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The founder of Reformation, the darling of sustainable millennial fashion brands, has stepped down from her role as CEO after multiple accusations of deep-running workplace racism embedded in the company. Yael Aflalo will be replaced by current president Hali Borenstein. The news comes as brands and companies are now finally facing increasing pressure to address the problems of diversity and inclusion amidst nationwide protests against police brutality and racial discrimination toward African Americans.
Yael Aflalo, who founded one of the most successful sustainable fashion brands – Reformation – in 2009, resigned from her role as CEO and will be replaced by current president Hali Borenstein. Her stepping down from the next-gen “green fast-fashion empire” comes a week after multiple former employees of the company accused Aflalo of racist behaviour and the company’s exclusionary culture.
Accusations of racism in Reformation’s work culture and executive team surfaced as nationwide protests in the United States against police brutality and racial discrimination against African Americans continues, ignited by the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died after nearly 9 minutes of being held in a chokehold position by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.
When Reformation posted on social media about the donations it would be making to organisations in the Black Lives Matter movement on May 31, former assistant manager at the company’s flagship store, Elle Santiago, shared her experience of racial discrimination during her time in the role from 2013 to 2016.
“Working for Reformation deeply traumatized me. Being overlooked and undervalued as a woman of color who worked and managed their flagship store for 3 years was the hardest,” wrote Santiago. Her comment on Reformation’s Instagram post quickly attracted attention, garnering 26,000 likes.
Santiago also dedicated her own post on her personal Instagram account to detail more instances of racism. She recounted being denied a more senior title to reflect the work that she was already doing for the company and being treated with “disgust” by the then-CEO Aflalo herself.
She also recalled an instance where current Reformation vice president of wholesale, Elana Rosenblatt, posted a photo of herself eating fried chicken to “celebrate” Black History Month to further paint the racist culture and the “tone that has always been set by this company”.
“You will never allow a Black woman to sit at your table because then you wouldn’t be able to talk the way you all love to talk,” wrote Santiago.
Following Santiago’s accusations, Aflalo issued an apology, saying that she had “failed” and mentioned the company’s complicit “White gaze”.
“As a company, we have not leveraged our platform, our voice, and our content to combat the racism and injustice that pervades our country, and that will change, starting now,” said Aflalo. The now-former CEO of Reformation additionally announced that it has launched a third-party investigation into racial discrimination and to “take appropriate corrective actions.”
Rosenblatt, the woman who posted the photo that Santiago highlighted, also apologised for her photo on her personal account and will be leaving her role at Reformation as well.
Aflalo is not the first executive to exit the company following similar racism accusations. Chief executive of women’s co-working space The Wing Audrey Gelman, founder and editor-in-chief of Refinery29 Christene Barberich and CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman have all stepped down after controversies over unacceptable racist behaviour.
What’s doubly shocking in this instance is that Reformation is a brand that has risen to the top echelons of the fashion world by touting its sustainable ethos, with hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly sales, over US$35 million dollars in venture funding and an acquisition by global private equity giants Permira last year.
It’s a major blow to the growing eco fashion industry given Reformation’s status as “arguably the most the most successful sustainable fashion brand of all time” as New York magazine’s The Cut wrote in an interview with Aflalo and reaffirms what some activists have long complained about: the world of sustainability is one sorely lacking in diversity and inclusion. The same brands that preach incessantly about transparent supply chains, ethical sourcing and eco materials can have severe blind spots when it comes to internal office racism, their often narrow and exclusive marketing and communications messaging, as well as the lack of options when it comes to sizing and fit (many of Reformation’s It-dresses stop at a size 12, when the average US woman is now between a size 16-18).
Earlier this year, we named the pursuit of D&I a major trend for 2020, arguing that “Whether it is about size, colour, gender, sexuality, age and identity, brands have to be inclusive in their communication, visual marketing and merchandising if they are to stay relevant.”
For many rights activists and equality campaigners, the reckoning of toxic racism in internal company practices is long overdue and Aflalo’s ousting is surely not not the last. It is clear that public apologies and statements in the wake of global anti-racism protests of late will not suffice unless concrete, authentic and demonstrable action is taken, especially within the sustainability industry, where ethical values are understood to be at the core of every brand’s mission. One thing’s for sure, we can do better.
Lead image courtesy of Getty Images / Ethan Pine / The Forbes Collection.