By Barry Samaha
A reckoning is happening in fashion, and brands are struggling to figure out how to make necessary changes and move forward. For too long, the industry has been operating with bias, promoting a certain image that, by and large, left people of color out of the framework. From corporations to media outlets to social media influencers, many of the leading players have upheld a construct that placed whiteness at the center. The lens extended to every facet of the industry, from the types of partnerships forged, to the content they created, to who they deemed worthy enough to get a seat at the table. And in the wake of the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have followed, every industry must navigate a path forward. Now, two of the most vocal proponents for change in the fashion industry are offering their services and strategic vision.
Chrissy Rutherford and Danielle Prescod are seasoned fashion industry vets and the forces behind the newly-formed consulting agency 2BG (2 Black Girls), which aims to guide brands towards becoming more equitable and inclusive. Both worked for over a decade in fashion and media, and witnessed racism, cultural appropriation, and optical allyship firsthand.
Rutherford is currently a contributing editor at BAZAAR.com and a social media force, with 142,000 followers on Instagram. Previously, she served as the special projects director at BAZAAR.com, and spent eight years at the title. Prescod is the style director at BET.com and her resume includes stints at InStyle, ELLE.com, and Moda Operandi. She, too, has a sizable following on Instagram, with around 70,000 followers. Their respective fan bases grew exponentially after they each posted videos in late May, calling out the fashion community for turning a blind eye to the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. In their own ways, they expressed their frustration, their struggle being in an industry that marginalized them, and how not participating in the dialogue shows complacency with racism. Brands reached out to see how they could improve, so the two joined forces to help them do just that.
Ahead, Rutherford and Prescod discuss their careers, what they plan to do with 2BG, and why having difficult conversations is important.
When you started your careers, how did you feel as two Black women working in the fashion industry?
Danielle Prescod: I mean, honestly for a long time, I felt like I was so blinded by the hustle of everything. I didn't even have time to process anything. I just put all my focus and energy into working as much and as hard as possible. And that's really what I just did. Also, working in fashion was not that different. It wasn't shocking to me or surprising to me as an environment, because I grew up in Westchester and went to school in Greenwich, Connecticut. It would have been pretty hard to culture-shock me. I was fashioned that way. You know what I mean?
So you were used to being the only Black girl?
Chrissy Rutherford: Always. Danielle and I both grew up in Westchester County, outside of New York, which is predominantly white and super affluent. So in many ways, I just always felt comfortable being the only Black person. That was just the norm for me, so I never really thought much about it when I entered the industry and was often one of very few Black interns or Black editors.
How do you feel now that in the midst of racial uprisings, every single brand wants to be an ally—or at least, seem that way?
DP: I think it will all be revealed who is able to sustain their allyship and who isn't. It's already happening for a lot of brands. And so it's really not enough for them to be very lazy about it. But just from a more cynical perspective, I can't see a lot of them committing to wanting to do the work to make actual change happen.
Why do you think that's so?
DP: Because it's really difficult. So many people just don't want to have the uncomfortable conversation or look at their own behaviors, and to really make sure that they're not continuing to uphold white supremacy. Also, there are so many people who don't even want to acknowledge that white supremacy has been a part of their business at all. You know what I mean? They assume that their brand is for everybody, always. It's just so obvious that it's not. But if you can't even acknowledge that part of it, I don't think you can move forward at all.
So is this where you guys come in with 2 Black Girls?
CR: Yes, if they're willing to do the work. I think that it's so difficult for them, because all they know is whiteness, and the only standard they've ever operated from is creating for the white gaze. And so to actually take yourself out of the equation constantly, I think, is mentally challenging for them. But that's how we're trying to help shape the brands or the people who we're working with, by framing this as: You have to be active to be anti-racist. It's not about being passive. That's how everyone was operating up until June 2. You actually have to be constantly working at changing the narrative.
How do you feel about some of these big-name brands hiring chief diversity officers? Do you know what they do?
DP: I have never met one, and I don't understand what they do either. Chanel had one, who was a white woman. So many of those companies probably had, in the last month or so, employees reveal that they have either experienced or reported racism to their human resources department and found no resolution whatsoever.
CR: I think the luxury brands and the mass brands are truly, truly the most stubborn and will be the hardest to change.
Are you going after them with your new business, or are you kind of focusing on smaller brands? How is this going to operate?
DP: So far, a lot of the brands that have come to us have been afraid because they're in a crisis-management stage. And they're of varying sizes: We have one global fine jewelry client, and we have several domestic smaller brands. We haven't even had the time to pitch out ourselves.
Do you think it's because the videos you both posted went viral?
CR: That's sort of how it started.
DP: I think so, but I also think it's that we have so many existing relationships, and some of them came about because we were calling them out. I personally emailed a few of them, and said, "This is really messed up. What's going on?" And they just responded, "Okay, how can we fix it? How can we do better?" And I was like, "Well, that's called labor. So if you want to find out how to do better, I'll tell you. But you have to pay up."
For sure. So without spilling your secrets, what is the plan that you have laid out for them? Is it different for each brand, or are you coming in with set guidelines that you already have in place?
DP: I would say it's different for each brand. We definitely have guidelines and things that we tell brands to do. We tell them don't run and hide, and how that's not only cowardly, but it shows your privilege. So if you're getting called out for something, don't block people. Don't try to silence them or try to avoid talking about it, because that's not going to help anybody. But for the most part, we try to make each plan custom, because each brand communicates differently with their customer base. We can't give something to a luxury client that we would give to someone that has a larger social media presence and a different way of approaching their customers.
CR: I also think the public perception differs from brand to brand. For example, we have one brand that we work with that's perceived as so, so white. And we really have to strong-arm them into following a straightforward path towards diversity.
So it's easier for some brands and harder for others?
DP: Oh, yeah.
CR: Yes. We have one client who we just had to tell a few things to, and we have one that we have to have weekly meetings with.
Why do you think it's a struggle for a client like that? Is it because they've been operating in a certain way for so long?
DP: I think some people struggle with truly seeing their own privilege. I think that a lot of it comes down to that, and also the uncomfortable feelings that they don't actually want to deal with. It's sort of, "Well, everything was going fine for us up until people started calling us out for being racist." But their businesses were still thriving.
I also think that they do get misled into thinking that they're finished with their work. Say, they made their requisite post and no one has canceled them lately. They're not getting any hate mail or they're not getting any mean comments. In fact, some of them were getting comments that were congratulatory or praising them for what they're doing. That could also be misleading to these brands, and they're led to believe that they’re doing great.
You're basically telling them that this is a continuing effort. Do you think they'll actually apply that, really?
CR: I think that, at least the ones that are working with us, I see that they will. I don't know if it will be perfect going forward, but I definitely think that they will think about it more than they ever have before. And that will be reflected in their content. We've also worked with them to set benchmarks. We tell them the bare minimum that they need to achieve in terms of how diversifying their Instagram, diversifying their website, and if they’re gifting the right people. That also really helps the situation, because brands really respond to numbers. When we give them guidelines of where they need to be, it's easier for them to work within that.
Have you seen drastic changes since June?
CR: I think it is hard to have faith that the industry is going to suddenly turn around and everything's going to be perfect. We know that's not going to happen. We're basically two months from Blackout Tuesday, and it really feels like a lot of them, from influencers to brands, think that they've done enough, or have just sort of gone back to normal ways of operating. And that is disappointing.
What can we all do as consumers to change that?
CR: I think that keeping the pressure on these brands is so important—especially if you're white.
DP: Don't follow them, don't engage with that content, don't shop if they aren't doing the right things. It really is that simple. And people really make it complicated, but it doesn't need to be. All you need to do is make sure that you're not engaging with brands who are comfortable with white supremacy and who have trained their audience to feel that way. Because money is power. Followers are power.
Do you think that a year from now there will actually be substantial change, or was this just a flash in the pan?
DP: I think that the industry will be super different a year from now, just because of the pandemic, frankly. But I think that that has changed so many of these fashion businesses and especially the ones who are showing themselves to be unwilling to adapt. They're getting punished. I can't even believe I'm still getting emails currently about New York Fashion Week. I'm like, "Are you people crazy?" It makes no sense to me. It demonstrates the inability that this industry has to change. They're like, "Oh, we've always done this. This is what we must do. The show has always been part of the brand. We must continue with the show." But who cares? I think that if we look at that as a model of how the industry is willing to adapt, it doesn't look good. They're going to go back to doing what they've always done.
How do you see 2 Black Girls moving forward after all this?
CR: I think having a diversity strategy is for those who are really in it to win it. It's an ever-evolving situation, so I do think that there are brands that we will still work with. Maybe we're not going to work with the same brand for five years, but I think there will still be opportunities to help change the narrative, because we're also connecting brands to Black creators, Black photographers...
We also have a class that we teach. I hope that that will continue, because that is something that we can evolve. And I do think that people really like that. We do a presentation for an hour, and then we have a conversation for an hour when people can really ask us questions that they have regarding their business, or even regarding where they're at with racism personally and their anti-racism learning.
You guys are therapists too?
CR: Exactly. A girl in our class today literally asked why it wasn't okay to say, "All lives matter."
Are you kidding?
DP: We really get the full gamut of questions. That's why we're here.
Black Lives Matter
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