Where are the black CEOs of fashion?

In fashion’s C-suites, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Earlier this year, former Burberry boss Marco Gobbetti took the helm of luxury shoe and leather goods maker Salvatore Ferragamo, and last month Jonathan Akeroyd, his successor at Burberry, began his tenure at the British brand. . Capri-owned Versace, run by Akeroyd since 2016, has named Alexander McQueen boss Emmanuel Gintzburger as its new chief executive. He was replaced at McQueen by Gianfilippo Testa of Gucci.

Big fashion brands have always gone through periodic executive changes. But the latest round came against the backdrop of the industry’s increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Despite several years of executive mentorship programs, DEI councils, and recruiting efforts aimed at increasing black representation at every rung of the corporate ladder, it is still almost exclusively white men who are appointed to the top job (CEO of Chanel, born in India, Leena Nair, is one of them). notable exception).

The lack of diversity at the top extends beyond European luxury brands. While there are numerous examples of fashion brands with black founders, the number of large established American fashion brands or retailers that have appointed black CEOs in the last decade can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and not one black woman has led a big fashion company.

Experts say the low number of black CEOs is due to a narrow conception of the CEO fashion, inadequate resources devoted to cultivating black talent and, more recently, skepticism on the part of minority executives who they have seen their peers get hired as tokens or given unreasonable responsibilities, among other things.

“We see this pyramid where there are high levels of black and brown talent at the entry levels, but they never make it to the top,” said Ayana Parsons, senior client partner focused on director and CEO inclusion at consulting firm Korn Ferry business.

Fashion’s lack of diversity at the top reflects the broader corporate world. Nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men, and only 19 Black executives have been Fortune 500 CEOs (former JCPenney boss Marvin Ellison, now at home improvement chain Lowe’s, and Jide Zeitlin of Tapestry among them). When white male CEOs resign, if they are not replaced by another white man, they will most likely be replaced by white women, said Richard Zweigenhaft, a Guilford College professor and co-author of “Diversity in the Power Elite.”

But fashion’s diverse consumer demographics, and its inclusive marketing messages and images, put it front and center in conversations about corporate IED, and make the absence of black CEOs at major companies all the more curious. .

“When you think about … in retail and fashion, in terms of the consumers and the community that these companies serve, you want to be a reflection of those communities,” Parsons said. “There is a real business case for why fashion should diversify at all levels.”

Many paths, one result

The biggest obstacle to attracting more black talent at the CEO level is the industry’s narrow approach to executive recruiting, experts say.

“Fashion and luxury brands have had the eye of the needle through which they are threading CEO candidates,” said Kyle Rudy, a partner at New York-based executive placement firm Kirk Palmer Associates. “And that includes a very strict kind of fashion background.”

Many fashion CEOs take the “commercial path” — entering the business working in merchandising-related product roles, including as buyers and division presidents, he said.

These roles tend to have at least some black talent at the bottom rungs, but historically it has been white employees, and specifically white males, who end up rising to the top.

Fashion recruits people from other sectors: Chanel’s Nair came from Unilever, for example. But the same dynamic holds in those industries as well: In 2020, white men in the US held 33 percent of all entry-level corporate positions, but 66 percent of C-suite positions. , found a 2021 study by McKinsey and Co.

There are plenty of black founders in fashion (Kerby Jean-Raymond, Telfar Clemens, James Whitner, Aurora James, and Carlie Cushnie to name just a few) who have forged their own leadership paths.

But the recent wave of thriving black-owned businesses could also be attributed to the fact that other routes to success remain closed, said Mark Lipton, a professor at Parsons School of Design and The New School.

“My hunch is that these are smart, highly talented young people who have taken a look and said, ‘The only way I’m really going to make it is to create my own organization and be my own boss. ‘” he said.

While the industry has made some progress in diversifying its board and other senior positions, there is a tendency to steer Black leaders toward “support roles” in areas such as human resources or newly created chief diversity officer positions, Parsons said. Meanwhile, the path to the CEO role is typically from line-of-business leader roles, including CFO and COO.

“We have to start tapping and make sure we are connecting [Black candidates] with the best talent and making sure they have all the skills to make it to the C-suite,” said Durand Guion, vice president of Macy’s Office of Fashion. “If those people aren’t getting to those number two or number three positions, it becomes very difficult to say, ‘Voila, we’re going to have [more Black CEOs].’”

Hired Not Heard

Recruitment is a two-way street, and as fashion firms try to catch up with DEI, many will find they have their work cut out for them when trying to attract qualified Black talent.

Facing unprecedented interest from companies in the past two years, African-American professionals are becoming increasingly skeptical when recruiters approach them for high-level positions, said Lisa Butkus, a partner at the Chicago-based executive recruiting firm Hanold Associates and director of its luxury goods retail and practice division.

“[They’re] asking recruiters: ‘Why are you suddenly interested in me? What is it about my resume and experience that makes me a good fit for this opportunity?’” she said.

Companies that have committed to recruiting more Black leadership talent will need to be aggressive in changing long-standing recruiting practices, such as seeking new hires at the same predominantly white Ivy League universities or asking for recommendations from largely white corporate employees, experts say.

They should also challenge persistent patterns of recruiting a “certain type” of black or minority candidate, often people who come from “elite families” or “privileged backgrounds,” Zweigenhaft said.

“I don’t think it solves the problem for a white woman or a Latino person, for example, to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company if that person is going to act exactly as white men have done over time,” said. .

Fashion houses will need to be more proactive in approaching and grooming Black professionals in times other than economic downturns or when business is in trouble. For example, about 35 percent of black executives in management positions at Fortune 500 companies said they were assigned extremely difficult projects that no one wanted to handle and had a high risk of failure, a 2019 Korn Ferry study found.

Many are also wary of a phenomenon known as “the glass cliff,” where women and minorities are taken advantage of as a last ditch effort to run a company in dire straits. Marvin Ellison, for example, was appointed CEO of JCPenney in 2015 and tasked with resurrecting the ailing department store after several other turnaround plans failed. He left the company after three years to run Lowe’s, also a Fortune 500 company.

Fashion firms will need to create detailed plans that are specifically aimed at grooming Black talent for success. Those plans must include viable pathways to the corner office, as well as specialized mentoring programs and resources — financial, psychological and otherwise — that anticipate the unique circumstances and experiences of black employees, experts say.

“I think that’s what [starting to] it happens now, but it’s not magic,” Guion said. “There’s a mindset shift that needs to happen among the ranks of people who make these decisions… that’s where the work needs to be done.”

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