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Mandela, fashion and retail culture.

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I could have titled this racism at a glance, but why be so extreme and controversial when that really hasn’t worked in history? I write my happy new year post reflecting on and dedicating this post to Nelson Mandela ( July 18 1918- December 5, 2013). Mandela changed the world. His resilience, and his sometimes aggressive, but often times peaceful protests towards equality continue to speak volumes in the realm of human rights activism. When I read his autobiography A Long Walk To Freedom in 2010, I didn’t quite know what the title meant at that time or who exactly he inspired other than the events on the surface. Yes, he was talking about eradicating South African Apartheid, uniting a society and bringing closure to decades worth of emotional destruction, but what did he really mean by freedom? So, I read over this thesis paper I wrote in college about the similarities and differences between South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee and the Civil Rights Acts, etc. I was stunned about what I wrote but I also flashbacked to everything that happened in relation to fashion and retail.

This past year, we have experience a number of significant events related to race that was showcased on the national news and had us all talking. Whether we agree or disagree with who was wrong, it further justifies Mandela’s truths that we have a long walk to go in some capacity of our lives. So even if you participate or don’t participate, you have a moral responsibility to make the world a better place as cliche as it may sound. And, it starts with shopping.

This year has been an interesting set of truths in relation to the fashion and retail markets. I am just going to bullet them:

  • Barney’s New York wrongfully accusing an 18-year old black teen for using a fake debit card. He wanted a belt buckle he saw on his favorite rapper, but what he got was a trip to the police precinct. Jay-z’s brewing partnership with Barney’s caused every civil rights activist, some of his fans and the media to attack him on the premise of why he would want to be associated with Barney’s when they are clearly racist. Jay-z responded that he was still going through with his collection, consisting of a $875 leather baseball cap, among other things. Mr. Carter also proposed that he will be on the forefront of diversity talks with the department store so that incidents like this don’t happen in the future.
  • Naomi Campbell and Iman wrote a “shame letter” to all members of the international fashion community calling to attention the lack of black models on the runway, and undercover racism for the blatant exclusion. Not only did this cause a stir, many fashion journalists and blogs posted and wrote about the letter, including former NYT columnist Eric Wilson. I was really surprise and happy to see that this was getting attention-finally. With all eyes on the industry- as Bethann Hardison puts it, the S/S 2014 shows (which happened in September 2013) were above average in regard to diversity and show entertainment. Including: more black models opening and closing shows like Versace, Balenciaga, Balmain and Armani just to name a few! At Rick Owens, a fierce step team consisting of black sorority and fraternities, wore his collection as they stepped dramatically down the runway during Paris fashion week. Diane Von Furstenberg's use of veteran and “plus-size” models on her runway also contributed to the need for more color and sizes. So, I guess the “shame-letter” had a positive affect- let’s keep it up fashion people!
  • Even Oprah Winfrey experienced racial-profiling last year while shopping in a Swiss boutique in Zurich. Side note: she was there for Tina Turner’s wedding to a Swiss mega-billionaire. Apparently, Ms. Winfrey asked to see a $38,000 Tom Ford handbag, and the sales associate refused to take it out the case. Moral of this story: well, who fuck doesn’t know who Oprah Winfrey is???

All these issues definitely revolved around race, but it’s those underlying centuries-old stereotypes that trigger it! On a more positive note, though, during the shows last season, I was really excited to hear Versace, Versace, Versace by rappers Migos and Drake blasting on Donatella’s runway, and every fashion week party for that matter. We love a little hip hop anywhere in our lives, even if it’s some rough ATL music at a major show in Milan.

As we continue to observe the wonderful life of Nelson Mandela, please be advised that if you participate in shopping and fashion, that there are an associated subconscious set of norms that you agree on. Maybe it's shopping at "fast fashion establishments" or buy from luxury brands, it's time to start looking into the companies mission statements and comparing your values. I'm not talking about doing a "kanye west," but just calling into action true fashion awareness.

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