Welcome to the latest edition of In the News! This week, we consider the ongoing effects of the pandemic on the livelihood of global garment workers, explore dissonance between corporate marketing and capitalist realities when it comes to advocating for racial equity, and spotlight the exciting and impactful work of some leading-edge Black fashion designers.
Sustainability & Labor Issues
Although here in New York we’ve seen an eager return to “normal,” it’s critical that we recognize our privileged standing within a global context. As we excitedly buy new summer outfits to show off, the garment workers making those clothes across the world are largely still struggling with the realities of an ongoing pandemic. In Bangladesh, for instance, the government instituted a national lockdown from July 1-7 in an attempt to combat a new wave of Covid-19 cases, now extended to July 14 as cases have continued to surge. The lockdown is set to disrupt international supply chains as factories close and workers are forced to stay home. This is just one example of how our rising consumer demand is in conflict with the health and safety of global garment workers. The current dichotomy is exacerbating an already problematic situation in factories across Central America, Africa, and Asia – employment rights violations have been steadily increasing over the course of the pandemic, according to a recent study by the Workers Rights Consortium and the University of Sheffield.
The report specifically surveyed over 1,000 workers from 302 factories in India, Honduras, Ethiopia, and Myanmar manufacturing for a variety of major fashion brands. While many workers lost their jobs, those who retained employment through the pandemic have dealt with difficult conditions: “more than a third reported they’d experienced verbal abuse, threats, and intimidation, while 22% reported their wages had been unfairly reduced or withheld, and 39% said they were forced to work without adequate Covid-safe measures such as PPE and social distancing.” The study reached a devastating conclusion, indicating that “workers are becoming more vulnerable to forced labor.”
Learn more about the disturbing prevalance of modern slavery within fashion’s supply chains in this deep-dive feature by Business of Fashion.
Support the Garment Workers Center, a leading workers rights organization
Also on our radar:
International pressure continues to mount against China, with many Western retailers avoiding cotton produced in the controversial Xinjiang region of the country, and some governments banning all imports whatsoever, due to reports of alleged human rights violations. The region accounts for nearly 80% of Chinese output and one fifth of the world’s supply of the fiber.
Business & Retail
As many brands and retailers continue to publicize their diversity and inclusion focused efforts, announcing participation in initiatives like The 15 Percent Pledge and Pull Up For Change, it’s important to continue critically examining these businesses’ broader impact. In a recently published New York Times feature, Michael Corkery highlights the dissonance between Target’s vocal commitments to supporting Black-owned brands, versus their consistent neglect of stores located in predominantly Black neighborhoods around the country. Although the piece is focused primarily on the sudden closure of a store in the Mondawmin, Baltimore area in 2018, it is also noted that Target closed two stores in Chicago’s predominantly Black South Side neighborhoods in 2019 while making plans “to build a new store on the wealthier and mostly white North Side” of the city. Back in 2016, the retailer shut down one of its stores in Flint, Michigan as well.
When Target originally invested in these neighborhoods by opening stores, they provided a boost of optimism that proved to be short-lived. These recent closures have had a disruptive impact on the surrounding communities. While the retailer maintains that these decisions were made based simply on financial performance, Corkery points out that this pattern “is a sobering reminder of the realities of capitalism in a moment when corporations are making promises to support Black Americans [and] saying their commitment to racial equity is stronger than ever.” As expressed by a Mondawmin community member quoted in the article, “If you are really interested in equity and justice, figure out how to make that store work.” Target is one of many retailers that have recognized and responded to consumer demand for brand action on the issues of diversity and inclusion over the past year, showing that shoppers can have significant influence on how companies show up. But it remains to be seen whether this will translate when it comes to the scale of business operations and true socioeconomic impact.
Listen to an episode of the Fashion No Filter podcast featuring Robin Givhan and Henrietta Gallina, in which they discuss issues of “performative marketing and smoke and mirror optics of advertising and inclusivity.”
In our Retail as a Portal conversation series, we explore how retail can empower us to produce and consume with positive, social impact and ignite systemic change.
Also on our radar:
Kering has partnered with Black in Corporate to host a virtual mentorship program this summer. The partnership, created to support and champion young Black professionals, will pair mentees with employees within Kering Americas across areas like marketing, operations, and technology.
Investment company Birimian has announced an accelerator program with the Institut Français de la Mode to support emerging African heritage fashion, accessories, and jewelry brands. The firm is also partnering with WSN to increase visibility and international distribution opportunities for African brands.
Design & Imagemaking
Although much of the corporate ‘activism’ we see is performative, one of the positive aspects of this surge in attention has been rising opportunities for emerging Black designers, who have often been sidelined by the industry in the past. Target, for instance, collaborated with Christopher John Rogers for a recent collection, and the designer has been tapped to help create costumes for the New York City Ballet’s fall season. Meanwhile, cult favorite Brooklyn-based designer Telfar Clemens announced his brand’s official sponsorship of the Liberian Olympic team. Clemens, who is Liberian-American, embraced the chance to make history by designing the delegation’s uniforms, despite it being “the biggest outside investment his company has made.”
More than 70 pieces were created in less than four months, including leggings, unitards, duffel bags, and racing spikes. Clemens is also capitalizing on the moment to design and launch a range of consumer-facing activewear. A limited collection drop will align with the start of the Games, and will later be followed by a full line of workout and sports-inspired offerings to launch in the fall as a core brand offering. While it is debatable whether the current media attention to platforming Black designers will be sustained, Clemens’ unique approach demonstrates how designers can strategically use these short-term opportunities to their long term advantage.
In another landmark moment for Black fashion designers, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss will be presenting his highly anticipated debut couture collection tomorrow as part of Paris Couture Fashion Week, after a rain delay earlier this week. Jean-Raymond is the first Black-American designer to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale to present a couture collection – a key indicator of change in one of the most exclusionary spaces within the fashion industry. And while Paris Couture Week may represent the epitome of fashion for some, it’s perhaps even more inspiring to see grassroots level change taking hold within local fashion weeks around the world. In Brazil, São Paulo Fashion Week partnered with the Pretos na Moda movement and the social innovation startup VAMO (Vetro Afro Indígena na Moda) to create the Sankofa Project – an initiative created to promote visibility and offer support for Black Brazilian Designers. The project selected eight independent Black and Indigenous designers for the opportunity to present their work as part of the region’s biggest fashion showcase. Furthermore, this season marks the implementation of a new diversity quota requiring that at least 50% of the models walking in shows are Black, Brazilian descendants of Africans and Indigenous people. The organization announced these efforts as “necessary changes to achieve a more diverse, equitable and sustainable world.” As one of the cofounders of São Paulo Fashion Week, Graça Cabral, noted in an open letter,“Disruptive moments open windows of opportunity for those who have the courage to reinvent themselves.”
Watch this panel discussion exploring the nuances of partnership between independent creators and corporations, and how collaboration differs from appropriation – featuring Dapper Dan and Leila Fataar.
Learn how the fashion runway can be examined through the lens of Critical Race Theory in this paper by Sophia Adodo.