Philanthropic Fashion: How Brands Are Showing People Are More Than Profit

COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns have upended the lives of billions of people around the world, but despite the often lamentable conditions, fashion brands — despite their own very real challenges trying to make up for lost sales and dampened demand over the last year — have been stepping up with charitable contributions or capsule collections from which proceeds go to help those struggling the most. Some fashion brands have made giving back a part of their business.

Pyer Moss founder and designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, for example, donated $50,000 last March to independent businesses led by women and people of color under Your Friends in New York, an innovation platform empowering the next generation of talents in fashion, art, music, philanthropy and wellness. Kering Group has partnered with Jean-Raymond on YFINY and made a supporting donation to independent businesses led by women and people of color in March.

Awake NY founder and designer Angelo Baque dropped a collection of logo hoodies and hats in June last year and donated up to 60 percent of sales to Black Lives Matter protesters, and ever since, he’s taken many opportunities to give back through Awake.

“I was really angry about what was happening, the injustice and the government wasn’t helping the people, and I had to be realistic about what I can do,” said Baque, who stepped down from his role as brand director of Supreme in 2016 to launch his own brand. “I want to run a business, but protesters need money, lawyers, food. I think the most powerful thing I can do is give money….I call it conscious capitalism, because the truth is, I still have to make money and I also like to take pride in the work that I do.”

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During the pandemic, Baque, a Queens, N.Y. native, worked with New Immigrant Community Empowerment to help them in their mission to support immigrant workers and their families that have been among the hardest hit amid the lockdowns and stunted economic activity that has fueled unemployment. He was helping NICE deliver groceries to families, while the organization had also taken to doing its own stimulus checks to provide financial support.

“I try to work with locally based community organizations. The national organizations are great, but they’re going to get the support. What about the smaller organizations in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Compton and Watts? When they ask who to donate to, I say look to your community,” Baque said. “It’s on the consumer how much they care where their dollar is going. We’re raised in a capitalist society, and, fortunately for me, I learned early on that jewelry and a big house don’t do it for me. If I don’t feel fulfilled spiritually and emotionally, then it’s pointless.”

It’s an ethos and a business model that prioritizes giving back, and it’s something more in the streetwear community have adopted.

“The satisfaction I get today is that now philanthropy is part of the streetwear landscape,” Baque said. “I’m happy everyone is doing it right now and people are doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

While the world was on pause due to global lockdowns, people around the world witnessed a racial justice uprising brought on by the continued acts of police brutality in the U.S., including the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement. In June 2020, several fashion companies spoke out against police brutality after their stores were looted amid ensuing protests, which had the dual effect of drawing criticism for their earlier indifference but helped force a broader conversation about the critical need for greater diversity and inclusion in the industry amid the fight against racial injustice.

Krost, a community-focused fashion label with the tagline “Support Your Friends,” is another brand doing its part to support the twin pandemics the U.S., in particular, is facing. Krost partners with nonprofit organizations like Black Lives Matter, Eden Reforestation Projects, Australian Red Cross and One Warm Coat, among others, to use fashion to raise awareness for each initiative. The brand partnered with March For Our Lives in 2018 on a collection, with 100 percent of sales going to the organization.

“‘Support your friends’ is a seemingly simple message, but it carries a great deal of weight and responsibility in giving a voice to the next generation,” said Krost founder Samuel Krost. “It’s essentially building the foundation for a better future.”

The brand also teamed with Fila to debut the sneaker brand’s new silhouette, the Renno, on Feb. 12, and to support the launch, Krost created a campaign supporting seven organizations: Food Bank for New York, BK Community Fridges, March For Our Lives, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Stomp Out Bullying, Encourage Kids Foundation, Freedom March NYC, The Descendants, and advocates committed to the LGBTQ+ Empowerment Movement. In addition, Krost and Fila will donate 10 percent of the sales to each of the seven organizations, as well as a stand-alone donation.

Saint Ivory, a Black-owned women’s streetwear brand in New York City that has operated as a nonprofit organization as of July 2020, released Semester 2 in September, its third collection since launch and first collection as a nonprofit. Inspired by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, American painter Kara Walker, and the first woman to play professional baseball Toni Stone, among others, all profits made from sales of the collection were donated to the National Organization of Minority Architects, the Black Women in Sport Foundation, the Black Artists+Designers Guild, The Free Black Women’s Library and the Black Art Futures Fund.

Saint Ivory also teamed with Rowing Blazers to produce two limited-edition suits, with all proceeds from purchases going to the Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women.

Total Luxury Spa, a Los Angeles-based clothing brand founded in 2012 by Daniel DeSure and Hassan Rahim of Commonwealth Projects, wanted to help local communities before starting the line (including offering free meditation workshops at the studio for anyone to join) but turned to product after understanding the power of the T-shirt.

“The local kids and skaters in the community are always coming through the studio and, overall, we’ve always been in close connection with the neighborhood around us. As soon as we realized the power of the T-shirt we thought about what kind of message and story do we want to shed light on and how can we not only create a conversation around but raise resources. That got us thinking…can one run a successful business and give back?”

DeSure believes it is possible, and brands like Bombas and Good Man Brand are proof of concept.

Now Total Luxury Spa is establishing a formula that works best for the brand and who they support.

The brand is currently available at Ssense and Slam Jam among other retailers, and shares profits from the sales of its products to their community. The brand’s Crenshaw Wellness products, for example, support the Umoja Center, where the Crenshaw Subway Coalition operate programs and advocacy campaigns to advance community wealth building and fight gentrification. DeSure said proceeds from the sales have been between 50 and 100 percent, for instance they donated 50 percent of the proceeds of the collaboration with artist Lauren Halsey to Halsey’s selected foundation Los Angeles Black Worker Center, but the most recent capsule for the Umoja Center saw 100 hundred percent of the proceeds go to the Umoja Center.

The Crenshaw Wellness drops had been so positive, DeSure said they had to shut it down to properly establish whether Total Luxury Spa will operate as a nonprofit.

“Each initiative is different really,” DeSure said. “Sometimes we create a series of shirts around a struggling mom-and-pop shop in the neighborhood as a means of raising money for them, and other times we call on our community to help a cause. Each time we sit down and look at the issue from multiple angles and figure out what the best formula is. In the words of Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist and professor, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else.’”

That’s one thing Bombas has tried to do, founding its business with a one-to-one give-back program as part of its structure. Cofounder and chief brand officer Randy Goldberg and partner David Heath were moved by a Salvation Army campaign that said socks were the most requested products for homeless people, and they wanted to help solve this problem.

The company launched with partner Hannah’s Socks in Ohio, but today has a network of 3,500 shelters across the U.S. to which they donate socks, T-shirts and underwear.

For Black History Month, Bombas launched the Black Hive Collection, a collection of eight vibrant genderless socks made by the company’s Black Hive, a collective of Black-identifying employees. Bombas is donating socks to homeless shelters associated with A Second Chance U Foundation, Sister’s Circle, National Bail Fund Network and Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and is donating $200,000 to the organizations as well.

“We wanted to get to one million pairs donated in 10 years. We did about 35,000 in two years and later we crossed the million mark,” Goldberg said.

Bombas has taken in investment over the years, and some investors called the give-back program into question, saying the philanthropy cuts into margins. “They weren’t the investors for us,” Goldberg said. “We understood from the beginning that we’d have to fight hard for this. We focused on the human economics of doing a second pair with every purchase.”

Though brands have produced capsule collections and limited product to raise funds and awareness for initiatives, few businesses have been built with charity as part of the revenue structure and foundation.

Footwear brand Toms followed a one-for-one business model when it was founded by Blake Mycoskie in 2006, donating shoes to a child in need with any purchase of its shoes. However, the company ended the program in 2019, noting that it would look for other ways to be impactful.

Good Man Brand founders Scott Bonomo, Tom Bonomo, Dean Holly and Russell Wilson had a similar conversation about whether the give-back portion of its business is sustainable. Since its launch in 2016, the brand has donated 3 percent of its net revenue to Friends of the Children through Wilson’s Why Not You Foundation, but Scott Bonomo said Wilson was nervous about the concept. However, they doubled down on the idea and today the brand has been able to donate $1.6 million to the foundation for Friends of the Children. The typical business model often asks what a fashion brand is, but with Good Man Brand, Bonomo wants to communicate what a fashion brand does.

“This was one of those things that came from the heart,” Bonomo said. “This wasn’t a hard decision for us to decide, because the brand is mission-driven. We internally realized there’s something more we’re trying to accomplish.”

The brand also benefits from being so close to the Why Not You Foundation, since both are cofounded by Wilson. All donations are handled by the foundation, and its donations helped Friends of the Children grow nationally from five chapters to 22 chapters nationally.

Even media companies like Complex, which launched its dedicated e-commerce site, Complex Shop, in 2019, have made sure to incorporate give-back programs. The company teamed with Neighborhood Spot in an ongoing partnership to help support small local businesses and charities. The first program held in September 2020 included T-shirts designed by Neighborhood Spot, graffiti artist Roachi, and Jake Kent among others with all proceeds being donated New York City businesses.

“Complex started as a buyers guide. We have a large platform for emerging designers and talents, but we also connect and give back to their communities and our communities. It has always been part of our plan,” said Karizza Sanchez, Complex senior director of content strategy and special projects.

Complex has also teamed with Black designers and business owners to curate brands and companies to support, including Antwaun Sargent, Gagosian director and curator and author of “The New Black Vanguard;” Telsha Anderson, owner of boutique and online platform T.A.; and designer Brendan Blackwood (profits from the project with Blackwood were donated to Planned Parenthood).

As Awake’s Baque said, “It’s important to be involved as a brand, because I like to know I have purpose.” 

And conscious commerce goes beyond donations.

In 2017, through Baque Creative, Baque launched Social Studies, a multiday experience for community-driven programming with photographer Shaniqwa Jarvis, and New York City-based creative company Something Special Studios. The first event at Miami Art Basel in 2017 was a three-day pop-up with workshops where Jarvis, designer Heron Preston, Union L.A. owner Chris Gibbs and No Vacancy Inn’s Tremaine Emory, among others, hosted classes and sessions teaching T-shirt design. Separately, but in a similar vein, designer Virgil Abloh and The Whitaker Group owner James Whitner launched Free Game, a series sharing knowledge, experience, and advice to current and aspiring entrepreneurs looking to enter the fashion industry or start their own business.

“Hoarding information is based in fear,” said Baque. “We’re taught that only one person is allowed in a room at a time. I’ve experienced that. You don’t see many of us in the room so you feel special and it convinces you that you belong and you feel you have to hold on to it and can’t help a colleague because it’ll threaten my standing in the room. I wanted to teach that you don’t have to wait to be a huge corporation to give back.”

Today’s consumers want more from the brands they shop and support, and want to know where their money is going.

“Consumers are very discerning and can tell when things are gimmicky or too timely,” Sanchez said. “It’s definitely important to keep in mind what a brand has been about and has always been about.”

Businesses also need to be conscientious and think about long-term and broader impacts on local communities, according to Krost.

“If we’ve learned anything over this past year, it’s that people care,” the founder of the namesake brand said. “Current business leaders and those who will soon create businesses are the future leaders of our generation.”

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