Ralph Lauren, race and how fashion can embrace discomfort

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When Ralph Lauren unveiled its first collaboration with historically black colleges Morehouse and Spelman, the brand appeared to follow the post-George Floyd playbook for diversity best practices to the letter. Designed and executed by black employees and HBCU alumni in coordination with schools and their students, the collection was meant to bring into the fold some of the people the brand had overlooked in its decades defining American style.

The first wave of reviews from fashion critics, diversity thought leaders and black writers have been overwhelmingly positive. QGCole Brown said the collection was “a victory”, while Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis, a consultant on the project, called it “historic and breathtaking in every way”. Robin Givhan, The Washington PostThe Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor called the clothes “a statement of enduring belonging.”

But the collection also attracted many skeptics, and their voices grew louder as Ralph Lauren’s promotional campaign kicked into high gear.

Fashion and costume historian Shelby Ivey Christie called the clothes “wasteful” and, worse, reminiscent of the Jim Crow era of segregation. Others took to Instagram and Twitter to call out the decision to work with two of the most high-profile HBCUs, suggesting they were low-hanging fruit for mainstream fashion brands looking to beef up their DEIs in good faith. Some have wondered if a major brand like Ralph Lauren, owned and operated primarily by white people, could ever showcase black culture without engaging in appropriation.

Ralph Lauren hasn’t said anything publicly about the collection since the initial announcement. On Monday, the brand released a movie, “A Portrait of the American Dream.” The documentary details “the founding and historical significance of HBCUs…demonstrating the style’s use as an expression of aspiration, a form of empowerment and a tool of resistance,” the company said. The company declined BoF’s requests for comment.

All in all, the campaign was one of the most ambitious attempts yet by a consumer brand to tackle the issues raised in the summer of 2020. Executives from competing brands and retailers are watching the reaction closely. . Many of these companies have made it clear that they intend to create more Black-focused marketing campaigns and collections, both to rectify historic racial inequities and to woo previously overlooked Black consumers.

The fate of the Ralph Lauren effort is therefore likely to influence future Black-focused marketing and collections. Its success or failure will not be determined by weighing the positive and negative comments on Twitter. But brands need to anticipate the inevitable debate when mounting a black-focused campaign.

DEI experts say the companies best positioned to move the industry forward on issues of equity and inclusion must be willing to accept — and even embrace — their criticism. A campaign that doesn’t spark any conversation could be a sign that a brand has set its ambitions too low.

“If there’s a fashion house or corporate fashion identity looking at the Ralph Lauren situation and saying maybe I shouldn’t touch [race issues], then you shouldn’t touch it,” said Crystal deGregory, a historian and researcher at the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, whose work has focused on HBCUs. “Because that tells me you’re not even cut out to try to do this well.”

What are you aiming for?

Companies from Zara and H&M to Prada and Burberry got themselves in hot water over products and images that evoked racist ideologies or borrowed from minority communities without acknowledgment or compensation. Ralph Lauren had its own moment in 2020 when the brand was called out for using the Greek letters associated with the black brotherhood Phi Beta Sigma on pants.

The debate over Ralph Lauren’s HBCU collection was different. Brands need to draw clear distinctions between missteps caused by ignorance and debate sparked by well-developed campaigns informed by research and advocacy, said Suki Sandhu, founder and chief executive of INvolve, a consulting firm and a global network that champions diversity and inclusion in business.

The first is a real PR crisis that requires a different set of problem solving. The latter is what brands should be aiming for when engaging with consumers on the run.

“When I give advice to a brand, I often say ‘as a black consumer, I think this is something you should do, but as a professional you’ve hired to consult with you, I have to let you know what you’re getting into,” said Cora Harrington, brand consultant and editor of The lingerie addictwhich emphasizes diversity in the lingerie industry.

Harrington started a Twitter thread on March 15, in response to those who criticized Ralph Lauren’s HBCU line as reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, arguing that black people should be able to wear vintage clothing “without it automatically being considered part of the Jim Crow era.” of Jim Crow and segregation. This post has been retweeted nearly 400 times.

The first step for most businesses is to be clear about what they want to accomplish. It’s not often expected that limited-edition collections such as the one released by Ralph Lauren will become huge revenue streams, at least not directly. Instead, they’re often intended to increase brand heat — and curry favor with new consumers — which, if done correctly, could create significant long-term value in the form of cache. brand and customer loyalty.

The best projects will focus on advocacy, education and understanding, innovation and engaging new communities, Sandhu said.

“These collaborations should bring diversity of thought to the business, but also ensure that diverse audiences that have been routinely underserved are now brought to the fore and given the attention they need,” Sandhu said.

What is your DNA?

Brands that have not historically engaged in conversations about race or have never spent marketing dollars on engagement with the Black community should consider whether now is the right time to launch a Black-first campaign. location.

“If you don’t have black employees, you can refrain from these conversations,” said Veronica Miller Jamison, a Howard University graduate, illustrator and print designer for an American heritage brand. “If you don’t even have black people in your building to make decisions, then you have a lot more work to do before you start trying to reach out.”

Even companies that have black employees on their payroll need to be careful about the expectations they place on small groups of underrepresented employees to speak on behalf of the entire black population. Moreover, companies seeking a resounding applause from all members of the black community every time they acknowledge racial injustice are already making a big mistake.

Nor will a stamp of approval from a prominent advocacy group or institution inoculate a mark against critics. Morehouse and Spelman might approve of Ralph Lauren’s collection, but “that doesn’t speak for the other 100-plus HBCUs and certainly not for all black people — nothing ever does that,” deGregory said.

One way for companies to ensure they take a holistic view of underrepresented groups is to hire more minorities but also to diversify the schools and communities from which they recruit black talent, said Jourdan Ash, founder of True to Us, an online media platform focused on Black and Brown Women in Streetwear.

“In the [Ralph Lauren imagery] people were also asking ‘Where are the gay people going to Spelman or the trans people going to Morehouse?’ “, did she say. “Because diversity doesn’t stop at ‘I have a straight black man and I have a straight black woman.’ You need to be diverse all around.

Fashion collections that draw on racial themes can have positive and negative ripple effects on brand perception, revenue, and even shareholder value. But the impacts can also trickle down to employees at all levels – minorities in particular – in sometimes unexpected ways.

For example, it is widely considered a DEI best practice for brands looking to make meaningful inroads with the black community to engage their black employees. But there is a crucial difference between empowering minority employees to take on certain projects and giving them responsibility for ensuring results.

In other words, non-minority executives should share the burden both in running campaigns focused on underrepresented communities and in taking the lead in expanding those efforts beyond one-off activations, Ash said. .

It also means that meaningful conversations and debates should not be viewed as liabilities.

“It’s a brave conversation, because as much as [these campaigns] it’s about what’s on the rack and what’s on the shelf, it’s also about every step and every conversation that happens,” deGregory said. “Companies aren’t going to flip their tables, but at least they can position black people…to have a seat at that table. For that, I think so far it’s been so good for Ralph Lauren.

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