Fashion Briefing: Is fashion’s shade inclusivity push just marketing?

This week, an exploration of fashion brands’ product-centered inclusivity efforts and the state of high-heel sales.

High-end footwear brands have made a big to-do about expanding their range of nude shoe shades, but good luck finding them. 

I’ve looked for Christian Louboutin’s [Nudes collection], and while they had made a nice marketing push and a nice presentation around it, I couldn’t find the shades when I went searching,” said Rebecca Allen, who founded her namesake shoe company in 2018. It specializes in nude styles for all skin tones.

Christian Louboutin first launched its Nudes collection in 2013 by announcing that select styles would be available in five “nude” shades. It’s since slowly expanded its Nudes offering, promoting seven shades in 2016 and eight in May 2020. Each added color was accompanied by press coverage in major publications and campaign imagery showing the spectrum of styles on a diverse lineup of models.  

But a quick search of the shades, from Nude 1 to Nude 8, shows limited options — that is, unless you’re white. In the lightest shade, Nude 1, 19 styles are available. Six total options are available in the other seven shades. The Nudes collection’s landing page is full of campaign imagery showing Black, Asian and white models wearing boots, sandals, sneakers and handbags in skin-matching tones. However, the featured products available for purchase are limited to one heel style available in three colors and a bracelet offered in six. 

According to an email from a Christian Louboutin spokesperson, “Each year, the designer unveils a new collection of Nude styles for men and women. This year’s collection has not yet launched, which is why there are only a few styles available online.”

Stuart Weitzman also made a fuss about its range of nudes, in early 2019. It announced that a handful of styles would be available in seven nude shades via PR and marketing imagery featuring Kendall Jenner and Willow Smith. However, its website neither highlights these offerings nor provides an option to filter shoes by the color brown. Solid black styles are available. Filtering by “beige” results in 17 styles in three shades of beige or taupe. Nine styles are available in the lightest shade, “Adobe Beige.” Meanwhile, searching “brown” turns up five styles — all out-of-season boots in “Walnut Brown” or “Coffee Brown,” plus one in a cheetah print.

Though the company’s spring 2021 campaign featuring Serena Williams could have been an opportunity to highlight styles catered to Black and brown women, the featured styles are white, gold or animal print. Williams does wear a tan sandal in one image, but it’s clear that shade-matching was not a goal. Stuart Weitzman was contacted and did not provide a comment by the time this story published. 

Other luxury brands are even more limited in their nude shade selections: Jimmy Choo’s “neutral” styles are overwhelmingly “Ballet Pink.” And Manolo Blahnik’s “nude” shoes are all in three like shades: “Cool Beige,” “Dark Cream” or “Pink Champagne.”  

But, true to form, direct-to-consumer brands are filling the white space. Along with Rebecca Allen, there’s 3-year-old Salone Monet, which offers styles in six nude shades, and Tkees, selling sandals in seven nude colors. As shade inclusivity has infiltrated makeuplingeriehosiery and even loungewear, thanks to emerging brands, it’s inching into footwear, as well. 

Brand Spotlight: Rebecca Allen

Rebecca Allen is on a mission to make shade-perfect nude shoes for all women.

Allen’s footwear line was recently picked up by a major department store, which will be announced on May 17. The full color run of its three styles will be available on the retailer’s e-commerce site and at its stores nationwide. In sync, the brand will roll out a new shade, which was driven by its best-selling SKU that falls in the middle of the color spectrum. Moving forward, Allen said, the brand will introduce new styles in materials beyond patent leather, as well as seasonal colors. 

Allen said she was inspired to launch the brand while working at Goldman Sachs as an investment manager. “All the white women in my office wore this nude shoe. It’s ubiquitous in the banking and consulting worlds,” said Allen, who is Black. “It lives under your desk, it’s the shoe you need. But it looked ridiculous on me.”  

Therefore, she said, her shoes are a solution versus “a fashion play.” But as WFH becomes more acceptable — Goldman Sachs is an exception — that solve will likely prove less necessary. Allen said the brand’s flats, versus its professional pumps and strappy heels, have been its best-selling style in the last year.  

Overall, Rebecca Allen’s sales for the second half of 2020 were 6X over the first half of the year, she said. Allen expects 2021 sales to be 10X over 2020, largely driven by the extended product assortment. Plus, as she is the target customer and the face of the brand, shoppers no doubt trust her. Allen declined to provide specific figures.

Along with Allen’s own investment, the company has angel investors, which include “a lot of female founders,” she said. It also has institutional investors. “As a Black woman, going out and doing fundraising is certainly an uphill battle,” she said. She called the process “its own marketing funnel,” requiring extensive outreach and diligence, while creating a sense of urgency and exclusivity.

The brand’s new retail partner is committed to supplier diversity and is actively supporting its new, smaller brands as they onboard, Allen said. For example, it’s provided the brands with information on how to finance a purchase order.

To date, Rebecca Allen has been selling direct-to-consumer, getting the word out via in-store activations at retailers specializing in workwear at a similar price point. (Rebecca Allen styles retail for $150-$178.) That’s included Ministry Of Supply and Of Mercer stores in New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and Chicago. During the pandemic, Allen upped her investment in PR and hired a social media associate. 

“I don’t believe making big investments in digital marketing is a sustainable path to business success,” she said. “But it’s a necessary evil.” 

She also said that the brand has benefitted from new visibility, with rampant racial injustice in the last year inspiring press, retailers and customers to zero in on Black-owned businesses.

“It’s something I feel conflicted about, to be totally honest,” she said. “How have police killings somehow equated to shopping from Black-owned businesses? Why has that been the takeaway? Across the industry, everybody’s thinking about: Where are my blind spots, what is my role in all of this, and what can I do? For retailers, [picking up Black-owned brands] is the: So what? We feel like this is a table that we always should have been sitting at, anyway, so it’s great to be here. But now, how do we keep this conversation going? How do we make sure that it’s not just window dressing, and how are we holding folks’ feet to the fire?”

As for customers: “They’re recognizing more that their wallet is their vote and that you can use the internet to filter for the things you care about, whether that is shopping women-owned brands, Black-owned businesses or with sustainability in mind,” she said.

Status check: High heels 

Are people even buying heels? 

According to the Lyst Index for the first quarter of 2021, released Wednesday, high heel purchases are on the rise. Searches for heeled styles were up 163% quarter-over-quarter, and the Attico’s neon-bright Devon mules were the No. 5 women’s style. The Index ranks fashion’s hottest brands and products, based on search data, conversion rates and sales, plus social media mentions and engagement. Lyst is a global fashion shopping platform.

“The things shoppers have been browsing, saving and buying suggest an imminent return to going-out wear,” said Morgane LeCaer, content lead at Lyst. “Many fashion lovers are now looking to set aside the sweatpants and rediscover the joy of dressing up.”

It’s been over a year since a pair of high heels was featured in Lyst’s hottest products ranking, she said, noting that the last time was Q4 2019. 


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