Diversity for a new decade, key dos and don’ts for brands

With protests against police brutality having occurred this summer in fifty states and in twenty countries, and in which, according to the NY Times, between 15 and 26 million Americans participated, equality is a global mandate. No brand has the luxury of remaining on the sidelines on this issue or they will face serious repercussions. This is the message communicated from the annual Stylus Trend Intelligence Summit which, despite its 2020 virtual format, sets out to decode how industries must evolve, while spotlighting brands already spearheading change, and exploring how innovative founders are catering to contemporary BIPOC audiences. 

Stylus’s aim, through its assembling of diverse expert voices, is to equip brands and agencies with the creative insights they need in order to make transformative business decisions. And although our industry currently faces all kinds of turmoil, diversity is one area in which the road ahead couldn’t be signposted any clearer.

The problem with brands claiming to be unpolitical

According to Edelman, 77 percent of Americans say it is important for brands to respond to racial injustice to earn or keep their trust, while Morning Consul reports that 52 percent of Gen Z say the Black Lives Matter Movement has had a major impact on their world view. Outside of the US, nearly 90 percent of consumers feel that brands have a duty to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. More than half of Americans under the age of 16 identify as Minority making this generation of consumers the most multi-cultural to date.

Fashion companies that have long attempted to stay out of politics or claim to remain neutral in our increasingly volatile political climate will be seen as relics of a less-enlightened era. “It’s a euphemism that people should immediately find suspicious,” says Amber Davis, Director of Creative Strategy at Vox Creative. “Every brand has politics, whether it be known or not, external or internal. Not wanting to upset certain people won’t get you off the hook anymore.” The question Is this too political? has too often been used as shield by brands for what they don’t want to address, but today’s customer will be turned off.

The need for brands to develop a culturally literate lens

Storytelling is a major part of contemporary brand messaging, therefore, questioning dominant narratives is the only way to eradicate racial insensitivity. The process will be uncomfortable and confrontational but Levis addressing its reliance on the slave-built cotton industry in collaboration with artist/designer Tremaine Emory for their Denim Tears capsule collection is an example of a brand taking meaningful steps.

Melle Hock, EVP Executive Planning and Strategy Director at Edelman, and co-founder of Art Noir, tells Stylus, “The foundation of being a great ally is being educated and well-informed.” In 2021 the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands will stage an exhibition which is sure to be influential as we collectively learn to view the world through a more culturally literate lens. Entitled “Slavery,” it exposes the involvement of the Netherlands in the slave trade during the country’s prosperous Dutch colonial period spanning from the 17th to the 19th century.

Davis advises both individuals and brands to adopt the same attitude: “They should stop thinking of themselves only as allies, but instead as co-conspirators who are also putting themselves on the line––versus standing by ‘in support of’.”

Brands which have relied on legacy and heritage narratives have often cultivated an exclusivity centered around activities such as polo, country clubs, hunting, the jet set lifestyle, are in danger of appearing out-of-touch or guilty of othering. Those expanding the concept of heritage, such as Aurora James who collaborates with Kenyan and Ethiopian artisans for her Brother Vellies shoe collection, or Kenneth Ize and BFyne which promote an “Afro-politan” aesthetic are examples of new legacy leaders.

Fashion, like all industries, is facing a reckoning, but brands would be remiss in mistaking this movement for a trend. The pendulum of change will not be swinging back this time.

Photos from Stylus

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

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