All the Fashion Brands That Have Been Accused of Racism
Plus, suggestions for Black-owned businesses where you can shop instead
With the recent wave of protests around anti-Black racism and police brutality in the United States and Canada, there’s been a reckoning within some very prominent companies. Execs at female-focused companies like The Wing have resigned amid allegations that they fostered discriminatory and unequal work environments, while in the media world, brands like Vogue, Refinery 29 and Bon Apétit have all been taken to task for what past and present employees described as racist practices. This reckoning has also reached the retail fashion world, impacting many of the brands we shop.
Emboldened and supported by people speaking out against systemic racism, Black and POC employees from several well-known fashion brands have spoken out about their treatment, detailing everything from racial microaggressions to overtly racist comments and racial profiling in the retail environment.
Additionally, many prestige brands that took part in the June 2 #BlackOutTuesday, posting black squares to their Instagram grids in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, were called out for being performative and virtue signalling.
On June 23, Brother Vellies founder Aurora James announced the extension of her Fifteen Percent Pledge to Canada, urging Canada’s major retailers like Hudson’s Bay, Holt Renfrew, Loblaws and Maison Simons to commit 15% of their buying budgets and shelf-space to BIPOC-owned businesses by July 1.
These conversations are important, and it’s vital that employees and customers have the opportunity to voice their experiences about these brands—many of which profit from Black culture—so we can decide whether we continue to support them with our dollars.
Here, a list of the retail and luxury fashion brands that have been called out for racist behaviour, and how they have responded to the allegations. Plus, we’ve recommended Black-owned brands with similar aesthetics you may want to support instead.
A brand that has become known for bohemian style with an Upper East Side price, Anthropologie has been accused of racism after several former employees claimed that stores in California, Chicago, Seattle, NYC and Canada use the code name “Nick” to refer to Black shoppers. The backlash to the brand came after a June 1 post on the fashion company’s Instagram account. The post—which featured a stylized Maya Angelou poem—called for equality and empathy, but failed to mention Black Lives Matter or the current protests.
While some fans of the brand initially replied with calls for the phrase to be printed on a shirt or poster and sold *in* Anthropologie stores (and applauded the company for a #BlackOutTuesday post on June 2), it wasn’t long before many people started to call the brand out for their hypocrisy, with former employees alleging that they’d been “trained” to watch Black shoppers and follow them around the store, a claim that was supported by several Black shoppers. “How are you going to stop racially profiling your ‘[Nicks]’?,” Instagram user @flleurdeblooms commented. “I worked at Anthropologie and the racial profiling was sickening. So many times the management told us to watch people of color over the headsets and I refused to follow around mostly black people who were just minding their own damn business and respectfully shopping. Please change.” In response, user @nickolas_anthony commented: “I thought Chicago was the only ones who used ‘Nick’ as a form of saying ‘watch that black woman who just walked in.'”
Other followers also noted that the brand doesn’t tend to feature Black or diverse models in their campaigns.
In response to the criticisms, Anthropologie released a statement on June 10 outlining their “long-standing policies.” In the post, they pushed back on claims that they use code words to identify and racially profile Black customers, stating: “We have never and will never have a code word based on a customer’s race or ethnicity. Our company has a zero-tolerance policy regarding discrimination or racial profiling in any form.”
Where to shop instead: Hope for Flowers by Tracy Reese
Canadian brand Aritzia is beloved by many and has been receiving positive press during the coronavirus pandemic for their initiatives to gift frontline workers clothes, and a recent $100,000 donation to Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. But soon, stories began to emerge about what was happening behind the scenes. Former employee Karissa Lewis, who worked at the company’s Yorkdale, Ont. location, responded to the fashion brand’s May 31 social media post about their BLM donation by sharing her personal experience working as an associate manager for Aritzia. In an Instagram story, Lewis alleges that during her five-month tenure as the only Black manager on her team, she was treated differently by other managers, blatantly disrespected by customers and given cashier shifts despite being an associate manager. In an email to FLARE, a spokesperson for the company said: “These allegations were never reported to Aritzia through any of the multiple channels available to our employees.” Regarding Lewis’s claims about being given cashier shifts, Jennifer Wong, Aritzia’s President and COO said in an email: “At Aritzia we are a team. No task is considered unimportant, and no employee is seen to be too senior to pitch in and help where and when required. This is true all the way up to our CEO, who jumps on the cash desk, takes out the trash, and helps on the floor when he’s in our stores. Regardless of title or the task, we are all expected to do whatever needs to get done, period.”
In her Instagram story, Lewis also recounted a particular incident in which she claims that a Black employee was fired for speaking up about racism in the store, a decision Lewis says she—as the store’s associate manager—was not made aware of until after the employee was fired. In the same email to FLARE, the spokesperson for the company said that as Lewis was not this individual’s supervisor or manager, she wouldn’t have been involved in decisions related to their performance and her involvement wouldn’t have been appropriate.
— Kariss (@EverytingKariss) June 1, 2020
In a follow-up June 10 interview with Huffington Post, Lewis described the overall culture of the company and its stores as “very clique-y, very exclusionary,” and alleged that Aritzia taught their employees “code words” to describe certain types of customers, “so you would know that you should spend your time with certain people and not others,” Lewis said. Per HuffPo, “A” would stand for Asian “as they were seen as being rich” and “TW” would stand for “time waster,” AKA someone who would use up an associate’s time and not buy anything. According to Lewis, this could include Black customers.
Other users on Twitter and Instagram also responded to Aritzia’s donation announcement, recounting incidents in which they, as staff, were told to follow young Black customers around the store until they left.
And another former Aritzia employee tweeted about being told—as the only Black employee—to straighten their hair to maintain the store image.
TB when I was the only Black person working and was told to straighten my hair to maintains the store image
— jam (@justjamjamm) June 1, 2020
As for how Aritzia is addressing these issues, Wong said in her email to FLARE: “We have spoken to [Lewis], launched a full investigation, and will take proper actions, if needed. While we disagree with many of [Lewis’s] underlying facts, her experience touches on matters that are deeply important to who we are. We are focused on listening, learning, and taking action, recognizing we ourselves must lead and inspire change.”
Where to shop instead: Kai Collective
It turns out that even your favourite kitschy brands aren’t exempt from racism. Ban.do, the pastel-hued mental health-focused brand founded by Busy Philipp’s BFF Jen Gotch has also been in hot water as of late. On June 4, a former employee shared insight from her time working for the online brand. In a lengthy Instagram essay, Gabriella Sanchez, who says she worked at Ban.do from 2014 to 2016, accused Gotch of cultivating “an overall toxic culture,” detailing instances of overt racism from Gotch and style director Kelly Edmonson. One such instance, Sanchez says, occurred during her first week on the job, when the Ban.do group went for lunch. “We were sitting on the outside patio of the restaurant when a Black couple walked up and sat at the opposite end of the patio,” Sanchez wrote. “Jen was in the middle of telling a story when she saw the couple walk by she started talking in an ‘accent’—one very much like from those old racist movies with people in blackface. One of the girls asked her why she was talking like that and Jen made a joke of it and laughed and said it was her ‘plantation accent.'”
Sanchez said that when she didn’t engage in the “joke” and shrank back from the group after lunch, Gotch singled her out in front of everyone, saying: “I don’t think Gabby likes us.” Sanchez wrote that the rest of her time at Ban.do was “plagued with racism and emotional manipulation.”
In response to Sanchez’s post and several others by former employees, Gotch initially posted an apology (on Instagram), before announcing on June 8 that she was stepping down as the brand’s Chief Creative Officer and taking a leave of absence. Gotch’s Instagram account has since been deleted, but on June 13, Ban.do released a similar statement on Insta announcing her removal from the company.
Where to shop instead: Yowie
After sharing their supposed support for the movement against anti-Black racism and oppression, posting a statement to their Instagram page stating that the brand “stands against all forms of discrimination, oppression and racism,” luxury fashion brand Celine was called out by celeb stylist Jason Bolden for performative solidarity, stating that the brand doesn’t dress Black celebs unless they’re working with a white stylist—implying they refuse to work with Black stylists. “@celine wait really, u guys dnt dress any black celebs unless they have a white stylist…FACTS,” Bolden commented under the post, alongside a perplexed emoji.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too perplexed—or surprised by this statement. As Instagram account @diet_prada pointed out in their post on Bolden’s comment, Hedi Slimane, the brand’s current creative director, reportedly has an “aversion to Black models.” And the stats @diet_prada had to back this claim up are ABYSMAL. During Slimane’s tenure with Celine thus far, Black models have been severely under-represented on the runway.
Celine has yet to respond or comment on the allegations.
Where to shop instead: Christopher John Rogers
On June 22, a group of ex-Everlane employees released a document outlining examples and accusing the brand of ”anti-Black behavior” and a toxic work culture. In the seven page doc—entitled Everlane’s Convenient Transparency—and released by an unnamed group calling themselves “the Ex-Wives Club,” the brand is accused by “former Black, POC and white allied employees” of underpaying over-qualified Black employees, privately berating customers who called for more diversity within the brand and making Black employees uncomfortable with comments and touching their hair without consent. One employee in the doc claims that the brand’s chief creative officer participated in the latter, writing: “On multiple occasions I had Alexandra Spunt, the Chief Creative Officer, approach me from behind and shove her hands in my hair, pulling at my roots, and referring to us being ‘soul sisters.'”
Speaking to Fashionista for a June 14 article, a representative for the Ex-Wives Club group said: ”This is not a personal vendetta— it’s about making an impact on our greater society and environment. We have a responsibility to ensure current and future employees within Everlane, and across the industry, do not face the same collective trauma, gaslighting and refusal to ethically engage in conversation with employees.”
In the final section of the document, the group outlines steps the brand can take in order to grow and make things right. These steps include actively seeking out ways to retain Black, Indigenous and POC employees once they’re hired.
In a June 23 post to their Instagram stories (now available in their highlights), Everlane responded to the online accusations, writing in part that they are committed to making “a positive change internally and externally.”
In a statement to FLARE on June 24, the brand said of the allegations: “This is the first we’ve heard of many of these allegations. We’ve taken them at face value and know how serious they are. We are committed to building a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace where all employees are valued and heard. We have failed to ensure this was a reality for all and we apologize. We believe that through transparency comes accountability, and in order to enact change we need to better understand the problem. We are hiring outside counsel to lead an independent investigation immediately in order to take a deeper look into our entire organization. We feel that an investigation that is independent of us is the best way to get to the source of these issues and truly create change. No matter the result, we know that as a brand and company we have work to do. We are committed to holding ourselves accountable. We know we must do better.”
Where to shop instead: Míe
Taking a cue from model Karlie Kloss, Gucci’s Cleo Wade re-post about racism backfired after many on social media called out the company’s history of questionable—and frankly racist—decisions.
In February 2019, the brand came under fire for selling a black turtleneck sweater that resembled blackface. The sweater, which was part of Gucci’s Winter 2018 line, featured a roll-up collar that covered the lower half of the wearer’s face and featured a wide red lip outline around the mouth. And seriously, Gucci: why?
At the time, the fashion house released a statement apologizing, saying: “Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper. We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make.” They have yet to respond to the recent backlash.
Where to shop instead: Victor Glemaud
It’s every cool girl’s go-to for sustainable fashion, but according to some, Reformation is also the “go-to” place for racist corporate culture.
On June 5, former employee Elle Santiago posted a statement to Instagram describing her experience working for the company. “I am addressing this issue as a stance again companies who play a role in the systems that fail our black and brown brothers and sisters daily,” Santiago captioned her post, noting, “This is only one example of a very large and in charge problem.”
Santiago wrote that the decision to publicly call out of her former employer came on the heels of a rise in overt police brutality against Black people, and Reformation having reached out to her to talk with them about her experience with the company. In her letter, Santiago lists a series of racist incidents she says she witnessed or was the victim of over the year she worked as an assistant manager at Reformation’s Los Angeles flagship store. The incidents she outlines include the consistent promotion of white employees over POC and Black employees who she says were better qualified. Santiago also talked about being introduced to the company’s founder, Yael Aflalo, alleging that the founder appeared to “purposely not answer if I called her name.” Santiago also recalled an incident in which she says Aflalo failed to speak up when a white employee posted pictures of herself on Instagram eating fried chicken to “celebrate” Black History Month.
After first posting an apology on Reformation’s Instagram page, Aflalo announced on June 12 that she’ll be stepping down as the brand’s CEO, effective immediately. And on June 15, Reformation shared their strategy for inclusivity and accountability moving forward.
In an email to FLARE, the brand referred to the previous social media posts, adding: “Reformation [has] no further comment at this time.”
Where to shop instead: A.Au
Another fashion label being called out for discrimination against its employees is the boho brand Zimmerman. Much like Reformation, after Zimmerman posted on social media in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, several former interns and employees came forward to call out the company for performative allyship. And a peek behind the curtain shows that racism within the company may be deeply entrenched. Per @diet_prada, the “Grooming & Presentation Standards” portion of the retail employee manual (which ex-employees claim was circulated up until September 2019) shows that Black women are completely absent, with stars like Olivia Palermo and several white Victoria’s Secret Angels featured as examples of the “standard” look employees should model themselves after.
And in the hair section of the manual, language is worded in such a way that seems aimed to exclude Black employees and their natural hair or cultural hairstyles. For example, the manual specifies that employees’ hair must be “soft, textured loose waves, or blow-dried straight,” and prohibits “high buns, top knots, plaits, [and] braids.”
In response to being called out, Zimmerman issued an apology on June 12, noting that the brand’s intent was to always foster a positive environment, writing: “We apologise to all those that have been hurt by our failure to adequately protect against discrimination and are truly sorry that we have not lived up to these expectations.”
The company said that they have formed a Diversity and Inclusion Group, are implementing training programs on unconscious bias, are updating their internal training materials and guidelines to ensure racial inclusivity and are auditing the diversity of Zimmerman globally. In addition, the company donated $150,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Aboriginal Legal Service.
In an email to FLARE, a spokesperson for the brand said that in regards to a specific incident of racism that was raised with management in the brand’s New York office in early 2019, “a thorough investigation of the incident was conducted,” which resulted in the contract staff worker being immediately fired. Responding to the retail grooming document highlighted on Diet Prada, the brand confirmed that this document was removed from the business in May 2019.
Where to shop instead: Fe Noel
FLARE has reached out to these brands for comment. The story will be updated with their responses.
This article was originally published on June 15, 2020.