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Moving the Needle on Diversity Requires More Programs and ‘Mercy and Grace’

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Though once notorious for its exclusivity, the fashion industry has for years been on a path to becoming more diverse and inclusive. One of the major turning points was George Floyd’s death in May 2020, which touched virtually every community. In the aftermath, a number of brands vowed to do better, and organizations focused on elevating diverse communities doubled down on their approach to create more opportunities for those typically left out of the industry.

Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR), a New York-based agency focused on the advancement of people of color in fashion, has helped lead the charge since 2007. On Tuesday, the organization hosted its 4th Annual Black History Month Fashion Summit highlighting the industry’s efforts. CaSandra Diggs, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), said the recent initiatives throughout fashion have aided in the shift to a more inclusive environment.

“We know this industry hasn’t done the best job in being diverse and equitable and inclusive,” she said. “We know that people made statements in 2020 that they have yet to live up to, but we know a lot of others who made statements and they are doing the work.”

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In 2021, Target made a five-year, $2 billion investment in Black-owned businesses. As part of this effort, it vowed to add products from more than 500 Black-owned vendors. To further help entrepreneurs, it also introduced Forward Founders, a virtual, eight-week program that helps Black entrepreneurs early in their startup journey navigate ideation, product development and scaling for mass retail.

The move faced backlash from the 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative that calls for multi-brand retailers and corporations to shift 15 percent—which is the size of the Black population within the U.S.—of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. The organization pointed out that, not only did Target mirror its branding, but the retailer also failed to disclose crucial information that would help measure its efforts and hold it accountable. It also highlighted that the $2 billion investment represented a small portion of the corporation’s revenue.

Still, the 15 Percent Pledge stated in an Instagram post that “any commitment to invest in Black people is a step in the right direction”—a sentiment that Diggs echoes today.

“Have some mercy and grace for organizations and individuals who don’t always get it right the first time,” Diggs said. “You have to continue to give people a chance and just continue engaging.”

One of the brands living up to its claims, according to Diggs, is PVH Corp., which in 2020 launched the People’s Place Program under Tommy Hilfiger to help increase opportunities for underrepresented communities within the global fashion industry. Since then, the brand has made many other strides, including launching mandatory unconscious bias training for all associates globally, with the goal of having all associates trained by the end of this year. It also offers an internal program to support diversity and inclusion efforts and partnered with the CFDA to co-author the State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fashion report, research that suggests next steps for the U.S. fashion industry to be more representative and equitable in its workforce, talent pipeline and consumer base.

Focusing on diversity also has its business benefits. Audience insights firm Nielsen recently released its Diverse-Owned Media Audience Reach and Profiles report highlighting the power of diverse-owned media. According to the report, two out of three Black viewers were more likely to seek out content where they were represented on-screen. Additionally, two out of three Black consumers were more likely to buy from brands that advertise in that representative content.

While this demonstrates progress compared to the past, Charlene Polite Corley, vice president, diverse insights and partnerships at Nielsen, said representation is just the first step.

“Consumers are seeking out quality of representation,” she said. “Who’s in the room, who’s profiting and all of those questions are now top of mind as well.”

Helping to get the right people in the room are groups such as RAISEfashion, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono consulting to Black-owned brands, and the Anti-Racism Fund (ARF), which provides financial support to groups dedicated to equal rights. The two organizations partnered on their second internship program for Summer 2022 that focuses on professional development for Black-identifying students across 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). The 10-week program will take place at leading fashion and retail companies in New York City and Los Angeles such as Bloomingdale’s, Frame, Louis Vuitton and others. Students are selected based on credentials like prior work and academic experience and personal application. RAISEfashion will work with each company to match the top qualifying candidates for each role.

“The fashion industry has some of the highest barriers of entry for anybody who’s junior,” said Betty Wang Davis, advisory board member for RAISEfashion. “We really wanted to open the doorways to new people who have an interest and are willing to work hard. With the right mentorships you can succeed in this business.”