Why Luxury Fashion Brands Need Chief Diversity Officers

Excerpted from Footwear News: Last month, Teddy Quinlivan took to Instagram to announce that she was the face of Chanel Beauty — making her the first openly transgender model to work for the luxury French house. “This was one of those triumphant-cry moments for me,” she wrote. “My whole life has been a fight. … I am deeply humbled and proud to represent my community.”

Across social media and elsewhere, the reaction was astounding as praise and admiration for both parties — Chanel and Quinlivan — poured in. The news came just over a month after Chanel named its first-ever global head of diversity and inclusion: Fiona Pargeter, who had previously assumed the same role at Swiss bank UBS for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She was hired, Chanel said in a statement, to “help evolve our existing Diversity & Inclusion approach and continue supporting our momentum on these topics. This recruitment is a sign of our commitment to D&I and its importance to the house.”

It’s unclear whether the partnership with Quinlivan was the work of Pargeter or if these moves were unrelated to one another — but it’s hard not to connect the two. And, for what it’s worth, both signal Chanel’s promise to be more inclusive.

“I think it would make sense that [Pargeter’s appointment] had an impact. I do think that once you have people who are focusing on the opportunities in the diverse space, that’s how you find them,” said Todd Sears, former chief diversity officer for Credit Suisse and the founder of Out Leadership, a global business network that advocates for LGBTQ equality. “[Teddy Quinlivan] gave Chanel great branding, great marketing and a great story to tell. It sent a message to employees and the marketplace that they’re LGBT-friendly. That one thing had 10 pieces of ROI for the company. That wasn’t a warm, fuzzy HR thing; that was a very smart business decision.”

“Fashion brands have always been insulated. They have had the license to be more provocative,” said Kathy Ventura, partner at executive search firm Caldwell. “By [hiring CDOs], they’re making a statement to customers: We’re correcting this; we’re paying attention. The second statement is to their own workforce: We care about this.”

Social media, too, has only accelerated the glaring need for diversity positions, shedding light on out-of-touch messaging or practices and forcing companies to take a long, hard look at themselves. “Everyone hears about everything now,” Ventura continued. “And if the CEO doesn’t get it, then they better get someone who’s yelling in their ear. They should be looking for talent who can be the voice of the consumer, people who have a new attitude about gender, LGBT and racial equality.”

Experts agree: A successful chief diversity officer not only thoroughly understands the business but also has the respect of his or her peers, reports to the CEO and is directly connected to the senior leaders.

“It’s a real brand risk if brands don’t create chief diversity roles. We’re going through a generational transition right now, and it’s going to be rough for companies that don’t get it,” Ventura said. The silver lining? “This is an awakening and when businesses make mistakes, everyone learns.”

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