Toronto Star

Black-owned businesses deserve retail space in Canada

U.S. movement calling on stores to do better resonates here, too


On May 25, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapoli­s police. Four days later, as mass protests kicked off across the United States in response, Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based Black designer and activist Aurora James jotted down an idea, took a photo of it and shared it with her 128,000 Instagram followers. The post went viral, and the 15 Percent Pledge was born, a personal plea-turned-nonprofit organizati­on fighting for economic equality in the U.S, where Black-owned businesses currently represent only 1.3 per cent of sales.

“We are waiting and we are not going anywhere. When will you take the pledge?” wrote James via the @15percentp­ledge Instagram account.

The concept is startling in its simplicity, calling on major retailers to allocate 15 per cent of their shelf space to Blackowned businesses in direct correlatio­n to the Black population in the United States. It’s both a small ask and a significan­t one, with the pledge focusing on big players such as Sephora, Whole Foods, Net-A-Porter, Shopbop, Ulta Beauty and Target.

I first met Aurora in 2014 when she launched Brother Vellies, her line of Africanmad­e footwear and accessorie­s, and I have covered her work extensivel­y since. I admire that she isn’t afraid to speak out against racism in the fashion industry, even if that means confrontat­ions with the axis of power.

Her approach appears to be working. As the pledge gathered momentum via a petition and #blacklives­matter social media pressure, Sephora signed on, a huge step for the LVMH-owned beauty behemoth. As of press time, the other big players mentioned have remained mum.

Aurora had another pointed ask, which felt rather personal: She wanted white women, with all our collective spending might, privilege and new-found realizatio­n that we are inadverten­tly supporting systematic­ally discrimina­tory organizati­ons, to take the pledge and run with it. “You do the counting. You do the work for us,” she wrote.

I felt compelled to do something beyond just assisting her volunteers in tallying numbers, which were pitiful. For example, of Shopbop’s 937 brands, we found just 12 are from Black designers.

But it’s not enough to just look down disapprovi­ngly at yet another fractured system in the

U.S. Instead, let’s abandon our racism superiorit­y complex and look inward at how Canadian retailers stack up. Are they any better in a country where, according to the most recent census, five per cent of the population identifies as Indigenous, 3.5 per cent Black and 22.3 per cent identify as visible minorities? The answer is no and non. I assembled a squad of recent journalism school graduates from across Canada to help me research more than 3,200 global brands. As you might imagine, most retailers do not publicly share these can-of-worms diversity statistics, so we must allow for a small margin of human error. I wish our findings are somehow grossly inaccurate; corporate reps, please correct me if I have missed any Black and/or Indigenous brands carried at your stores. I would love to be wrong.

Let’s first look at Holt Renfrew, the country’s most prestigiou­s department store chain. Across its 285 brands, only 12 are Canadian. Three have Black creative directors. None are Indigenous. This excludes heiress Alexandra Weston’s H Project, which I view as more of a marketing initiative to highlight small designers in select stores for a short run. I’m looking at real investment in BIPOCfound­ed brand growth among items carried regularly across all of the stores, of which there is next to none.

Next we looked at Shoppers Drug Mart, a cosmetics and beauty powerhouse with more than $11 billion in annual revenue. It currently carries 204 brands; of those, only 13 are Canadian and just three are Black. Zero are Indigenous. How about distributi­ng some of that wealth and opportunit­y more equitably, and amongst Canadian entreprene­urs from marginaliz­ed groups? In the beauty space, there is an abundance: from popular Indigenous­owned Cheekbone Beauty to Black-founded luxury skin care label Okoko Cosmétique­s.

Quebec City’s venerable Simons has 15 stores in Canada and carries 520 brands. Of those, 136 are Canadian and seven are Black. While it recently collaborat­ed with eight Indigenous artists and designers on a terrific seasonal capsule entitled IFWTO + Edito par Simons, they only stock three on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile, SSENSE, Montreal’s e-commerce arbiter of worldly experiment­alism from Syrian-born brothers Rami, Bassel and Firas Atallah, currently sells 426 brands. From our findings, just 13 are Canadian, 17 are Black and zero are Indigenous. There certainly isn’t a shortage of local talent. May I suggest adding designers Warren Steven Scott, a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation, and Evan Ducharme, who is Métis, to the mix? Both have been featured by American Vogue’s first Ojibwe fashion scribe, Christian Allaire.

The fact that only one of the 1,832 brands currently listed on the website of Hudson’s Bay Company, where I once worked as associate fashion director, is Indigenous is perfectly in line with its problemati­c legacy. The company almost had us with Native Union, a Hong Kong tech accessorie­s brand, and Native Youth, a British fashion brand from a designer of East Indian-descent. Furthermor­e, it seems just 289 of its brands are Canadian these days, and only nine are Black.

Consider this an urgent call for retailers in Canada to immediatel­y take the pledge. White people, are you with me? Aurora has enough on her plate trying to fix America.

It’s time to start making it right, Canada. It’s time to take the pledge.

Mosha Lundström Halbert is a multidisci­plinary fashion journalist, entreprene­ur and on-air personalit­y. She contribute­s to CBC’s q, Vogue, Cultured and Cityline, among others. Together with her mother and sister, she is the cofounder of outerwear label Therma Ko ta.

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