Fashion has a new influencer: Gandhi. As the Indian civil rights leader once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” and this spirit resonates deeply with the four fashion industry professionals with whom I shared a panel during Fashinnovation’s 3rd Worldwide Talks. As our industry attempts to find itself, climbing out of the rubble of COVID, they see a path to success through collaboration. While we’ve come to associate the word “collab” with trendy commercial partnerships like last week’s Prada Adidas sneaker drop, this is a different union. Collaboration in this case is not about selling overhyped product, it’s about giving back.
For Jeannie Barsam, founder and CEO of Gifting Brands, this involves what she calls “Inventory Philanthropy.” Gifting Brands aims to provide brands with an alternative to selling off unsold inventory to off-price retailers or destroying it, as has been an unfortunate practice in the past, or even worse, letting it go to landflll. Instead brands can donate the goods to Gifting Brands, where they will get a tax credit and their own brand home page, and walk away knowing that 100 percent of the proceeds go to charity. Barsam describes her 501c3 non-profit as “the first ever e-commerce website that partners with fashion and luxury brands to donate excess inventory.” One of the charities Gifting Brands partners with is The Family Place which provides shelter for women at risk just as the pandemic created a spike in cases of women trapped at home or subject to domestic violence.
Kimberly Carney, founder and CEO of Fashwire, a B2B data hub which provides brands with consumer insight and a B2C shopping platform featuring 300 designers from 30 countries, says philanthropy has been what helped her navigate the pandemic, or what she calls “the Next Normal.” Through Fashwire’s philanthropic arm, Fashgive, in partnership with Retailers United, this meeting of executive minds from tech and retail raised funds for COVID relief efforts and to help America reopen, and provides grants for designers struggling during this time.
Crisis brings opportunity to fashion industry
Fashwire’s Seattle store had been performing well prior to Covid but now their Direct-to-Consumer business has taken off. Gifting Brands’ launch was initially scheduled for later in the year but Barsam decided to bring it forward to May, despite having only a few brands on-board. The pandemic test run paid off and Barsam says it elevates brands to boast connections with both charities and sustainability and can become part of their storytelling.
Helen Aboah, CEO of Urban Zen, Donna Karan’s range of luxury artisanal pieces sourced from around the world, with its attached charitable foundation focusing on culture, education and wellness, says, “This period has been incredible for our foundation in supporting healthcare, nurses, training for self-care techniques and meditation.” Although no longer able to enter hospitals during the pandemic, the foundation pivoted to digital communication, and says Aboah, they were able to share 5-minute videos for free to every frontline work in the country.
Theo Killion, a C-suite veteran who serves on several boards including that of the organization A Better Chance founded in 1963 which provides talented children of color who may not have the means to get into private school a platform for their future, believes collaboration is key to this current moment in history. Covid has laid bare all the infrastructure issues in healthcare, education, unemployment, and racial inequity, and for him, A Better Chance alum, giving back is personal. He refers to it as “closing the circle”: “A Better Chance got me started, they gave me a lift so I owe it to people to create 500 opportunities every year for young people to be able to get the same chance that I had.” Gifting Brands also counts A Better Chance as a partner charity.
Fashion and the art of collaboration
“At Urban Zen, collaboration is about connecting creatively, with two or more companies coming together to make something beautiful,” says Aboah. “Whether in homeware, apparel or jewelry, rather than commissioning someone to do something for us, we prefer to share the stage, bringing together who we are with who that other person is.” Urban Zen’s artisanal collaborations emerge organically from Karan’s travels when she meets people and forms relationships. “She gets in there, molding clay,” says Aboah.
While efforts to place people above profit and slow down fashion had tentatively begun pre-Covid Killion reminds us that the industry has been given the green light to accelerate activities: “The Business Roundtable, a group of 181 of the most powerful CEOs have said it’s no longer about shareholders but about stakeholders, and that includes communities and employees. So all of a sudden if you’re one of those corporations you have permission to do good work. The other thing is institutional investors for the past three years have been focused on ESG, that’s Environmental, Social, and Governance.”
A positive outlook for fashion industry
Mentors have been important to these industry leaders throughout their careers. Aboah who has worked with Donna Karan since the company’s LVMH days names the designer herself as one, citing her admiration for Karan’s tireless philanthropy, from her work on Seventh on Sale, the CFDA AIDS benefit, Kids for Kids carnival for Pediatric AIDS, and Super Saturday benefiting Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Karan was addressing conscious consumerism long before it was commonplace and creating products crafted with an ethos before it was popular. “It was always about the we and not the me,” says Aboah, “she was always thinking about how to give back, and this resonated with my upbringing.”
From Aboah’s partnerships with everyone from the mayor’s office to essential workers, she sees hope on the ground and an entrepreneurial spirit. “I think we’re going to get out of this stronger and better.”
A positive outlook is essential in those who will lead our industry into calmer waters and Killion provides the perfect perspective for moving forward, reminding us that after the 1918 pandemic which lasted two years, came the Roaring Twenties. “Everyone was dancing, everyone was fashionable, everyone was collaborating, and there was a celebration of freedom, with fashion at the forefront.”
Let’s unite behind the new roaring twenties.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.