Fashionably Hypocritical: exposing the racist cultures of ‘inspirational’, ‘judgment-free’ and ‘sustainable’ fashion companies

The recent testimonies of former employees who have worked for fashion and media companies such as Reformation, Refinery29 and ManRepeller have brought to light a number of aspects regarding racist company cultures within the fashion industry that have systematically failed their POC employees.

These companies, which have marketed themselves as “inspirational” (Refinery29), “a judgement free zone” (ManRepeller) and “sustainable” (Reformation) rode the wave of declared positivity, inclusiveness and empowerment to the peaks of financial gain, to the point that many, if not most of their followers and customers might not have looked past the glossy narratives of their Instagram feeds to see if and how equal opportunities were offered and sustained, behind closed doors- or whether they were offered at all.

Before the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the US and the world, we might have just believed what many fashion companies repeatedly told us in their media campaigns- and as it often happens, any statement repeated long enough tends to become an accepted, undisputed truth.

In the About section of ManRepeller.com, Leandra Cohen wrote that her media company is committed to the “very important mission of making women feel more understood and less alone by fostering community and conversation on topics that run a gamut from style and power to culture and identity”

However, followers have complained that the company not only employs very few people of color, but has also fired Crystal Anderson, the company’s operations manager, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while allowing its other white employees to work from home.

There has been no statement issued by ManRepeller regarding these accusations; Crystal’s departure seems to have been purposefully kept under wraps (only being announced by one of her friends on her Instagram account) as followers pointed out, especially as it was not accompanied by any celebratory article of her work and time spent with the publication, as company tradition has had it in the past, when other white employees were given the space to discuss their reasons for leaving.

Moreover, both Leandra Cohen and ManRepeller’s usually prolific official Instagram pages took a 10 and 12-day hiatus from posting on social media respectively, leaving followers demanding answers for their silence. Yesterday, Leandra Cohen announced on Instagram that she would be stepping “aside” as a result of failing in her mission of using ManRepeller to “celebrate self-expression in all its forms”

Refinery29’s About Us also declares that the brand aims to “inspire, entertain, and empower our audience through optimistic and diverse storytelling, experiences, and points of view”. However, former journalists who have worked for the company took to Twitter to denounce the toxic culture that they were affected by while working for the company.

Andrea González-Ramírez, a senior writer at Medium’s Gen publication, tweeted on June 4 that women of color who worked for Refinery29 had to deal with “being tone policed, seeing others take credit for their work, being mixed up with another WOC who looks nothing like them, being underpaid, not promoted, being laid off days after launching a POC sub-brand that sold for six-figures”

And it’s visible: “if you look at the R29 website, it’s splashed with pictures of women and non-binary folks of all sizes, shapes and colors”. However, it does seem the company was mostly doing it for the Gram, as Gonzalez states that “As of 2019, R29 was 69% white, according to a well-placed source”

In light of these accusations, Christene Barberich, the site’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, has resigned.

Another apology for past racist behavior came from Yael Aflalo, the founder and CEO of Reformation, who took a step back from the company’s leadership in 2018. On June 7, Aflalo took to Reformation’s Instagram account to admit that she “was not a very good leader” and has failed at “treating people equally…especially the black community”.

Officially, Reformation pledged to “celebrate the feminine figure”, designing collections that fit perfectly on women of all body shapes and sizes. In spite of the message of inclusiveness that ethos conveys, Yael Aflalo has been accused of creating an unsafe, racist environment for her black employees.

Elle Santiago, a former Reformation assistant store manager, recounted her experience working with the company in 2016, accusing it of offering management positions to white women who were either equally or less qualified than her, and consistently denying her that opportunity. Santiago also stated that the company invested more in white employees, who would be habitually flown out to the Los Angeles company headquarters, while that opportunity was never extended to POC employees.

Moreover, Yael Aflalo is said to have “looked [Elle Santiago] up and down in disgust and walked away. Never ever once mumbling a word to me. She would in fact purposefully not answer if I called her name. I would have to have the white district manager tell her anything I needed to say even when we were in the same room”

Santiago went on to confess that her first Black History Month at Reformation was marked by Yael and Elana posting a picture of them eating fried chicken to celebrate. In fact, in her first years at Reformation, she stated that she saw no black representation of models, as Yael was of the opinion that “[they]’re not ready for that yet”

Is it any wonder that the majority of these brands’ followers and customers are not only denouncing the lack of value in the performative apologies issued so far, but many are pledging not to support and shop from them- at least not until more light is shed on the concrete actions that will be taken to address racial injustices within their companies?

It was about time. Unfortunately, the reality is that the relationship the fashion industry has with women is more complicated and opaque than we give it credit for- and in many cases, the industry remains firmly anchored in the same discriminating, oppressive and exploitative structures that it has vowed to shield women from.

Much like the old frog placed in tepid water that is slowly brought to a boil until it cooks to death, the fashion industry has slowly built up its walls around the modern woman, trapping the diversity of her body and mind inside the five walls of social compliance and slowly stripping her of her own unique thoughts, words, looks and ultimately, heritage- that is, if those walls ever came down.  By the end of it, she was ready to be consumed, but not acknowledged.  

This process has been led by large, powerful companies and kept neither linear nor transparent- and, as such, it can be difficult to trace. In fact, over the past 50 years, as more women pursued higher education, fought and gained reproductive and legal rights, entered male-dominated trades, challenged and overturned deep-seated beliefs about their social role, worrying about clothes and accessories had come to be seen, by many, as a trivial, frivolous concern.

Lest we forget, physical appearance was one of the very few areas of expertise that the patriarchy argued women had a mind for: it was easy, superficial, harmless, and ultimately, unimportant- a faithful reflection of women’s social role.  Women’s empowerment, then, meant freeing ourselves from everything that reduced us to that.

As such, for many smart, strong, independent, educated women in the 1990s, who were committed to breach the male power structure, it became shameful to admit to having an interest in what their male counterparts held as tokens of their frivolity: hair, make-up, body shape and size and the clothes that dress it. In the private sphere, such concerns were cast to the realm of the unspoken, and along with that denial came guilt and shame, which took an unquestionable toll on women’s freedom of expression and, in turn, their mental health.

As we started appearing less concerned with our external appearances and turned inward, the fashion industry, it seems, read that message differently. In the public and professional spheres, women became bombarded like never before with images of how they should look like and why, in relation to their success, as the fashion industry targeted the professional woman for financial gain- and in the process, solidified the perception that her looks were inextricably tied to her identity. The narrow perception of what constitutes female beauty became even narrower and remained one of the biggest threats to female liberation- except now, it moved to running in the background more than out in the open.

Over the last decade, with the advent of social media, fashion has managed to shift the perception of the industry as trivial, by marketing it as a source of empowerment for women with purchasing power worldwide. By tapping into the rhetoric of feminism and bringing all our guilt and shame into the limelight, through unapologetic influencer feeds, fashion promised to understand us, and, more importantly, vowed that it was there to support us. All of us. It became raw, relatable and reliable. We believed it.

A two-minute scroll through fashion feeds, however, and it quickly becomes evident that, while appearing to be empowering, fashion still largely remains woven into the old and revered ideology of beauty. The one we, women, thought we’d overturned. As such, the ways in which fashion shapes the notion of adequacy, by dictating looks and consumer behavior, seem to be not much different from any other form of social coercion. The faces, the shaping, the sizing, the rules, the trends, and the constant artificial desire these generate, the materialism of it all- they all generate narrow standards of looks and behavior that ultimately encroach upon our freedom of expression, with the aim of inducing a desired set of responses for a global multi-billion dollar industry.

So influential has it become in dictating not just who should wear what and why, but how we must look, feel and be like, too, by altering our bodies to meet the volatile demands of trends and changing the way we look at ourselves and our place in the world, that fashion, despite its apparent wide variety of form and texture, often acts like a straitjacket. Fashion doesn’t simply dress you: you need to alter yourself to meet its standards. And if you can’t, by virtue of your ethnicity and heritage, you won’t be seen.

In the end, it’s all about the product: it has a mind and a presence of its own, while the wearer is reduced to a docile mannequin of a standardized appearance. That role in a product’s life, allegedly, is supposed to make women feel fantastic- and it might have, because so far, it sold.

It has now become impossible to deny that there is hardly enough space allotted in the fashion industry for the inclusion and expression of ethnic and racial heritage, in spite of what many well-established companies wanted us to believe.

Fashion still demands that we all fit the white pattern: both its products as well as the environment where they are created are primarily designed for and marketed to a well-off majority with enough disposable income to not think twice. Company standards appear benevolent, flexible and all-encompassing, but can often turn out to be a source of frustration and rejection past the corporate mission statement.

Trends may have played a big part in keeping many of us pleasantly oblivious to the multifaceted, current realities of the fashion industry. These may give the illusion of constant change and progress, yet their bones still remain a couple of centuries old and as corseting as their predecessors.

It’s far from being an honorable practice, yet it’s what many in the fashion industry commit to, trend in, trend out: frequent, superficial changes in the way things look that mimic social ideals, but remain easy to attain and certainly don’t involve committing a global industry to changing the very mindset that keeps it in motion. That stays. Real, sustainable progress, then, remains slow, as many in the fashion business seem to largely be driven by the same motto they sometimes advance to the masses: let’s all fake it, and we’ll look like we made it.

The answer, then, is no: it’s no wonder that more and more customers are no longer buying into performative apologies from brands that have failed their employees, that have failed to stand by what they preached, that have tricked us, customers, into believing that it was the ideals that we were putting our money into, not just the garment. It’s no wonder we have come to denounce the lack of value in brand discourses that serve to hide the systematic workplace discrimination, racial injustice and abuse that takes place behind the social media highlights.

We see you.