What Performative Activism Looks Like in the Age of #blacklivesmatter

Image by Andrea Grigsby of the Daily Bruin

Numerous fashion brands have come out in support of the Black community, decrying racism and promising to be actively anti-racist. Brands like Reebok went as far as to say, “Without the Black community, Reebok would not exist. America would not exist,” and outlined specific actions it would take to invest in the Black community, change its talent-hiring practices, and hold itself accountable moving forward. Some have followed this kind of strategy by committing to donate to social justice organizations or take immediate action to diversify their workforce, talent, and product lines. Yet, for others, posting an image in solidarity has been the extent of their support. Words without action are at best empty statements, but preaching declarations of allyship when internal practices do not reflect support of the Black community is indicative of a much more serious issue—performative activism.

Performative activism is just that, a performance; a chance to look “woke” and meant to increase an audience or profits instead of actively uplifting the cause. Contemporary fashion and luxury brands Celine, Ferragamo, and Reformation have been accused of doing just that by those in the industry. Celine was accused of not working with non-white stylists to dress their celebrity clients and an apparent aversion to Black models for their runways and ad campaigns. In the same vein, Ferragamo has a laundry list of accusations of racism toward Black models and creatives. Perhaps most egregious of all is the racist actions by many at Reformation —the worst being from the founder. These contradictions, coupled with zero action, should prompt questioning. Are these companies jumping on the bandwagon of what they think is merely a trending hashtag?

Celine

Let’s get into it. Celebrity stylist Jason Bolden, whose clients include Taraji P. Henson, Yara Shahidi, and Ava DuVernay, questioned the brand’s sincerity on its Instagram post denouncing discrimination and racism. He called out the brand for refusing to dress Black celebrities unless they have a white stylist. In a comment on a post covering the situation by fashion industry watchdog @dietprada, he challenged Celine to be honest about how it has contributed to discriminatory actions against Black people.

Celine has also come under fire for the lack of diversity in its runway shows, especially under creative director Hedi Slimane. In his most recent Fall 2020 RTW collection, only 10 out of 111 models (about 9%) were Black. A quick scroll through the creative director’s page shows a very homogenous look among the models in the company’s ad campaigns as well. This outcry of performative activism is warranted with a track record like Celine’s.

Ferragamo

On Instagram, Ferragamo posted in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement expressing how they are “reaching for a more egalitarian future” with an image of linked hands in light to medium skin tones. And…that’s it. Photographer and actor Tommy Dorfman (pronouns they/them) called out the luxury giant for doing the absolute minimum for the movement. Dorfman has personal experience with Ferragamo, having cast and shot the company’s Viva Viva campaign released in February 2020. They have accused the brand of several instances of racism, transphobia, and non-body-positivity, which they witnessed, including one where they were asked by creative director, Paul Andrew, to Photoshop a Black model white. They said they were met with empty promises, meaningless apologies, and even threatened with legal action when they tried to start a dialogue with the Ferragamo team.

Andrew has publicly stated his mission to diversify the brand’s image; however, the company has not announced how exactly they plan to “reach for a more egalitarian future” in the wake of protests and Dorfman’s allegations. In this way, Ferragamo’s allyship looks merely surface level as there have been no concrete strategies to change a seemingly regressive company culture.

Reformation

This one’s a doozy. Former employee, Elle Santiago blasted the sustainable brand for its deeply ingrained culture of racism. This was in response to Reformation reaching out to her to have a conversation about her experience at the brand, for which Santiago dared to take a stand against brands that play a role in failing the Black community daily. She detailed how similarly or less-qualified white women were consistently chosen for higher positions over her and how Black employees would do the work of essential positions without the title or pay and be subjected to harmful work environments. She believes the systemic racism at Reformation stems from founder Yael Aflalo, who Santiago stated never spoke to her directly even when introduced. Aflalo would only allow the white district manager to tell her anything Santiago wanted to say and actively barred Black models from being used as talent. And that was just all Santiago could fit in the 10-picture limit on Instagram.

When Reformation tried to address Santiago speaking out, they would only allow her a 10-minute phone conversation to explain her experience. To offer such a short amount of time to “hear,” Santiago’s story is truly appalling and indicative that something has still not clicked in Reformation’s state of mind.

Undoubtedly, Reformation’s claim of support in the “fight for justice” under Yael Aflalo was performative activism. On June 15th, the brand announced its new CEO and team and plans to add more Black representation to its leadership. They will also establish a much-needed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Board. These are important and necessary steps to take, but only time will tell if Reformation will indeed rectify, as Santiago said, “the trauma you have caused countless employees.”

Why This Matters

Brands highlighted in this article and many others were unbothered by injustice before but are now coming out in “solidarity.” It speaks volumes that some of these brands capitalize on a movement to improve their image rather than use their support as an opportunity for self-analysis. A brand should not claim to be an ally to the Black community while having no intention of doing better or taking responsibility for past actions.

By bringing attention to performative activism, brands like Reformation may seek to change their ways for the better. However, until Black people are allowed to sit at the table in the c-suite, change will be slow and at the pace of what executives deem appropriate for their brand. This type of activism not only undermines the movement, it sends a negative message to the millions of Americans who are affected by racial injustice that a company’s bottom-line is more important than actually supporting Black lives.

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