During the pandemic, fashion editor Danielle Prescod made the transition from New York City to New Orleans, Louisiana, an American state with a large black population – and often cited as the birthplace of jazz. However, Prescod, author of the upcoming book “Token Black Girl,” doesn’t spend much time shopping there. Partly because the selection is limited compared to New York and her knowledge of fashion often replaces those who work in the stores, but also because she does not think most sellers are particularly hospitable to black consumers. Her local luxury mall is “consistently deserted,” she said.
That changed during this year’s Essence Fest, Black Women’s Lifestyle Magazine’s annual music and culture festival, which took place the first weekend of July and attracted more than 80,000 people.
“Scissors [Fifth Avenue] was very, very crowded,” she said, noting that there were security guards outside Louis Vuitton to help manage the crowds.
Despite the number of black consumers spending on luxury during the event, there was no major fashion sponsor. (Coachella, the California desert music festival that Prescod attended just months before, had several.) The situation at Essence Fest almost perfectly encapsulates the long-standing relationship between luxury brands and black consumers.
The industry spent decades ignoring this group as customers while appropriating black culture, from music and sports to fashion and beauty. In recent years, however, some brands, in response to pressure from shareholders and consumers—particularly after the 2020 social justice protests—have re-examined their approach to diversity in terms of the models they cast, the influencers they work with and the talent they appoint. in their creative team and management team. But even as inclusivity has become a bigger focus for the wider fashion industry, many initiatives to engage black shoppers over the past two years have come across as clumsy or shallow.
Still, high-end brands and retailers have managed to attract a larger and larger share of black consumers’ wallets, like those who lined up to shop during Essence Fest. By not putting more creativity and resources into the relationship, they are leaving money on the table, experts say.
“There is this awareness happening, but it’s in these small, small ways,” said Amber Cabral, author of “Allies & Advocates” and a diversity strategist who has worked with Walmart and Gap, Inc. “There’s not enough longevity there. Companies say, ‘Let’s dip our toe in the water and see how it goes,’ and if in four months they haven’t gotten a return on their investment, they can just withdraw it.”
More than ever before, black consumers are helping to drive impressive growth in the American luxury market. Non-white ethnic groups accounted for about 20 percent of luxury spending in the U.S. market in 2019 — a figure that is projected to rise to 25 to 30 percent by 2025, according to a Bain report.
A number of factors have made it increasingly difficult for luxury companies to ignore black consumers. Although black people make up just under 14 percent of the U.S. population and have the lowest median household income of any racial group, according to the U.S. Census, a Nielsen survey found that they are 20 percent more likely than the overall population to “pay extra for a product that is consistent with the image I want to convey,” and 31 percent more likely to spend $500 or more on a bag.
Recent efforts by some brands to speak to a more diverse customer base is one reason black consumers have dedicated more of their wallet share to luxury brands, said Bain & Co partner Claudia D’Arpizio. Black luxury consumers also tend to be younger, and young people are driving growth in luxury.
“Some of the brands are very surprised by the results of this strategy,” said D’Arpizio. “Consumers are responding positively to this, more than proportional to their effort, to be honest.”
However, black consumers’ appetite for luxury is growing as they expect the brands they support to make valuable strides in diversity, equity and inclusion. Today, they increasingly cater to Black-owned fashion and luxury brands, including Telfar, Fear of God and Brandon Blackwood. Beyond the fact that these brands create appealing, desirable products, Black consumers see supporting Black brands as a powerful step toward equity and generational wealth building for their communities.
Meanwhile, many legacy luxury brands have yet to make meaningful progress in figuring out how to include black people in their narrative in a real, serious way. They remain predominantly run by white men and have traditionally approached marketing and branding from a Western European perspective, although that has begun to change with globalization and the growing importance of the Chinese consumer.
“It used to be that wearing these prestigious brands to convey our own status in life was a big deal,” said Jessica Couch, co-founder of Fayetteville Road, a retail technology consultancy. “I think there’s a shift in what’s cool, and we’re becoming a lot more informed … It’s no longer cool to wear a brand that doesn’t support you.”
For brands looking to truly connect with black consumers, a first step is to increase the representation of black talent across all parts of the business, from leadership down to the stores.
Louis Vuitton, for example, made progress on this when it appointed the late Virgil Abloh as men’s artistic director in 2018. Although Abloh was not the first black person to design for a traditional luxury brand, his international recognition and influence on youth culture was a boon for the French heritage brand and helped drive “historic” growth in America for the brand, CEO Michael Burke told BoF in late 2020.
Gucci made greater inroads into the black community by developing a long-term relationship with Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day, the Harlem designer whose work so directly inspired creative director Alessandro Michele that it outraged the internet. In response, Michele teamed up with Day on a collection, and Gucci opened an atelier for him in Harlem.
“Now it’s more to be part of the value proposition completely: this is cultural relevance, which is different from cultural appropriation,” Bains D’Arpizio said.
Marketing imagery is also an important part of the formula, but it should be the product of a diverse team, rather than the result of a predominantly white leadership team hoping to signal inclusivity with minimal effort.
Brands should be careful not to overemphasize flashy celebrity campaigns or the same rotating cast of prominent black creatives — which can be seen as low-hanging fruit — or only use “certain types” of black creatives and models, Cabral said.
“I want luxury brands to emerge with the richness and depth that black people emerge with — and that’s not what’s happening,” she said. “Where is the richness of our identities?”
Moving beyond stereotypes
Brands must also move past stereotypes and outdated assumptions about what product categories black consumers want to buy and what they want them to look like. For example, as both a consultant and luxury consumer, Cabral has observed that many high-end brands only advertise their entry-level items to black consumers and will often save their bright, colorful fabric treatments for those items—while promoting their “cleaner,” elevated, and more expensive items to white consumers.
Some luxury brands’ concern about fully embracing black consumers may be driven by the belief that if they delve too deeply into a “black aesthetic” — or if they don’t keep their black-focused products on the periphery — they will alienate their core customers, said Shawn Pean, a fashion executive who held leadership roles at Balmain USA and Valentino USA before launching his luxury menswear label, June79, last year.
“Do you just see us as your ‘logo consumer’ or do you see us as someone who can wear your Dior suit with a shirt and tie and look just as great?” Pean said.
The crux of the problem, Couch added, is that many high-end brands haven’t actually “taken the time to do a deep dive into understanding different parts of black culture,” and where data is available, it’s easily misread.
“They can’t properly identify the difference between causation and correlation,” she said. “If the brand only offers [Black people] entry-level and colourful [items] because it thinks ethnic people generally like more color options and we are interested in more patterns etc, then [the brand] has misunderstood the consumer and is taking the risk of a limited view.”
As luxury brands increasingly rely on a wide range of consumers to drive top-line growth, they need to recognize and include all different types of people, especially those who drive the culture.
“The problem is, if you don’t turn to us, you will slowly die out …,” Couch said. “And you’re not cool if we don’t say you’re cool. And that is the power we have as black consumers. We drive all the cool factors.”