Decolonizing Fashion: Critical Approaches to Brand Strategy

The following is the condensed transcript of a talk that founder Tony Wang gave to Ethel's Club in 2021.

"More than ever, brands today simultaneously mean more and less at the same time. By increasingly joining in a broader cultural discourse, brands find themselves making public gestures that stand at odds with how they actually communicate with their community, treat their employees, and engage with the world. Brands no longer have our trust by default—it must be earned. Rhetoric in a vacuum is not a viable brand strategy anymore.

Good brand strategy is future focused, and seeks to build a sustainable relationship with the customer, building loyalty and unlocking incremental life time value. Conversion is a one-time life; loyalty is a lifetime lift.

This was the strategy taken when we built the SSENSE content platform with an incredibly talented team of editors, producers, planners, social community managers, business analysts and curators (we produced art installations and exhibitions in our flagship with collaborators like Arca, Virgil Abloh and DIS Art). The hypothesis (that we successfully validated) was that consumers didn’t want bullshit-laden, thinly-veiled advertorial content that they could see right through as a sales attempt. They wanted meaningful content that enhanced their cultural capital. If we became their secret weapon that equipped them with the intel on what was up in culture and who to know about if that made them cooler with their social group, we did our job.

I’m not an expert in decolonizing fashion, but it has played an increasingly important role in both my personal and professional practice as a strategist. I discovered fashion as a queer, overweight high schooler of color in a predominantly white school district through my love of Japanese role-playing games (Star Ocean 3 and Tales of Symphonia being some of the more memorable titles in my mind).

Through designers like Comme De Garcon, Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh, I found fashion as a source of inspiration and escapism. But the more time I spent in my 20’s working with various luxury brands while living in Europe, the more jaded I became.

One of my biggest moments of self-realization around why decolonizing fashion was important to my professional practice came from the immense amount of dissonance I felt from driving the brand strategy for a luxury brand rooted in the romanticized notion of the “golden era of travel. I felt dishonest using language like “first time the world was connected,” “democratization,” and “jet set age” to describe adecade in which the Civil Rights Movement was taking place, Chinese people had only just been given legal rights to naturalize via the Magnuson Act (1943), and travel was really only made accessible to upper middle class white people.

The postcolonial legacy in fashion manifests itself in many ways–explicitly and structurally. Even something as seemingly benign as the term “resort” to describe Pre-Spring in fashion is rooted in postcolonial language and means something very different to the people (of color) who live in and base their entire economic and social system around serving and catering to this notion of the “resort destination.”

But I also want to stress that decolonizing fashion is also good brand strategy. The two go hand in hand, and this largely corresponds to three key macro-economic, generational and cultural shifts that I outline in the talk. You can already see this in the way brands are trying to be more “woke.”

Part of my intent with this talk is to suggest brand strategists lean into their professions, co-opt the business vernacular that allows us to occupy a privileged professional position (typically brand strategists get access to executives and key decision makers by virtue of us establishing a brand’s point of view), and argue for decolonial outcomes in ways that are intuitive and acceptable to business leaders that would otherwise not buy into it on the sole basis of a critical theory argument.

Luxury fashion as an industry didn’t exist until the early 1900s, driven largely by the formation of luxury groups like LVMH, Kering (then PPR) and Richemont. Prior to that, it was mostly small-scale, family owned houses that focused on haute couture versus ready to wear (pret a porter). These luxury groups bought out these houses and turned them into the brands that we know today.

Luxury has always been proud to portray itself as a highly classist industry—from the price point if nothing else–but with the creation of the modern luxury industry, now it also had to amplify that aspiration to create demand across economic strata—the merchandising and product strategy that followed suit was designed to allow people with lower disposable incomes to still participate in some manner (entry level goods). Prior, luxury simply didn’t concern itself with the non-rich, now it was obsessed with shaping their desires.

Aspiration requires brands to tap into some kind of cultural understanding of what’s desirable and visualize it through brand imagery, touchpoints and marketing. These aspirational notions have historically been rooted in a white, European conception of status, wealth, fame and sex appeal. Even with the inclusion of people of color in marketing imagery, their bodies tend to serve more as props or to reinforce these underlying aspirations.

Luxury as a western concept, with all of its associated value sets (rarity, exclusivity) and aesthetic tropes (fur, gold, spice, etc), is rooted in imperialism and the quest for rare resources. The search for, extraction of and transport of spices, pelts, and other rarities from outside the “old world” played a significant role in fueling European history from the age of exploration to the age of colonization and is responsible for driving various diasporas around the world. This is a pivotal reason for why decolonizing luxury and its legacy is so key to a contemporary critical discourse, even outside of fashion.

The underlying substance of modern luxury brands remains deeply rooted in postcolonial structures – and this structural racism manifests itself in many forms – from tokenism, to exploiting the work product of BIPOC creators, to not hiring BIPOC into leadership roles (the contrasting imagery of the FW20 Jacquemus show, in which many BIPOC models were included, against the BTS shot of his staff drives home this point). We are still not given a seat at the table.

When I was at Barneys, one of the (many, many) problematic statements I heard was when senior executives dismissed the idea of shooting a trans model because they had already done so in a prior season (the legendary Bruce Weber 'Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters’ shoot from 2014). Many brands engage in this kind of marketing purely as a rote checklist exercise.

So even with a shift in fashion imagery, even with brand rhetoric that emulates progressive language, the industry as a whole still lacks the critical substance to justify this. It needs to put money where its mouth is (so props to Glossier for donating $1M in response to BLM). New luxury isn’t meaningful unless it’s also critically examines and addresses ways to remove postcolonial power structures that enforce or contribute to racism.

Balenciaga SS06 vs Balenciaga FW19 Campaign

In the past few years, major brands have been trying to break from this mold and speak to a wider array of demographics, and newer brands have emerged like Grace Wales Bonner, A Cold Wall, Commission, and Telfar where the critical perspectives and representations of BIPOC are embedded into the brand’s design practice and brand narrative.

Over time, these smaller brands will grow larger. And some of the BIPOC designers at the helm of these brands will be tapped as creative director of heritage European luxury houses, following the footsteps of Alexander Wang and Virgil Abloh. And while that’s great, there’s much room for improvement. I believe brand strategy can help play a role in galvanizing this change.

Decolonizing fashion is about bringing the industry from the past to the future, and building meaningful brands that stand for something worth standing for. Community is the best competitive advantage you can build. It’s about engaging with communities that luxury has historically been able to ignore, tokenize, or exploit.

Brand strategy is positioned to help drive these changes because we play a role in defining purpose, creating internal culture, and executing on a brand’s look and feel through campaign, activations and consumer touchpoints."