Everlane’s Promise of ‘Radical Transparency’ Unravels

Michael Preysman, a founder and the chief government of Everlane, a vogue model that targets the ethically minded with minimalist fundamentals, stood onstage in May 2019 on the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and preached the gospel of his firm.

“Everlane launched eight years ago with the basic principle that the fashion industry and retail in general really needed transparency and honesty to come to the forefront,” he mentioned.

The viewers was rapt, as had been celebrities (like Meghan Markle and Angelina Jolie) and enterprise capitalists earlier than them, entranced by the imaginative and prescient of a San Francisco start-up that wouldn’t be predatory, a direct-to-consumer vogue firm that wouldn’t be gluttonous. Everlane promised to disclose its pricing markups, its clothes suppliers, its ecological footprint. This imaginative and prescient of “radical transparency” was so compelling that after solely 5 years Everlane reportedly introduced in $50 million in income and sought a valuation of greater than $250 million.

But final month, Mr. Preysman discovered himself on a stage of a special kind: at an all-staff assembly, after waves of public allegations of hypocrisy, with former staff having accused the corporate of anti-Black habits and union busting, of promoting a picture to the world that didn’t mirror their damaging experiences inside the corporate. Three present staff described a tradition of favoritism, significantly towards these often known as “Foreverlaners” — loyal staff defensive of Mr. Preysman and the model that they cherished. An inner investigation was promised.

“It’s been the hardest three months of my life,” Mr. Preysman advised his employees at that assembly, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times. He’d cried for an hour in the beginning of the pandemic, after the corporate despatched staff house, he mentioned. Just two years in the past, the corporate had been worthwhile. Now his firm’s inner tradition was being laid naked on-line.

On July 23, throughout one other all-staff assembly, Everlane management mentioned its accomplished inner investigation confirmed many of these complaints.

Investigators discovered that insensitive phrases have been used whereas discussing Black fashions; that leaders violated staff’ private area by touching them, and used inappropriate phrases when referring to folks of coloration; that new hires felt remoted and unwelcome; that there was lack of constant insurance policies round promotions; that there have been no formal processes to successfully escalate harassment or discrimination.

Everlane additionally introduced that Alexandra Spunt, the corporate’s chief artistic officer who has obtained vital criticism from employees, might be “no longer leading the creative team” and might be “transitioning” while “advising the senior leadership team as needed.”

In an announcement to The Times, Mr. Preysman mentioned that the corporate had “urgent work to do to rewrite Everlane’s code of ethics.” It could be opening a seat for a Black board member within the subsequent yr, including a Black particular person to the senior management group within the subsequent yr, rolling out anti-racism coaching for the whole firm by August, and teaming with two racism accountability organizations.

But whether or not Everlane can proceed promoting what might have been its most dear product — its picture — is now in query, all of the extra related as Mr. Preysman advised the corporate he anticipated a $15 million decline in income this yr.

“A good chunk of us were zealous fans, because we really, really did believe in the mission,” mentioned Toni Kwadzogah, 28, who was laid off this spring. “When you cultivate an image in such a progressive style, you attract people, workers and customers alike, who have those progressive values. And when you fail them, well, good luck.”

Then, in June, brands everywhere rushed to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement amid protests over George Floyd’s killing. Everlane was one of them. But the support rang hollow to many, including those who said they had experienced racism while working at Everlane.

A collective of 14 anonymous former employees called the Ex Wives Club published a lengthy document on their experiences with what they called “anti-Black behavior” at Everlane. The employees wrote about being overworked, underpaid, deprived of career opportunities and punished for speaking up. Everlane said this was not accurate.

They also shared stories about Ms. Spunt, the creative lead who had been a content director at American Apparel in the mid-2000s.

Ms. Spunt’s team had so much turnover that people in other departments would place bets as to who would leave next, said three current employees. But also, the Ex Wives wrote, she often rejected casting suggestions for Black models, calling them “too severe” or “too edgy” or, in a 2015 email shared with The Times, not enough of a “traditional beauty” to carry a cashmere campaign. Black models did not begin appearing regularly in Everlane marketing until 2016.

Everlane said Black employees currently make up 6 percent of the overall team (264 employees) and 8 percent at the leadership level.

However, Mia Ward, a technical designer from 2016 to 2018, believed she was the only full-time Black employee at the company during that time. (Everlane denied this was true.) Ms. Ward characterized the culture as one of dismissal and insecurity, but said she felt uncomfortable and exposed if she spoke out. “It was the only job I’ve had where it made me want to go into therapy to deal with it.” Ms. Ward said.

She wasn’t the only one. Annabel Ly, a social media manager at Everlane in early 2012, said her six months at Everlane were more “traumatic and demoralizing” than three-and-a-half years at Uber, a company long scrutinized for its workplace culture.

One member of the Ex Wives Club, a 26-year-old Black videographer who worked on contract at Everlane between 2018 and 2019, wrote in the document that Ms. Spunt had shoved “her hands in my hair, pulling at my roots,” and had referred to the two of them as “soul sisters.” A witnessed who confirmed the incident to The Times said the moment “didn’t feel malicious — it just felt really misplaced.”

That videographer, who told human resources about the incident, described feeling “off-brand” and professionally sidelined and socially isolated at Everlane: “I felt really alone.”

In a team meeting last month, Ms. Spunt said she felt “absolutely sick that anybody felt like my behavior toward them was in some ways discriminatory or made them uncomfortable.” Everlane maintained that no formal complaints were ever made about Ms. Spunt related to hair-pulling or casting.

“I stand for diversity and equity and inclusion with every fiber of my being,” Ms. Spunt said, according to a recording of the meeting. “If nobody says something, you don’t know that you’ve necessarily done anything wrong.”

Ms. Spunt declined to respond to inquiries from The Times.

Two employees in Ms. Spunt’s now-former department said they were disappointed that Everlane had announced she was stepping back without explicitly acknowledging why — they felt the decision was “performative” and a “Band-Aid solution,” obscuring shortcomings in the company’s leadership.

The Ex Wives Club has grown to about 50 members since it went public, which includes current, former and freelance employees, and plans to continue releasing testimonies.

In the aftermath of the first Ex Wives Club revelations, the three current Everlane employees who spoke with The Times have described many of their colleagues’ moods as tense, betrayed and defeated. This summer’s events had reinforced their belief that radical transparency was “just a nice tagline,” one employee said.

In last month’s all-hands meeting with Mr. Preysman, a Black employee spoke about feeling a “constant pressure to show up as if nothing’s happening.” An employee of color was worried about being taken seriously, despite being urged to speak up: “The line seems blurred on what we are considering as right or wrong.”

“I wish we had done things differently in the past,” Mr. Preysman said, and had “made it clear that we were working toward diversity in our models, that we’re working toward our diversity in our hiring.”

Mostly, he apologized to his workers: for anyone who’d had a bad experience, felt discriminated against or felt Everlane hadn’t provided them a safe space.

“We have no idea how to control it. We have no idea how to have a conversation with each other about it,” he said. “I am trying to figure out that right line of how to be as human as possible, while also running a business.”

Sometimes, especially in the marketing, the line was hard to see.

For instance, Everlane was criticized for not providing extended sizing across its line and in stores, despite releasing ads with curvy models and saying for years that this was on their “road map.” But inside the company, the attitude toward plus-size shoppers was even more explicitly dismissive.

“It was not on the road map because it was not aspirational to be fat,” said a former employee, a web designer who had worked at Everlane since before it sold its first T-shirt. “Everything at the company at that time had to be aspirational.”

Ms. Ly said that in 2012, she asked Mr. Preysman how she should respond to a male customer asking when Everlane would start carrying size XXL. Mr. Preysman suggested the man lose weight, she said. He told her there was no money in larger sizes. Everlane denied Mr. Preysman made this comment; another former employee recalled Ms. Ly telling her about the conversation at the time.

Customer service representatives said they received daily questions about plus sizes. Mr. Foor said he was instructed to send an automated response, essentially saying the company was working on it and that the message would be forwarded to the appropriate department. But the messages weren’t forwarded, because that department didn’t exist, Mr. Foor said.

Three former members of Mr. Foor’s department shared similar accounts. “We were all meant to repeat this lie,” one said. “I hesitate to call it such, but I certainly never saw any proof.” Everlane said this characterization was inaccurate. The company acknowledged it did not do enough to expand sizes in its early years but said it has since ramped up production and sales.

In 2017, Everlane went public with its commitment to sustainability, trademarking the phrase “radical transparency. ” By then, its meaning had evolved from being about pricing and production to ethical labor and sustainability, too. Everlane’s major period of growth came as many brands realized consumers were saying they cared about the conditions in which their clothing was made.

By 2023, the company is committing to ensure all of its cotton comes from certified organic sources, and to eliminate virgin plastic in its supply chain by 2021. Both have required heavy investment and are targets Everlane that says it’s on track to meet.

Yet despite regularly auditing suppliers and using some eco-friendly materials, last year Everlane received a “not good enough” overall rating from the brand ratings platform Good on You. Everlane was marked down for failing to track greenhouse gases across its entire line, and for an absence of initiatives to guarantee living wages or reduce water use. Since then, the company has publicly said that it’s working toward third-party certifications, which could improve its future ratings.

The company has never publicly produced a corporate and social responsibility report, and it wasn’t until February that it created a chief supply-chain officer role.

“It’s a tech company that took the concept of fast fashion and made it an iota better — just one notch better — to try to appeal to a kind of San Francisco liberal consciousness,” Mr. Foor said.

“Everlane puts a great deal of focus on ‘radical transparency’ and has made it a key selling point,” said Luke Smitham, a sustainability expert at Kumi Consulting in London. “But fundamentally, what they do is not any different from most mass-market fashion brands who do exactly the same, or more.”

“They do some good work, but I wouldn’t describe it as radical. The most radical thing about Everlane is the marketing.”

Source link Nytimes.com

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