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The Story Behind Nike’s Sneaker Collab With Harlem’s Fashion Row Is a Powerful Corporate Lesson In Not Allowing Discomfort to Stop Meaningful Change

If any company in the footwear space can write the book on successful collaborations, it’s inarguably Nike Inc.

But as the athletic behemoth — and scores of brands and corporations the world over — continues to evolve its business strategy amid a broader racial equality reckoning, its leaders will tell you, the execution of collaborations is taking new form.

And, in true Swoosh fashion, the brand — known for its provocative marketing and years-long partnerships with Black athletes — has been ahead of the curb.

For a virtual panel today, part of the third annual Harlem’s Fashion Row Digital Fashion Summit, two Nike executives sat down with HFR founder and CEO Brandice Daniel to discuss how a 2018 sneaker collaboration between the Harlem-based organization and the Beaverton, Ore.-based brand took shape. (Daniel launched HFR in 2007 as a platform to support underrepresented Black and Latinx designers.)

And the meeting and efforts preceding the release of the Nike LeBron 16 LMTD HFR has key learnings for fashion brands seeking out “nontraditional collaborations” — as HFR dubbed it — with minority talent and minority-led brands in the current racially-charged climate.

Lesson No. 1: Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

“As the white male in the room, I was really worried we were going to mess it up and it was going to come through inauthentic and like we were trying to use this a story of Black women in an inauthentic way and that we’d get backlash from the community we’re actually trying to tell the story about and bring to life,” Josh Wachtel, GM of LeBron James & Athlete Business Development at Nike Inc. said candidly of the early stages of the HFR-Nike project, adding that his “biggest fear” soon subsided once meetings got underway.

Still, it’s important for corporate stakeholders — who may perhaps view Black talent as key beneficiaries of the racial reckoning that has yielded a bevy of monetary and other kinds of pledges from national organizations — to recognize that minority talent feel that discomfort, too.

In fact, that unease is often heightened by the level of responsibility people of color feel in showing up as a voice for their community in corporate settings.

“I was totally terrified because it was one of those things in my gut: I was like, ‘this is a really good idea.’ But I’m a Black woman bringing this story to this group of guys and I have no idea how they were going to take it,” said Melanie Auguste, VP of Global Brand Defining, Purpose & Athlete Brand Marketing at Nike, of her initial experience in discussing an HFR collaboration with the brand.

Auguste was relieved to be “welcomed with open arms” by her white, male colleagues but said she faced another fear-based hurdle when Nike brought the diverse team from HFR to its campus.

“It was one of those [moments] where I was scared of the other side of things, [I thought] ‘Oh shoot, are the Black women not going to like us?’” she explained, gesturing toward Daniel. “Like are you guys going to show up and be like, ‘oh, no’  … I was like, ‘I know we’re Nike and we’re about this [Black representation],’ but we’re also a corporation and we’re everything that comes with that.”

As the story goes, the collaboration was a success and Nike probably has plenty more coming down the pike. But as more brands chart the path forward for meaningful change, the tale is case study for purportedly well-intentioned brands who are in the infancy of exploring their role in improving racial equity within and outside of their respective organizations: Discomfort should not become a barrier to progress.

HFR’s virtual event, under the theme, ‘Moving beyond the Black Box, A New Conversation about Race” is sponsored by American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and continues until 5 p.m. ET. More than 50 professionals from across the fashion and retail industry are expected to speak at the event, including Tom Ford, Aurora James, Sergio Hudson and Tommy Hilfiger.

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