Can luxury fashion brands really be inclusive?
LUXURY products tend to be associated with exclusivity rather than inclusiveness. But thanks to the scrutiny of social media and consumer activism, high-end brands are under increasing pressure to be seen as caring businesses.
Some have spent large sums on initiatives that address environmental concerns or have used their expertise to help deal with the pandemic.
The Kering group (which owns Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen), for example, has set itself a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2025.
In response to the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the Burberry fashion house has donated more than 100,000 pieces of PPE to the National Health Service and health charities. Meanwhile, luxury firm LVMH used its fragrance manufacturing facilities to make free hand sanitizer for the healthcare system in France.
Yet it remains unclear whether consumers can reconcile the exclusive nature of luxury brands – selling at prices many cannot afford – with a public image of sustainability and environmental or social awareness. A series of studies have shown that consumers are ambivalent about these efforts. Research into the attitudes of millennials has shown that young consumers even view the concepts of luxury and sustainability as contradictory.
This is understandable, as some brands’ apparent attempts to address societal challenges have come after receiving much criticism for their own apparent failures.
Gucci, for example, has a $ 1.5million (£ 1million) plan to support young designers from underrepresented backgrounds. But it was launched after the brand was accused of racism over a sweater design.
And while Prada has spoken out against racial injustice on social media, the company has also been forced to apologize for merchandise deemed racist. Dior, meanwhile, launched a message of support and solidarity accompanied by a black background. But again, this comes after allegations of cultural appropriation.
A New York Times The report showed that among the best designers and creative directors in the fashion world, only four are black. Models and photographers with diverse backgrounds are also seriously under-represented in the luxury fashion industry.
Designer Virgil Abloh, men’s fashion manager at Louis Vuitton, is one of the few black figures to have reached the heights of a luxury brand. He commented: “Diversity is not just about gender and ethnicity. It is a question of experience. He brings new ideas to the table. And it would be nice if the fashion industry would listen to them and take them into account. “
In this complex context, we asked members of the UK public what they think of luxury brand inclusion campaigns. Overall, consumers – especially those with low incomes – had a negative response.
The majority of respondents (87%) believe luxury brands would do better to become more inclusive by focusing on fair pay and workers’ rights.
Efforts on climate change initiatives were also popular (79%), as was work to reduce racial and gender inequalities.
Respondents also welcomed the idea that luxury brands select partners and suppliers in response to social and political situations. For example, Burberry’s decision to boycott cotton from China’s Xinjiang region over alleged human rights violations.
Overall, our survey suggests that, despite some progress, a lot remains to be done by luxury brands. And the question remains, can an industry that revel in exclusivity can embrace inclusiveness in a way that drives real societal change?
As consumers increasingly demand a transition to an inclusive society, a unique window has opened for luxury brands to become better agents of social change by aligning their missions, values and strategies with a social goal. Luxury brands are in a key position to lead commercial action by leveraging their cultural authority.
They have the opportunity to use their influence and actions to advance public debate and accelerate behavior change. If they don’t take it, any gesture of inclusiveness risks being seen as nothing more than an opportunistic exercise in public relations and image.
Paurav Shukla is Professor of Marketing at the University of Southampton, while Dina Khalifa is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge.