Luxury industry tackles diversity, inclusivity challenges
In our globalised times, with social media increasingly influential, the luxury goods industry needs to radically reassess its business model, taking more than ever into account the issue of diversity. Several fashion labels have recently been criticised, accused of racist behaviour and occasionally of thoughtlessness with regards to sensitive themes, like suicide, forcing them to backtrack.
The labels in question reacted quickly, introducing various initiatives to avoid such pitfalls in future, proof of a profound change in industry attitudes. On March 18, for example, Gucci launched the ‘Gucci Changemakers’ programme. A series of measures that “will enable us to invest critical resources to create fertile areas of shared development, by stimulating and supporting, in an increasingly effective manner, the inter-cultural exchange with the communities with which we are connected, especially the African-American community.” That was what the CEO of Kering’s leading label, Marco Bizzarri, said.
Gucci, Moncler and Prada and the ‘blackface’ scandal
Gucci has stepped on the gas with this project as a reaction to accusations of racism that were levelled at the label last month, for commercialising a balaclava-style sweater with a 'blackface' look, a colonial-era caricature exaggerating the facial features of black people. Following the episode, several African-American celebrities, including US director Spike Lee, threatened to boycott Gucci. Its Creative Director Alessandro Michele had already been singled out for criticism in September 2017, for copying the signature jacket of Harlem designer and tailor Dapper Dan. Since then, the Italian label spawned multiple collaborations with the African-American designer, now at the forefront of the Changemakers project.
In 2016, the finger was pointed at Moncler for a blackface-decorated jacket and accessories. The sportswear label apologised and immediately took the products off the market. More recently, in December, Prada found itself in the spotlight after introducing a black figurine with oversize red lips, whose commercialisation was eventually blocked following heavy social media pressure. “The resemblance of our products to a blackface image was by no means intentional, though we recognise this doesn’t excuse the upset it caused. We have now undertaken to improve our diversity training and we will immediately set up an advisory committee to guide our efforts with respect to diversity, inclusivity and culture,” said the Italian fashion group in the episode’s aftermath.
On February 13, Prada appointed as joint heads of the committee Chicago artist and activist Theaster Gates, currently staging his first personal show in Paris (at the Palais de Tokyo), and producer/director Ava DuVernay, the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director in 2014, for the film ‘Selma’. Meanwhile, LVMH has recently signed up to the worldwide code of conduct battling discrimination against the LGBTQ community in the workplace. Promoted by the UN, it's the culmination of a policy of anti-discrimination and respect for lifestyle choices initiated more than 10 years ago. For the signing of the charter on March 13, the luxury group staged an extensive meeting-event on the themes of diversity and inclusivity at its Paris HQ in avenue Montaigne.
“The luxury industry is in the midst of a transition. For 30 years, labels have relied on exclusivity, while striving to convince us that their products were the best. Nowadays, this no longer works, and the smallest instance of tactlessness can be vigorously punished. Young people don’t read any more, and they are less interested in culture than in the past. Brands have become a source of inspiration for them. This is why their reactions to various kinds of initiatives can be characterised by a very strong emotional content,” said Michael Jaïs, CEO of Launchmetrics, an e-reputation specialist for the fashion and luxury industries and a lecturer at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
Knee-jerk reactions can escalate unexpectedly, as was the case for Dolce & Gabbana: in November, the Italian label incurred the wrath of Chinese consumers for publishing a video promoting the label's signature Shanghai show that was branded as racist and sexist. The video featured an Asian model trying to eat Italian food with chopsticks, while an off-camera male voice mocked her. The luxury label was not only forced to apologise, but had to cancel the show, losing millions of euros. It also ended up being boycotted by many Chinese distributors.
Another recent gaffe was that made by Burberry, accused of encouraging suicides after including in its Fall/Winter 2019-20 collection a sweatshirt with a noose-like drawstring hanging from the hood. CEO Marco Gobbetti had to step up in person and say he was “extremely sorry for the unease caused” by this product, and assured critics that it would not be sold.
Is social media stifling creativity?
The amplification effect of the web and social media increasingly singles out fashion labels for criticism. It's a phenomenon that raises questions about creativity and its scope in the current environment, beyond the diversity debate. “I do not think there is less freedom to be creative. But creativity is subject to much more scrutiny now that the fashion world has become globalised,” said Riccardo Grassi, owner of one of Milan’s largest showrooms.
“Everything now needs to be carefully considered, from religious beliefs to gender, cultural identities, animal well-being and more. Suddenly, designers are liable to feel they somehow have a gun pointed at their head. The majority of looks are created without truly thinking about the effect they will have. Certain reactions sometimes seem to me to be excessive. After all, they are only clothes,” said Grassi.
Stefano Martinetto, founder of Tomorrow London Holdings, commented: “I have been working in the fashion industry for 27 years and I think that, as in all other sectors, you need a little equanimity. On the one hand, social media play a very positive role, since people can no longer do anything they like, as they did before. This has put an end to certain drifts. On the other hand, the web gives an inordinate amount of power to any individual who, for whatever reason, is willing and able to use this tool to ruin a company or a designer.”
“We live within a communication environment in which there is an increasingly spasmodic quest for the most outrageous, attention-grabbing news. Also, there is entrenched criticism by several communities against cultural appropriation on the part of western labels. The risk is that this kind of phenomenon could stifle creativity. It shouldn’t do so, it should instead stimulate dialogue,” said Linda Loppa, who since 2016 has been in charge of the Strategy and Vision platform of Florentine fashion school Polimoda.
“On the other hand, it must be emphasised that luxury labels have become global and they no longer know their clientèle. They have a profoundly western vision, and for decades they have been targeting white, Christian, affluent Europeans, while nowadays they are approaching all sorts of different cultures,” added Loppa.
Following the blackface episode, designer Miuccia Prada expressed her own opinion on the matter: “I increasingly think that everything we do today is liable to shock and give offence. This may sometimes be due to a lack of benevolence, but on the other hand, how can we be familiar with each and every culture? Chinese people protest, Sikhs protest, and so do Mexicans and African-Americans. But how can one know the peculiarities of every culture, when there can be 100 different cultures within the same country?” she wondered in an interview to US magazine WWD.
Virgil Abloh, the only black designer in charge of a world luxury giant
Not only do brands address multiple audiences and cultures, but “they are starting to realise that they are becoming cultural objects themselves,” said Jaïs. Hence it is important for the luxury industry to forge closer links with communities, and to open up to the latter’s different artistic expressions. “The appointment of Virgil Abloh, an American born of Ghanaian parents, as the head of Louis Vuitton's menswear collections, isn’t neutral,” added Jaïs.
Abloh is the only black designer currently in charge of a world-class luxury label. An eclectic DJ-designer who grew up with hip hop and streetwear and whose Instagram account has 3.7 million followers, he seems the ideal ambassador to engage with younger generations. Millennials currently account for 45% of the clientèle of luxury brands in terms of numbers, and from 25% to 30% in terms of purchasing value.
“To reach this clientèle, fashion labels initially relied on influencers and bloggers who managed the proximity relationship in their place. But these intermediaries eventually snapped up their clientèle themselves. In order to win over millennials, fashion labels are now fostering their own culture by co-creating cultural objects, like for example Calvin Klein, which is replacing traditional advertising with video productions featuring rock bands, or by pre-empting new artistic talent. Some brands are even starting to develop their own TV series,” said Jaïs.
“The new generations are willing to give liberally to luxury brands, but they are also very demanding. What’s at stake isn’t simply a product purchase, but a genuine lifestyle. Indeed, the clientèle for luxury goods has become so varied and diverse that labels are no longer free. When they approach a new consumer segment, they must take into account a multiplicity of factors such as gender equality, inclusivity and diversity, and strive to generate a genuine brand culture,” concluded Jaïs.
It's not by accident that investors are now increasingly careful in scrutinising the environmental, societal and governance approach adopted by corporations, especially in the luxury and fashion industry, where brand image and reputation are priceless assets. In this respect, a more open, gender-balanced and transparent governance enables brands to consolidate their reputation and reduce risks, while also constituting a growth driver.
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