After Instagram users called out Virgil Abloh for a perceived lack of racial diversity on his Off-White design team, the founder spoke out today.
“My design team is diverse as the world is big,” he said.
The statement came after Abloh took to Instagram Stories this week to share images of a dinner party for Off-White staff members in Milan — and social media fans took immediate notice.
“Where are the beautiful people of color on your team Virgil?” user @daavidminor wrote on the comments section of one of Abloh’s Instagram posts. “Don’t forget where you came from!”
Some went even further, urging the designer to practice what he preaches. (Abloh became the third black designer to helm a French fashion house when he was named artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear in March.) “Bro hire some diversity,” wrote Atlanta rapper Chancer Smith, while user @ripwarhol said, “Address the issue at hand don’t try to cool your way out of this, you can’t just give us black models and think Its [sic] fine, you talk about black history too much for this.”
An Off-White statement sent to FN on Friday said: “When questioned about diversity, Virgil Abloh takes pride in being African and American. His design team is diverse, and his practice has been built on making the art and design industry an inclusive community. Fellow designers like Samuel Ross, Heron Preston, No Vacancy Inn by Tremaine Emory and Acyde Odunlami, Everard Best, photographer Fabien Montique [and] many others have been given a platform via Off-White. These are just a few of the many global voices and people sitting at the table and helping evolve the brand. Off-White is a black-founded and-owned business.”
The statement continued: “[Virgil] wishes to use this moment of being questioned to be a moment of reflection within the industry to showcase the talents behind their design entities and push to have a design community that represents the outside world.”
Off-White joins a roster of brands and retailers that are grappling with criticism surrounding diversity issues. Nike, Under Armour and Adidas have faced questions about the treatment and advancement of minority talent at top levels, while experts have also pointed to a long-standing racial divide in the outdoor industry.
In the luxury arena, marketing missteps at Gucci and Prada resulted in both brands being accused of racial insensitivity through products that allegedly resembled blackface. After its black wool turtleneck balaclava sweater sparked uproar on social media, Gucci apologized and discontinued the product in February. Prada, on the other hand, pulled from circulation and window displays a set of monkeylike bag charms and figurines with large red lips back in December. (Both Gucci and Prada have established diversity initiatives in recent months.)
Public fallout for companies can come swiftly, with brands and retailers — now more than ever — feeling the pressure to address criticisms or risk a PR nightmare. “These issues have been here throughout our country’s history. However, with social media, audiences can voice their opinion when issues of racial insensitivity occur,” explained Chris Gee, managing director of digital strategy at Finsbury. “Reactions happen in real time versus previous eras where people needed to write letters or organize boycotts and the reaction would be felt days, if not weeks, later.”
“The fact is, whether they realize it or not, all retailers, no matter what segment they’re in, live in a global village today, and consumers around the world notice things like this more than ever before, especially with the rise of social media,” said Sonia Lapinsky, managing director in the retail practice at global consulting firm AlixPartners LLP. “Bottom line: Insensitive behavior, in addition to everything else it is, is bad for business.”
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