On May 25, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Four days later, as mass protests kicked off across the United States in response, Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based Black designer and activist Aurora James jotted down an idea, took a photo of it and shared it with her 128,000 Instagram followers. The post went viral, and the 15 Percent Pledge was born, a personal plea-turned-non-profit organization fighting for economic equality in the U.S, where Black-owned businesses currently represent only 1.3 per cent of sales.
“We are waiting and we are not going anywhere. When will you take the pledge?” wrote James via the @15percentpledge Instagram account.
The concept is startling in its simplicity, calling on major retailers to allocate 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses in direct correlation to the Black population in the United States. It’s both a small ask and a significant one, with the pledge focusing on big players such as Sephora, Whole Foods, Net-A-Porter, Shopbop, Ulta Beauty and Target.
I first met Aurora in 2014 when she launched Brother Vellies, her line of African-made footwear and accessories, and I have covered her work extensively since. I admire that she isn’t afraid to speak out against racism in the fashion industry, even if that means confrontations with the axis of power.
Her approach appears to be working. As the pledge gathered momentum via a petition and #blacklivesmatter social media pressure, Sephora signed on, a huge step for the LVMH-owned beauty behemoth. As of press time, the other big players mentioned have remained mum.
Aurora had another pointed ask, which felt rather personal: she wanted white women, with all our collective spending might, privilege and new-found realization that we are inadvertently supporting systematically discriminatory organizations, to take the pledge and run with it. “You do the counting. You do the work for us,” she wrote.
I felt compelled to do something beyond just assisting her volunteers in tallying numbers, which were pitiful. For example, of Shopbop’s 937 brands, we found just 12 are from Black designers.
But it’s not enough to just look down disapprovingly at yet another fractured system in the U.S. Instead, let’s abandon our racism superiority complex and look inward at how Canadian retailers stack up. Are they any better in a country where, according to the most recent census, 5 per cent of the population identifies as Indigenous, 3.5 per cent Black and 22.3 per cent identify as visible minorities?
The answer is no and non.
I assembled a squad of recent journalism school graduates from across Canada to help me research more than 3,200 global brands. As you might imagine, most retailers do not publicly share these can-of-worms diversity statistics, so we must allow for a small margin of human error. I wish our findings are somehow grossly inaccurate; corporate reps, please correct me if I have missed any Black and/or Indigenous brands carried at your stores. I would love to be wrong.
Let’s first look at Holt Renfrew, the country’s most prestigious department store chain. Across its 285 brands, only 12 are Canadian. Three have Black creative directors. None are Indigenous. This excludes heiress Alexandra Weston’s H Project, which I view as more of a marketing initiative to highlight small designers in select stores for a short run. I’m looking at real investment in BIPOC-founded brand growth among items carried regularly across all of the stores, of which there is next to none.
Next we looked at Shoppers Drug Mart, a cosmetics and beauty powerhouse with more than $ 11 billion in annual revenue. It currently carries 204 brands; of those, only 13 are Canadian and just three are Black. Zero are Indigenous. How about distributing some of that wealth and opportunity more equitably, and amongst Canadian entrepreneurs from marginalized groups? In the beauty space, there is an abundance: from popular Indigenous-owned Cheekbone Beauty to Black-founded luxury skin care label Okoko Cosmétiques.
Quebec City’s venerable Simons has 15 stores in Canada and carries 520 brands. Of those, 136 are Canadian and seven are Black. While it recently collaborated with eight Indigenous artists and designers on a terrific seasonal capsule entitled IFWTO + Edito par Simons, they only stock three on an ongoing basis.
Meanwhile, SSENSE, Montreal’s e-commerce arbiter of worldly experimentalism from Syrian-born brothers Rami, Bassel and Firas Atallah, currently sells 426 brands. From our findings, just 13 are Canadian, 17 are Black and zero are Indigenous. There certainly isn’t a shortage of local talent. May I suggest adding designers Warren Steven Scott, a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation, and Evan Ducharme, who is Métis, to the mix? Both have been featured by American Vogue’s first Ojibwe fashion scribe, Christian Allaire.
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The fact that only one of the 1,832 brands currently listed on the website of Hudson’s Bay Company, where I once worked as associate fashion director, is Indigenous is perfectly in line with its problematic legacy. The company almost had us with Native Union, a Hong Kong tech accessories brand, and Native Youth, a British fashion brand from a designer of East Indian-descent. Furthermore, it seems just 289 of its brands are Canadian these days, and only nine are Black.
Consider this an urgent call for retailers in Canada to immediately take the pledge. White people, are you with me? Aurora has enough on her plate trying to fix America.
It’s time to start making it right, Canada. It’s time to take the pledge.