“Blackout Tuesday” occurred on June 2nd, 2020. Over 11.3 million Instagram users expressed their solidarity and support against racism and police brutality by posting a black square on their Instagram feed with the hashtag “#BlackoutTuesday”. This included not only individuals, but companies, brands, and fashion houses.
Fashion’s relationship with social justice & grassroots movements is a complicated one, as there hasn’t been much of an expectation for involvement in the past. It was often considered taboo and edgy for fashion to make any sort of political statement, as their demographics and target consumers vary widely. With the gravity and seriousness of this year’s movement, though, the standards have changed. Many people want to see fashion companies become involved with the causes that are in the spotlight this year, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. This relationship between fashion and the current social climate began with the Blackout Tuesday posts.
While many people were happy to see their favorite fashion brands posting in solidarity, some suspected that some brands and companies were only posting the black square performatively to avoid being chastised, instead of from a place of authenticity. Optical allyship, a term coined by Lathan Thomas, is defined as an “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally’”. Companies were accused of being only interested in their image, and dubbed by the public as “optical allies”. One twitter user, @GlowMaven, captured the perspective of many consumers perfectly by tweeting “If you had to measure the risk over benefit of speaking out, If you had to calculate the impact on your biz, If you had to mull it over & wait for others to post, if you buckled to pressure before you said something, you are not standing with us. You are protecting your brand.”
While I agree that to post and label oneself as an ally, but take no active part in advocating for the cause is immoral, I do see a disconnect between consumers and companies. Many people, especially younger generations, fail to understand that brands aligning themselves with social justice movements and being politically outspoken is a relatively new concept. Many companies prefer to shy away from controversial and divisive topics, as taking a stance either way can alienate pockets of their consumer base and negatively impact business in a big way. In that sense, careful consideration before making public statements is to be expected. Of course, this instance is unprecedented in brand management and when it comes to standing with the POC community, there should be absolutely no controversy.
The issue arises when a public statement is made, and no follow-through occurs. If a brand decides to become an outspoken ally, they must make an active effort to further their cause. For all of the companies that posted a black square and aligned themselves as allies, they must now work to support the group in effective and thoughtful ways. One company in the fashion world that others should look to as an example of being an advocate is Farfetch. This month, they decided to dedicate October to celebrate their Black Employee Network, while also celebrating the UK’s Black History Month. They focused on shining a light on their outstanding Black employees by giving them a platform to share their experiences. They’ve had multiple diversity-centric events for their employees, and have made an outward commitment to conscious inclusion. This is also a time for POC designers to shine, being uplifted by companies such as Sprite, with their recent get-out-and-vote campaign highlighting Black artists and designers like Bluboy and Dorothy Lawes. After brands like Prada and Ferragamo were accused of having racist, homophobic, and transphobic workplaces, they actively fought the claims by having one of their most diverse runway shows in history, and came up with long-terms plans to support marginalized communities.
Ideally, I would love to see large, influential, US-based retailers, such as Revolve, shining more of a light on black designers and hiring more diverse models. A way for individual consumers to support the POC community through fashion would be to buy from Black-owned brands and designers, especially smaller and more unrecognized ones. In August 2020, Vogue posted an article with an extensive list of Black-owned fashion and beauty brands to explore and shop from, which was a great way for the publication to take an active role in supporting the black community while encouraging their readers to do the same.
Although the transition of fashion companies from laconic to outspoken will be a road with many bumps, it is a road worth travelling down. Fashion has a strong influence on such a diverse demographic of people, and brands using their voice to advocate for marginalized groups is a step in the right direction for our communities. While some individuals may disagree with their decisions to be vocal, I believe that the brands stepping up right now will be the examples for many to follow in the future.