After a rush of attention, what next for Black-owned brands?
In mid-2020, everyone wanted to buy from small, Black-owned fashion designers. While momentum may have waned, business owners are finding ways to stay optimistic.
In May 2020, Diarra Bousso, founder of Senegal-based clothing brand Diarrablu, was doing a happy dance as her business thrived. Month-on-month growth was holding steady at 15 per cent.
But that was only a foretaste of what was to come. In June, as interest in and support for the Black Lives Matter movement peaked following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, orders soared by 1,000 per cent. “Everyone was supporting us, shouting us out on social media, mentioning us in press articles. It felt unreal,” Bousso says. “My phone was buzzing all the time; I could not believe it.”
Before last summer, she would send a screenshot of daily orders from San Mateo, California, to her mother in Senegal via a Whatsapp for her to place orders with local artisans. When orders suddenly filled hundreds of pages of Excel spreadsheets, this approach became inadequate. Bousso hired more artisans, bought fabric and began scaling up for a bigger future. “All our operational processes had to change so drastically,” she recalls.
However, it didn’t last. By September 2020, sales had plummeted by half, to Bousso’s frustration. “I was like, what are we going to do with all these fabrics we ordered and all these new artisans?”
Diarrablu is just one of many small Black-owned fashion businesses that reeled with the rise and fall of support across America (and beyond) during and after the “summer of allyship”, as Akilah Cadet of Change Cadet, a change management consultancy, calls it. Retailers wanted to buy from Black-owned businesses. White influencers wanted to partner with Black influencers. In the US, large corporations took the 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative that calls on major retailers to pledge 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses (Black people in the US make up nearly 15 per cent of the population).
BLM headlines waned and the media turned to other concerns, including the countdown to the US presidential election. When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were elected, many thought the BLM work was done, Cadet says. In step, many Black-owned fashion businesses saw sales collapse.
A path forward
Volatile and unpredictable sales can have a direct effect on inventory plans and staffing, putting these small businesses into tough positions. Taylor Jay, founder of her eponymous clothing brand in California, says she hired extra help last year in response to a spike in business and placed large production orders — but the spike was short-lived. “Sadly, our hope of a sustainable allyship was false,” Jay says. “It was a glimpse of what our business could achieve if more opportunities and partnerships were available to us and not just for a temporary moment or a movement.”
In response, she’s turning to the loyal community she has built — customers who are more than fair-weather friends. In September, she launched a campaign asking supporters to refer friends and encourage them to spend at least $100 each, with hopes of generating $100,000. The two customers who generate the most sales will receive a $100 gift card.
Bousso took a sabbatical from her teaching job, which she once juggled along with the clothing business. She could not fathom letting go of the artisans she had so recently signed on, so her team increased marketing efforts significantly. “We saw the potential of our business in 2020 and felt confident that we could keep scaling if we reached the right audience,” Bousso says.
Many Black businesses say that nevertheless they are doing better than before the events of last spring. Candice Cox of Candid Arts, an Oakland, California-based jewellery, accessories and kids’ clothing brand, says her sales increased 76 per cent in the spring of 2020, then declined 36 per cent by the end of summer. “At one point I had five people working for me and now I just have one,” she says. “But I'm hoping to hire another person in the next few weeks — sales are still pretty decent compared to 2019, but the decline is dramatic.”
A steady customer base is essential. Blk Girls Greenhouse founders Kalu Gebreyohannes and J’Maica Thomas protected their business from volatility from the get-go. “We built an ecosystem around Black creators and makers and artists,” Thomas says. “They had their own audiences already, and we could bring everything into one space.”
They founded their Oakland-based plants and home goods brand in August 2020 and have nurtured it steadily since, moving from an open-air space to a bricks-and-mortar location. They’re launching a collaboration with Kimton’s new Alton Hotel in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf in October. “Performative allyship was very obvious,” Gebreyohannes says. “The reality for J’Maica and I was that our business never intended to rely on white people to come save us.”
Ulrich Simpson, founder of Mi Cocina, a line of denim kitchen accessories based in San Francisco, says he is accustomed to the peaks and valleys of business after being featured by Oprah, Martha Stewart and others over the years. “When someone gives you an accolade, sales grow exponentially, and then they go down. So because I was used to that, I said let’s keep our heads down and do what we do best."
Research bears out how American attitudes to the Black Lives Matter movement have wavered. A USA Today-Ipsos poll found 60 per cent of Americans trusted the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, but nearly a year later that number dropped to 50 per cent. A Pew Research study is more upbeat, suggesting support for the movement has stabilised over the past 12 months, with 55 per cent of American adults consistently expressing at least some support (at 83 per cent, the percentage is much higher among Black Americans).
How progress is being nurtured
Journalist Erin Feher foresaw the likelihood of a drop-off in support for BLM, which is why she created Represent Collaborative, an activist storytelling collective of more than 200 journalists, designers and photographers who volunteer their talents to make sure that social and racial justice stories stay in the public eye. “I had sat in enough newsroom meetings to know that timeliness would rear its head soon enough,” she says. “The news would go back to how it looked before, once the hashtags stopped trending and the streets cleared.”
While individual consumers may be fickle, bigger efforts to combat inequities may have a lasting effect. Within little more than a year since its inception, the 15 Percent Pledge has made some progress among retailers: Sephora has more than doubled its assortment of Black-owned brands, according to the organisation, and the company also accepted eight BIPOC founders for its 2021 incubator program, all of which will be sold at Sephora.
Macy’s, another major retailer that took the pledge, has increased the number of Black-owned brands it carries by more than 250 per cent. Rent the Runway, Moda Operandi, Madewell, and West Elm have all increased theirs by 200 per cent or more. Overall, nearly 385 Black-owned businesses launched products within major retailers within the first two quarters of 2021.
Other campaigns include Pharrell Williams’s non-profit organisation Black Ambition, which awarded more than 30 Black and Latinx business founders upwards of $15,000 in July. One entrepreneur won the Black Ambition Prize, worth $1 million.
In 2020, Third Love, an inclusive underwear brand, launched the TL Effect, an in-house mentorship programme that supports women-of-colour entrepreneurs with resources, mentoring and a $20,000 cash grant. TL Effect recently accepted applications for a third cohort and plans to continue the programme indefinitely.
In April, Target committed to spending $2 billion with Black-owned businesses by 2025, and established the Forward Founders programme. It received 300 per cent more applicants than anticipated, and the company is preparing to open applications for its second cohort.
Gap committed to increase its hiring pipeline programmes by 15 per cent as part of the company’s Equality and Belonging 2025 Commitments, and the company says it has already achieved that goal.
All this is encouraging, but BIPOC businesses, fundamentally, still need customers. Business owners such as Xiomara Rosa-Tedla, co-founder with her father of handbag brand Unoeth, and Rashima Sonson, of sustainable bowtie brand Sonson, say they’re grateful for the exposure, but find it difficult to plan for the future in the wake of BLM.The Covid-19 pandemic set back many entrepreneurial plans. “In the midst of the pandemic, Black owned businesses had to close down at more than twice the rate of white businesses,” notes Represent Collaborative co-founder and partnerships director Jessa Williams. “It's more important than ever to put some thought into where your hard-earned dollar is being spent.”
Akilah Cadet explains why: “When you are taking the time to be intentional about where you’re spending your money, you are dismantling oppressive infrastructures and white supremacy.”
By Kristen Philipkoski From Vogue Business.