How Performative Activism in Fashion Affects the Black Luxury Experience
The influence of Black culture in fashion has been undeniable for centuries. From high-fashion to street-wear, through music, art, traditions, and history, our culture is deeply rooted in every fashion style created. Season after season, trends that cover runways and city blocks are defined by Black creativity. Yet, despite the culture’s clear impact and authority in trendsetting and brand-building, Black designers in fashion are severely disenfranchised when compared to their white counterparts.
When it comes to access to resources, access to clientele, and visibility, Black designers have long struggled to level the playing field. In recent years, we’ve seen fashion brands, magazines, and trade associations make attempts at making space for Black creatives, but still miss the mark with performative activism.
Performative activism is activism for the purpose of increasing your social capital, rather than support a cause or create change. Its occurrence in fashion is perhaps one of the most glaring evidence that racism and inequality are still prevalent in the industry. Black designers and brands are still suffering because of it.
With the rise of social media, we as consumers have played a major role in helping black-owned brands achieve visibility and maintain credibility. For example, it is much easier and faster to call out copycat brands creating products that resemble or are clearly influenced by black-owned brands. As a result, these larger and majority-owned brands are often scrambling to draft statements and declarations of solidarity with the community and, typically, some sort of donation that isn’t quite fitting of the crime. Most recently, we’ve seen this with Guess and unisex fashion and accessory brand, Telfar.
While Telfar first released the Shopping Bag Tote in 2014, it took a few years for the “Bushwick Birkin” to be considered an “it-bag” in fashion. In an effort to create an inclusive luxury brand that all could access, Telfar sets release dates for its popular totes, a sales and marketing method now adopted by many brands. The brand’s Bag Security Program also allows shoppers to reserve a bag that will be custom-made for them.
But the street-inspired method of “drops” isn’t just about giving us access to the products they want. It’s also a defense mechanism against bots and resellers, which are a major blow to the credibility and longevity of fashion brands. Telfar’s tote bags are known to sell out in seconds after release and reappear at astronomical prices across the ‘net. Then fans like us, Civilian, are severely disappointed and the process of obtaining the bag seems more stressful than it is.
“Drops” are also essential to brands that have limited access to resources like capital, fabrics and materials, large-order manufacturer discounts, and more. A limited quantity of products are made available at one time, which builds up the hype, gets people to buy in fast, and allows the brand to recoup any lost funds.
When brands that can afford to release products and manufacture at-will copy the designs of smaller, minority designers, they are not only taking from the brand’s potential profit but also chipping away at its longevity. While brand loyalty is up in recent years, many people are still willing to buy into the “next best thing,” if they can’t get access to the original. They become frustrated with the process and are less likely to seek out the brand again.
Larger brands also have access to a wide range of platforms to sell their products, and often have superiority in visibility. Guess’ G tote was not only available on it’s own website, but also from major retailers like Macy’s and Dillard’s. More availability, more visibility, more consumers, more profit, and a wider gap between black-owned brands and major brands in fashion.
So what can these brands do to close the gap? Stop the performative activism. Instead of making empty promises of solidarity and donations to umbrella organizations, large brands can make actual space for Black creatives in fashion. Investing in smaller brands will allow for increased capital. Partnering and collaborative collections will create more visibility for brands. Providing smaller brands with access to manufacturer insights, factories and their necessary counterparts will help them produce products faster and more efficiently. And most importantly, not copying black designers and crediting the original inspiration keeps the spotlight and the emerging luxury brands that are fighting against exclusivity in luxury fashion and its disregard of the Black consumer.
The moral of the story? Black-owned brands are working hard to succeed, despite all of the odds stacked against them, but aren’t given the respect they deserve. While Telfar is, in fact, a luxury brand, its (purposefully) affordable price point doesn’t garner the same unequivocal reverence as some other luxury brands. Put some respect on their name, and hold other brands accountable for doing the same. Black-owned luxury brands like Telfar are single-handedly redefining what luxury is through the black lens and how it relates to Black people. It is inclusive, it is attainable and, as the brand’s slogan states, it is ‘not for you, but for everyone.”