Not What It Seams is a free, fortnightly newsletter that unpicks the latest in fashion and sustainability. It was created with the average shopper in mind to encourage critical takes on the latest fashion news and demystify the language of sustainability. If you enjoy this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running! 💌
A few months ago, if you scrolled through Lucy & Yak’s Instagram, you’d find cute illustrations, diverse-ish models and an abundance of happy customers. Their rainbow feed radiated “positive vibes”, cementing an impression that they were an inclusive ethical brand, that they lived up to their marketed claim of putting people before profit.
Lucy & Yak were also one of the many fashion brands who flooded Instagram with a sea of black squares and were one of the few to also link anti-racist resources and petitions, donate to anti-racist organisations and amplify Black-owned businesses (though some felt that they were slow to act and were only prompted by public pressure).
Three months later, as part of their Ey Up! podcast series, founders Lucy and Chris aired a 2-part episode with plus-size brand consultant, Sara Brown, which discusses body positivity, fatphobia and size inclusivity in the fashion industry. The episodic timing was questionable at best. The move was particularly confusing to those plus-size customers who had been sidelined since the brand formed in 2017. After vouching year after year that they were working on increasing their size range “behind the scenes”, Lucy & Yak had now centred themselves in the size inclusivity conversation without addressing their own internalised fatphobia or unfulfilled promises.
Fashion stylist and activist, Aja Barber, was one of a few public figures to amplify the concerns of plus-size customers who felt disempowered by Lucy & Yak’s wokewashing. Aja had previously spoken to the brand on the phone 2 years prior and had provided free consultation on becoming size inclusive. She was never once paid or credited for this emotional labour. Fast forward to 2020 and Lucy & Yak are acting like they have just discovered size inclusivity, ignoring the fact that hundreds of customers before them had invested their time and energy into asking for more representative sizing. Never once calling for a boycott, Aja simply amplified the views of those asking the brand to live up to its claims, hardly a huge ask.
In response, Lucy and Chris posted an IGTV which reeked of white fragility. Deflection, coded language, guilttrips, self-victimhood and a lack of transparency were all deployed in an attempt to defend the brand’s performativity. They prefaced the video by reminding their customers that people’s jobs - Lucy & Yak have around 70 employees - were at risk. What the owners had failed to realise was that well-founded criticism and any resultant economic fallout was the sole result of their own (in)action. Lucy and Chris never once addressed the “allegations” they were responding to, instead positioning themselves as victims of a vicious verbal “attack”. In other words, they vilified a Black woman for echoing the sentiments of many and asking them to do the one thing they had been saying they’d do for years.
A recurring theme in the video was crying wolf about being “cancelled”. White and slim-bodied fronted brands cannot cry “cancel culture” when customers were merely asking for some accountability. And they can no longer hide behind the typical excuses - citing startup, fabric and pattern grading costs as barriers to upsizing - which have long been disproven. Lucy & Yak aren’t exactly a niche or small brand; they’re one of the most recognisable companies in the sustainability space who specialise in one type of clothing.
It cost small upcycling brand, AFRAYED Upcycling, just £150 to get custom jumpsuit pattern grading for sizes xs-2xl. That’s the monetary equivalent of 3 pairs of dungarees, so a brand as big as Lucy & Yak clearly have the financial means to increase their size range. They only have to look at The Emperor’s Old Clothes or fellow dungaree brand, Sadie Alys, to see how it’s done. Or Alice Alexander whose recent sale data - plus-size sales account for 84% of their 2020 sales revenue - proves that “creating plus-size clothes for fat folks is [not] a technical or financial challenge … It is a cultural challenge rooted in fatphobia and racism”. Being size inclusive, then, makes moral and financial sense.
Just a few hours later, Lucy and Chris posted a second video. While a lot better than the first, it did feel like damage control. Here, Lucy and Chris apologised specifically to Aja and tagged her in the post caption, again singling her out as if her views were a minority opinion. The founders confessed to wrongly taking offence at Aja’s critique, having mistaken her general brand observations as a personal attack. They also admitted to their failure to prioritise their plus-size customers and vowed to address their own privilege.
In not so surprising news, the apology was generally accepted by its non-recipients. Countless straight-size customers voiced their unwavering support, with many downplaying the need for an apology in the first place. In a series of fatphobic and racist comments, loyal fans with apparent thin privilege accepted the apology as if it was meant for them. The voices of those who had always been catered for now drowned out the marginalised voices for which the apology was intended.
Despite being a self-proclaimed ethical and inclusive brand, Lucy & Yak had nurtured a space in which its cult-like community could direct racist and fatphobic abuse at a Black woman without fear of consequence. For 24 hours, Lucy and Chris just sat back and watched and, following backlash, later got their team to delete hate comments without challenging or educating the original poster. The ability for the founders to disconnect from the comments and prioritise their own comfortability is the epitome of white privilege. The crux of the problem is that Lucy & Yak hijacked the size inclusivity conversation without creating adequate safeguards for its plus-size customers and without doing the internal work first to dismantle their own fatphobic and racial biases.
Lucy & Yak have since released an official, more polished statement. Among other things, they have pledged to curate a safe space, recognise consultancy and emotional labour and increase their size range. While it’s a start, the damage has already been done. Lucy and Chris’ unhinged videos were more than a bad PR move; they caused irreparable harm and distress to Aja and other plus-size influencers who dared to speak up.
One of the many lessons to take away from this is that ethically marketed brands are not above public scrutiny. If anything, they face greater pressure to prove that their company practices align with their stated values and ethics. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t accept anything but perfection (zero fashion brands are without their sins) but we - especially thin and white privileged shoppers - need to accept more than the bare minimum. We need to actively ensure that the brands we support are inclusive and accessible for all.
For full transparency, I have purchased twice from Lucy & Yak before and have previously championed them on my stories uncritically. Blind to my own thin privilege, I recommended a brand that has been exclusionary and fatphobic, reasoning that they were better than most. I stand in solidarity with Aja Barber who has shown such grace and resilience in the face of sustained abuse. She inspires me daily to demand better of all fashion brands and to keep asking those uncomfortable questions. If you are looking to learn from and engage with Aja’s content, please respect her boundaries and support her work on Patreon.
In other news…
Primark just launched its Better Future campaign but who is it better for? Never far off the money, Primark has again capitalised on heightened demand for sustainability with another greenwashed campaign. Time for Change: A Better Future is its latest “sustainable” kids, men’s, womenswear and home range created with the vision of making sustainable fashion more affordable. While Primark’s emphasis on making sustainable fashion an accessible alternative is valid, this needs to happen in conjunction with providing living wages to the garment workers in its supply chain. Even then, a fast fashion brand isn’t sustainable, though some news outlets are yet to catch on. One particular article read: “The new range of everyday essentials for men, women and children more than doubles the number of Primark products made from recycled materials to 40 million and increases the number containing sustainable cotton to more than 60 million”. It doesn’t matter what your clothes are made out of if you’re producing millions of them (and providing poverty wages to those who made them). Really, this range only seems to better the pockets of Primark’s boardroom.
A cross-party group of MPs are urging the UK government to tackle fast fashion’s throwaway problem. Environmental charity, Hubbub, has produced a new report for Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, entitled 'Making the UK a global leader in sustainable fashion'. Backed by the surveyed British public, key recommendations include developing sustainable fabrics, boosting textile recycling to create a more circular economy and investing in textile manufacturing jobs in the UK. It is uncertain if the government will listen following a unanimous rejection of the Fixing Fashion report in 2019. Though, if implemented and successful, there could be greater incentive to provide legal provisions and protections for garment workers in global supply chains.
The fashion industry still needs to #PayUp and Pay Up Fashion exists to ensure that it does. So far, Remake’s campaign, extensive media coverage and a petition signed by over 273,000 people has prompted brands to pay back suppliers over $22 billion worth of cancelled orders and wages. Remake’s founder, Ayesha Barenblat, has now joined forces with AWAJ Foundation’s Executive Director Nazma Akter, Stand Up Lanka Sri Lanka’s Director Ashila Niroshi, and journalist and author Elizabeth L. Cline to continue this momentum and demand greater welfare provisions and wages for global garment workers. You can find out more and pledge your support here.
“The main offenders don’t get to set the boundaries” - These are the words of sustainable fashion journalist, Sophie Benson, who was one of the attendees at APPG’s Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion webinar. Infamous fast fashion brand, H&M, were once again passed the mic as “sustainability pioneers”. A more apt title might be “greenwashing pioneers” as H&M invest thousands in misleading marketing campaigns to deflect from their human rights violations, their failure to pay living wages and their vast levels of overproduction. There are hundreds of brands out there that are doing sustainability the right way but it is H&M who are given so much space with their hollow circularity targets. I have written about this brand profusely before and you might enjoy this timeline I lovingly nicknamed 10 years of anything but sustainable and ethical practice by H&M (you might need a glass of wine for this one).
We rarely need new clothes. I’m getting rather fed up with magazines who have typically ignored sustainable fashion derail the conversation by focusing on must-haves and trends. “13 Sustainable fashion brands that need a place in your wardrobe” (emphasis mine) and “These Fall 2020 Sustainable Fashions Will Help You Save The Planet in Style” are just two recent headlines of many that misrepresent the very concept of sustainability. Yes, we should try to support sustainable brands over fast fashion if we’re privileged enough to do so but we can’t keep consuming at the same alarming rate. And we also need to stop framing our purchases as the sole solution. Not only is it guilt-trippy as fuck but it takes the spotlight away from the brands who possess the real capacity for change.
Other brand updates and recommended reads:
In a now deleted tweet, Oh Polly shared a body positivity post, despite stocking 327 dresses in a size 8 and just 5 dresses in a size 22 (shout-out to @environmentaleadai for bringing this to my attention). We need to call out those brands who performatively promote female empowerment, while continuing to perpetuate a fatphobic industry.
Following international outcry and various petitions, “The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which, when enacted, would establish the legal presumption that any product arriving at US ports that was manufactured in or via the Uyghur Region, was made using forced labour unless proven otherwise, thereby barring its entry to the U.S”. It is estimated that cotton produced in camps in Xinjiang region finds its way into one in five cotton products worldwide, making the fashion industry highly complicit.
Fashion’s sustainability measures fall short of an industry-wide imperative to drastically reduce its environmental impact within the next decade.
When I read the headline - Will Amazon's new luxury online store be fashion's saviour — or archenemy? - I naively thought that the article was going to explore some of the ethical implications of big billionaire Bezos getting his greedy hands on the luxury fashion market. Instead, it was limited to economic and business considerations. Journalistic evaluations need to ask more critical questions and place garment workers and the planet at the centre of their analysis.
“Amazon wants you to know what products are sustainable”. I personally want to know when Amazon will stop targeting consumers and stop destroying the earth. (for context: in 2018, Amazon emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — greater than the carbon footprint of Switzerland).
I want to see more of these types of articles calling out brands like Shein for shamelessly ripping off designers.
Was plastic ever recyclable? A really illuminating and hard to stomach podcast episode from Planet Money finds out.
Renowned designer Osman Yousefzada reflects on change in the industry, straddling cultures and why he looked beyond fashion to find his voice.
Robin Givhan questions how the fashion industry will know when it has improved diversity.
A new report by students at SFI Cincinnati - The Dream Will Never Pay Off - explores how unpaid internships uphold exploitation and hinder financial sustainability within the fashion industry.
Kate Sekules makes the case for never buying new again.
“The world has changed and so must fashion” - Susie Lau on adaptation during uncertain times.
By including psychology in their strategic thinking, brands can move beyond tokenism towards true inclusivity, Bella Webb reports.
Activist Maya Penn, Leah Thomas of Intersectional Environmentalist, and journalist Aditi Mayer share their thoughts on boycotting, sustainable buzzwords and consumerism.
We’re living in confusing times where recycled fashion is hailed as an innovative solution and then denounced in the next breath. Ruth MacGilp has compiled a comprehensive guide to textile recycling which I’d recommend bookmarking.
Meet the voices of change working to make the fashion industry more accountable.
Dana Thomas asks what it will really take to fix fashion.
“Just because sustainability is important to consumers doesn’t mean they feel sufficiently empowered — or even willing — to shop sustainably” - consumers’ mixed signals on sustainability pose tough but surmountable obstacles for fashion brands, argue Sarah Willersdorf and Robbin Mitchell.
#SecondHandSeptember is slowly coming to an end (cries) but that doesn’t mean we have to stop saying no to new. Check out this influencers’ guide to thrifting online.
Are exotic skins out of fashion? Jasmin Malik Chua believes Covid-19 may be the tipping point.
Imran Amed on how the pandemic has made it clear just how broken the fashion industry is (though maybe we need a better word for broken - the fashion industry was intentionally designed this way, exploitation and all).
Joanna Standley shares her tips for thrifting responsibly.
What is performative allyship?
Lucy & Yak is a textbook example of performative allyship which saw the owners centre themselves in the size inclusivity conversation because they deemed it profitable or topical, instead of being genuinely committed to the cause. Their three year late admission that catering to its plus-size customers was never a priority renders their body positivity podcast episode performative and insincere. And their #BlackOutTuesday square and anti-racism posts fell short when they mediated a virtual space full of unchecked racism and white fragility.
True allyship is using your privilege to advocate for and uplift marginalised groups, while performative allyship is claiming solidarity with a marginalised group in a way that isn’t helpful to that group, draws attention away from that group, or actively harms that group. Lucy & Yak performatively allied themselves with the Black and plus-size communities, only to capitalise on their emotional labour and make them the target of racist and fatphobic abuse (all the while gaslighting experts like Aja by discrediting their consultation and portraying Lucy and Yak as victims of “cancel culture”).
Allyship is an ongoing process - not an end goal. It is a process of learning and unlearning, confronting your own privileges and taking accountability when you mess up. Brands don’t get a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum and they certainly don’t get a gold star for jumping on the “woke” bandwagon to boost their own social capital. I really recommend reading this article on performative allyship which delves deeper into how you can spot instances of performative activism and contexualises this (online) phenomenon in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running!
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