, suppliers, vendors), Remake has reported that only 10 companies (approximately 17% of the total fashion industry) supported the participation of direct employees in trade unions: Burberry; Desigual; Hermes; Inditex (Zara, Bershka, Massimo Dutti); J. Crew Group, Inc. (J. Crew, Madewell); Levi Strauss & Co.; LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Celine, Dior); Nike, Inc.; PUMA and PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger).
Of these 10 companies, only Burberry, Desingual, J. Crew Group, Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., LVMH, PUMA, and PVH have policies for their vendors – that is, their subcontractors and contractors to also implement by freedom of association.
Five companies (9%) — Burberry, Kering (Gucci, Balenciaga), Marks & Spencer, PUMA and Reformation — published partial information indicating that some of their direct employees, such as corporate employees or retail workers, earn a living wage.
This sparse yet telling information is still only a small portion of the entire industry. With 80% of the global apparel labor chain identifying as women of color, the broad reluctance over supporting workplace rights of not only direct employees, but subcontracted workers, is a significant issue.
The data also shows that at a macro level, distribution and advertisement in fashion have not aligned with the progressive DEI movement seen inside organizations. Brands have failed to align their words on representation with their marketing and sales actions.
Looking at social media advertisements and brand campaigns prior to 2020, and post 2020, for both luxury and mass market fashion brands shows that on average the status quo – of hiring lighter skinned models – has relatively remained unchanged.
While among luxury fashion brands 2021 data shows that Balmain and Burberry both stood out as employing darker skin tones, mass-market brands have been showing slightly more progress. Victoria Secret measured across all brands as moving towards a higher melanin percentage in advertisements. On the other hand, brands like Old Navy and Reformation have stayed relatively constant on the lighter end of the spectrum.
Notably, all of these brands participated in the blackout square on Instagram in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
The loss of George Floyd ignited a burgeoning transformation toward racial equality and justice. Throughout the last year, brands hustled to compile, analyze, develop, and weave DEI into their organization. But how much of this was authentic, and how much was just to make enough noise for false comfort?
Although brands do not completely disregard DEI, they have strictly relegated their language to governance commitments towards change without much structural change in their supply chains to show for it three years later.
To be truly committed to DEI, brands need to work to implement systems for successful structural change in their supply chains, labor models, and their reporting and disclosures for their promises of 2020 to hold significant weight.
Rihanna stepping down as CEO exacerbates the fears of many in the fashion industry that worry we’re reverting back to the industry of old. BIPOC CEOs in the fashion industry are hard to come by as the overt and covert racism experienced by BIPOCs increases the difficulty that many must endure to rise in the ranks of these prominent brands. While many still attempt to climb the ladder, other CEOs like Kevan Hall and Telfar Clemens of Telfar create something entirely their own.
However, tragedy should not be the only catalyst for BIPOCs being welcomed into – or respected by – the fashion industry. The industry’s moguls must do better to enact meaningful DEI initiatives so that the pendulum of inequality can be righted. While the tragedy of 2020 forced many to acknowledge the injustices of various industries, the bare minimum is no longer good enough and brands hiring a few BIPOCs to satisfy our demands is inadequate.
As we continue to demand change from the fashion industry, you can learn more about what it takes to embody DEI in your organization truly and consider joining the Remake Fashion Certificate program. While “Elevating Equity” is not a traditional DEI program, the program is centered on effective actions that drive real, measurable change. This interactive course series prepares you to lead your organization toward transformative progress in DEI, Sustainability, and other fashion injustices. The course includes two skill-building programs and a one-year sponsored license with access to our partner, Nomadic Academy’s programs. Fill out the application here.
Our calls for change in the fashion industry will no longer fall on apathetic ears. Prominent brands must begin to make meaningful changes to the status quo, or we will begin finding alternatives that will.