Social commitment of luxury brands: a necessary but conditional activism. #496


On 28 July 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky celebrated the first Ukrainian State Day. On this occasion, the Ukrainian President announced that Demna Gvasalia – Balenciaga’s Artistic Director – was appointed ambassador of the United24 fundraising platform for the “Reconstruction of Ukraine” and that the brand would market an exclusive t-shirt (available since August 26th) with 100% of the profits going to the Ukrainian organisation.

A month earlier, the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which guaranteed American women the constitutional right to abortion. In response, most of the major luxury brands and the groups to which they belong said that they would protect the health and free choice of their employees by supporting their access to abortion. Gucci had announced its support for its employees even before the verdict was handed down. Gucci’s Creative Director, Alessandro Michele, had already denounced the threats to the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy in the United States under President Donald Trump, through feminist pieces from the Cruise 2020 Collection. The Florentine house had also taken a stand on another societal issue in the United States in 2018, donating USD 500,000 to the March for Our Lives movement in support of their proposal for legislative gun reform after the Parkland shooting.

Such stances question the need for political and societal engagement by luxury brands, as well as the conditions under which they can legitimately and commercially resort to certain forms of activism.

From social responsibility to luxury brand activism.

Corporate social responsibility, if it is consistent with the culture and identity of a luxury brand and perceived as authentic by consumers, has a positive impact on the image and legitimacy of the brand. This observation, at the origin of the concept of brand social responsibility, can be explained both by the disqualification of institutions in the eyes of citizens in our post-modern societies and by consumers’ search for meaning in their acts of consumption, including in their consumption of luxury products. This phenomenon is all the more significant with regard to the purchase intentions of Millennials and Generation Z.

Incorporation of a political or societal message into the commercial offer.

Fashion brands – more than other luxury brands – have a space of expression that allows houses and their artistic directors to incorporate a political or societal message into their designs.

Since the appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as artistic director of Dior in 2016, the cause of women has taken a central role in the house’s values and culture. From her first show and the now iconic “We should all be feminists” t-shirt, feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s slogan made a mark. This piece is now part of the “Vestiaire 30 Montaigne”, the house’s permanent collection, while each season a new feminist quote t-shirt is present in the collection, the one for autumn 2022 quoting Simone de Beauvoir.

The message may also not be textual, but visual and symbolic, expressed through the aesthetics of the garment, such as the uterus-embroidered dress in Gucci’s 2020 Cruise collection in reference to women’s right to the free disposal of their bodies, or Gucci’s and Burberry’s rainbow Pride collections in support of LGBTQIA+ communities.

An expression of the brand’s societal ethos.

Luxury brands have long been involved in social, environmental or cultural issues through charitable actions. But for some years now, societal – or even political – issues, which are likely to be more divisive with customers, have been the subject of positions or actions taken by certain luxury brands, which can go so far as to integrate them into their brand culture. From a commercial point of view, this claim to a societal ethic on less consensual themes constitutes both an opportunity to arouse the attachment of Millennials or Generation Z consumers and a risk of alienating part of their clientele.

For example, Chanel deeply offended many Russian consumers when it was the first luxury brand to announce the closure of its outlets in Russia at the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. As for Valentino, the Italian fashion house came under fire in 2021 for seeking to advance the rights of the transgender community through an advertising campaign featuring a nude self-portrait of photographer Michael Bailey-Gates, carrying a bag in his hand.

The ‘de-publicitarisation’ of the discourse of luxury brands – as evoked in communication sciences – allows them to integrate new media and cultural spheres and thus to acquire a status of cultural actor which in turn legitimises the expression of their societal values. But the legitimacy of brand activism, as well as its credibility, also depends on the authenticity perceived by the public and consumers.

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Journal du Luxe