Protests within the United States of America have been ongoing since 26 May 2020, in response to the death of 46-year-old African American George Floyd, a victim of a fatal use of force by law enforcement officers. Although initial protests were peaceful, they have since escalated and spread from the city of Minneapolis in Minnesota, to at least 600 cities around the country as well as various countries around the world—all calling for an end to racism and police brutality.
Despite imposed curfews in several states, as well as an ongoing battle with the COVID-19 pandemic (more than 112,000 deaths have been reported in the US alone), these have not hindered protestors, both peaceful and aggressive. Destruction of public properties and looting have become part of the conversation, though mounting reports in news media as well as on-ground social media posts have pointed out that in most cases, protestors and looters are not one and the same.
Looters have been tagged as 'opportunistic' by various sources–from affected businesses to news outlets to outspoken celebrities—as they've been accused of derailing the main points that the protests aim to address. Yet, with looting ('opportunistic' or not) and overall destruction of public property being entrenched in the fight for social justice throughout history, many have not let these actions dampen their resolve for change. The Stonewall riots of 1969 and the Holy Week Uprisings of 1968 are just two examples of violent protests in US history that have resulted in notable change in the country's legislation.
The main targets of looters thus far, have included retailers big and small, and especially luxury fashion boutiques. In New York, Bloomingdale's, Dolce&Gabbana, Michael Kors and G-Star RAW reported cases of looting with glass storefronts shattered in the process. Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles was also affected as boutiques such as Alexander McQueen, Chanel and Marc Jacobs were reported to be among the victims.
Fashion designer Marc Jacobs took to his brand's Instagram account to vocally express his sentiments on the looting of his Los Angeles boutique. Posting two photos of the vandalised boutique, the caption was simple and succinct: "A life cannot be replaced. Black Lives Matter." On one of the photos posted, the Marc Jacobs brand is scrawled over and rebranded with 'Sandra Bland' and 'George Floyd'; the former was a 28-year-old African American woman who was found dead while in police custody in 2015. Responding to a comment on a separate post on his personal Instagram account, Jacobs made a clear intent to keep the names as is at his boutique.
Similarly, Tyler, the Creator shared the same sentiment as his boarded up GOLF store in Los Angeles was also defaced. "And the store is fine, but even if it wasn't, this is bigger than getting some glass fixed and buffing spray paint off. Understand what really needs to be fixed out here," his caption on Instagram read. Multi-label menswear boutique Union too expressed solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, calling looting a "side show".
Founder and designer of Off-White, Virgil Abloh, however, came under fire for his seemingly unfavourable response to the looting of vintage sneaker store Round Two in Los Angeles, as well as Abloh's own RSVP Gallery. Calling out the people who looted, Abloh commented, "To the kids that ransacked his store [Sean Wotherspoon's Round Two] and RSVP DTLA, and all our stores in our scene just know, that product staring at you in your home/apartment right now is tainted and a reminder of a person I hope you aren’t." Commenters criticised Abloh for prioritising material goods over the lives impacted by police brutality, and for not 'reading the room'. It was further compounded when he posted a screenshot of a USD50 donation to Fempower, an organisation that's focusing efforts on funding bail. Many took offence at the amount, given that Abloh, who is also the artistic director of Louis Vuitton's men's division, is estimated to be worth USD4 million.
Abloh has since apologised for his response. And has come forward to clarify that he has made donations totalling USD20,050 "to bail funds and other causes related to this movement".
Yet, as with all movements and cries for actual change, postings on social media have also been seen as performative—a way for brands and influential figures to rally for something that's trending. While Marc Jacobs' openness and willingness to be on the right side of the conversation is seen as a positive example, others are pushing for more. Fashion designer Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss took to Twitter to express a more dedicated approach. "Not one of these companies have committed to any action," Moss wrote, referring to posts of solidarity as "stupid words with shit typeface", and asking companies with in-house legal teams to make an active effort in reforming the system.
As the world's attention is focused on the US and how 'Black Lives Matter' is no longer a movement that can be stalled any further, eyes are also on the fashion industry—one that has often been criticised for discounting and stifling diverse voices—to make visible change. A black square riddled with hashtags on Instagram does nothing but show a façade of solidarity. Real solidarity, however, is ensuring that as much as possible, one is not part of the problem, especially when it comes to brand values that are both visible and not.