As I walked into the New York Public Library that night, I knew I was in for something special. Black excellence all around. From Allure’s Editor-in-Chief Jessica Cruel to supermodel Iman, the night was young and the melanin was plentiful. Trinity Mouzon Wofford, Dapper Dan, and Rosario Dawson were just a few of the star-studded individuals in attendance to celebrate the first annual Fifteen Percent Pledge Gala. After giving Selah Marley and Ketia June an embrace following my interview with the young artist, I found my seat at the Gap, Inc. table with Allyson Felix and artist Shanee Benjamin as Nicole Ari Parker delivered the opening address.
The Black Tie, Black Designer dress code was in full effect and no one disappointed. From our heads to our toes, we all paid homage to Black designers and collaborators from Pyer Moss and Laquan Smith to Telfar and Fe Noel, and of course, it was only right to show up and show out for this gala. The Inaugural Fifteen Percent Pledge Benefit Gala was created as a “celebration of the organization’s progress since its founding in June 2020 and highlighted the work that remains to eventually close the persistent racial wealth gap in our economy,” according to a press release shared with ESSENCE.
“When I wrote the post in 2020 I knew I was drawing a line in the sand but I never could have imagined the progress that could be made in less than two years,” Aurora James confided in ESSENCE. “I hope for more and more companies to join us and fix the complacency of the generations before them. There are far more Black-owned fashion businesses and designers who are receiving recognition now than there were in 2013 when I founded Brother Vellies but there are still very few. I knew how few there were but guests got to realize that firsthand as they looked for Black designers to outfit them for the gala.”
James received an overwhelming amount of support from retailers, with Sephora being first in line to take the pledge a mere 10 days following her announcement. “Their bravery to be the first will never be forgotten. We now have 28 corporate partners. Each has a unique commitment to shift its practices to better include Black designers, employees, and customers. Through those partnerships, we are shifting 10 billion dollars to Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. I am forever grateful and blown away by the support we have received,” James continued to tell ESSENCE.
Executive Director of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, LaToya Williams-Belfort, chimed in by noting how James’ commitment to urge major retailers and corporations to pledge 15% of their purchasing power to Black-owned businesses has created the ultimate cultural shift in fashion and style industries. “I felt that she built a sustainable model that could work across industries to close the economic gap in our country,” Williams-Belfort said. “Aurora’s passion is infectious and I am beyond proud of the 28 major corporations who have stepped up to take the Pledge. These companies have been able to look inward and recognize their own complacency. We’ve been able to shift $10 billion in revenue to Black-owned businesses in the middle of a global pandemic and I look forward to seeing which companies join us next. There is so much work left to do.”
As James, Williams-Belfort, and the team celebrated their inaugural Fifteen Percent Pledge Gala, James reflected on the overwhelming amount of support she has received over the past two years since that Instagram post changed her life and subsequently DEI efforts in the fashion industry forever. “I began the Fifteen Percent Pledge by taking to Instagram and asking for the world’s largest corporations to properly represent our diverse population,” she said. “I am invigorated by the unbelievable support we have received since that moment. It was incredibly exciting to take the next step on this journey with the Fifteen Percent Pledge’s first-ever gala. We have already achieved so much and this is only the beginning.” James couldn’t be more right.
Chairwoman Emma Grede prides herself in being part of the budding empire that James has created and even noted how she feels “humbled by the progress we have made” since the start of the pandemic. “We’ve seen tangible change across the board – not only are we seeing more shelf space dedicated to black-owned brands, but senior leadership in companies is becoming more diverse and there’s more representation in front of and behind the camera across brand creative. That’s what consumers want to see – they want to see representation genuinely integrated into the fabric of companies and know that a company shares their values,” the Good American co-founder and CEO told ESSENCE. “There’s definitely more work to be done, but we’re making positive progress and seeing a promising shift towards true inclusion across a multitude of industries.”
Grede reflected back to the launch of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and following the murder of George Floyd. Times were particularly emotionally, mentally, and spiritually challenging for folks within the Black community, but Grede noted that during this tumultuous “time of division and uncertainty” was when we leaned on the importance of unity the most.
“Being able to do our small part in the much larger conversation and shift by bringing together retailers, brands and executives all focused on the common goal of enacting real change for Black businesses is incredibly special,” Grede praised of the progress since its inception. “It was a true meeting of the minds and looking back, I’m proud of how far we have come since that first meeting, humbled by the progress we have made and most importantly steadfastly committed to mobilizing even more collective steps towards our goals.”
Emmy award-winning television host Tamron Hall, who introduced Iman to the gala stage, also shared her thoughts on the Fifteen Percent Pledge’s impact beyond the past two years. “Aurora is speaking truth to power while meeting behind the scenes with some of the biggest names in fashion and beauty, and I absolutely love it! She’s been bold in sharing with the public the names of those who, for whatever reason, have not joined the pledge that benefits everyone. When diversity is present and represented fairly it is a win for everyone,” Hall told ESSENCE.
Hall continued to question the relationship between consumers and retailers, especially when the core audience and buyers are those of the Black community. “If they want our dollars they need to give us products by designers that come from all backgrounds. When Aurora hosted her gala and challenged everyone to wear something black tie from a Black designer, it was a wake-up call. Why aren’t the best and brightest getting their time to shine? Why are designers with huge cult followings being left out of the top stores in America?,” she posed.
The award-winning multihyphenate was gifted with a pair of Brother Versailles heels by James after inviting her to be a guest on the Tamron Hall Show. For Hall, shoes are more significant than simply something cute to put on her feet for a taping, but they’re symbolic and meaningful. “Walk a mile in the shoes of Black and Brown designers and you will see the talent that deserves to be showcased and celebrated by everyone. I guarantee you the world wants to see and wear them and Aurora and the Fifteen Percent Pledge is making it happen,” Hall added.
Bahja Johnson, who serves as Gap, Inc.’s Head of Community and Customer DEI, honed in on the continued support that Gap, Inc. has provided to Fifteen Percent Pledge and Aurora James through its continued efforts to amplify Black businesses and designers. In order to authentically drive economic mobility for black people, Johnson noted that securing shelf space did not feel authentic to Gap, Inc., but instead the brand pledged to increase pipeline programs by 15%. “We are the first advocacy partner to sign the pledge, and we did so because our natural business model is a vertically integrated business model. It’s not a third-party business model,” said the Color Proud Council Co-Founder. “We signed the pledge to promise to increase our pipeline programs by 15% and really focus on early opportunity and access around things like apprenticeships, internships, jobs, et cetera, so our teams eventually look different in a sustained way. We want people to know they can have careers in retail regardless of who you are and what you look like.”
For Johnson, the work of Aurora James and the Fifteen Percent Pledge provides both visibility and initiating action for the entire industry. “I think what the Pledge has done is made the industry see where, in the past, our institutional way of working has not allowed for Black-owned businesses and therefore, Black people to have the same economic security, advancement, opportunity, as our white counterparts,” she said. Through the lens of a Black woman in the corporate space, this excited Johnson because not only have brands promised to give 15% shelf space in the stores, “but in doing so, you are essentially putting yourself at the forefront of being an advocate for Black economic mobility.”
Johnson continued, “You are now committing yourself to then operate differently internally to make that opportunity a reality for the black community.”
“The fashion and beauty industries should represent our diverse society and right now they do not. Talent is distributed equally in our world but opportunity is not. Representation is the reflection of our diverse population in various industries. Equity is in understanding that there are folks in this country that have been historically and systemically excluded and deserve an equal opportunity to build wealth,” Williams-Belfort added to the conversation about what representation should look like in the fashion industry. “The Fifteen Percent Pledge was founded on a simple truth, Black people represent 15%of the population, thus should represent 15% of the shelf space, which simply represents equal access and opportunity.”