Black History Month is over for another year, so what now?

Each year as Black History Month comes to a close, speculation inevitably arises that the fashion industry will return to its white-centric status quo, its conscience clear for another year. As comedian Chris Rock said in 2015, “Black History Month is in the shortest month of the year, and the coldest—just in case we want to have a parade.” In this case February’s brevity is unfortunate given the extent of the task, honoring the historical contributions of Black and Brown people to American culture and industry and promoting contemporary BIPOC-owned businesses. But the origins of Black History Month should be acknowledged.

The tradition began in 1926 as Black History Week, created by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. February was selected because the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass fell on the 12th and 14th respectively. Black History Month is believed to have first been introduced in 1969 by Black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University, but it was during the United States Bicentennial of 1976 that the celebration was officially extended to a month.

The questionable behavior is how corporations can latch onto Black History Month for profit, similarly to how they do with June’s Gay Pride, selling branded merchandise designed to appeal to the emotions and identities of marginalized communities without actually offering them support. But a round-up of some initiatives within the fashion industry from this Black History Month provides a launch pad for going forward and maybe even provides a gauge for progress—if we remain alert.

Levi’s amplified the work of two community partners in February, Black Futures Lab and Live Free, as well as donating 25,000 dollars to each. It is part of the company’s broader efforts which, according to its website includes making sure 51 percent of the organizations it supports are BIPOC-led, while 53 percent of the company’s giving goes towards advancing racial equity goals. The Levi Strauss Foundation also contributed 2,861,000 dollars towards addressing racial justice in FY21 across their social justice, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19 grant portfolios.

The international influence of Virgil Abloh, who passed away suddenly in November, will continue to be felt across the industry as the Brooklyn Museum plans its major summer retrospective of his work for Off-White and as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton. Abloh’s presence alone as a Black American designer in a luxury European house altered the course of history, but he had already established the Post-Modern Scholarship Fund and was the first patron of The Black Curriculum founded in the UK in 2019. Profits from the just-launched capsule collection, which received the approval of Abloh’s family, will go to The Black Curriculum.

Fashion companies support racial equality

Rent The Runway shone a spotlight on Black luxury labels such as South African brand Thebe Magugu, minimalist jewelry maker, Soko which connects Kenyan artisans with the larger fashion industry, and Autumn Adeigbo who explores her Nigerian roots through conversational prints in limited-quantity, ethically made pieces.

Nike combined its launch of a new Air Force 1 collection, a Black History Month tradition since 2005, with the announcement of a national grant focused on social justice. While the footwear is designed by Black creators and is inspired by the flags of Caribbean and African countries, the 140 million dollar Black Community Commitment, which sees the multinational company invest in organizations that highlight social justice, education innovation and economic opportunity for Black people is more life-changing. This year’s recipients include Son of A Saint, All Star Code and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. On the company’s website, Nike states that it is also investing an additional 2.75 million dollars across 44 organizations in cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Memphis, St. Louis and Boston.

“NIKE, Inc.’s purpose is to move the world forward, breaking barriers and building community to change the game for all,” says Karol Collymore, Senior Director of Inclusive Community for Social & Community Impact. “Our Black Community Commitment embodies this belief and drives how we are showing up to advance racial equality for Black people.”

With Black History Month in our rear view mirror, the onus is on us as consumers, as employees and employers, to advance the cause, to check that our favorite brands, or the companies that we work for, do not simply make opportunistic annual pronouncements but are committed on both the macro and micro levels to embrace racial equity and inclusivity within daily operations. Only then will Black History Month not seem so short.


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