“Is H&M still canceled?”
It’s the question that inevitably arises anytime we so much as mention the Swedish-based fast-fashion juggernaut, which faced international backlash early last year when a black child model was infamously photographed wearing a sweater that read “Coolest Monkey in Jungle.”
While the hotly debated gaffe was doubtfully intentional, by their own admission, H&M’s major misstep demonstrated both a general lack of cultural awareness within their creative teams and even more disturbingly, a lack of multicultural presence among their ranks. And as the brand faced both boycotts and occasionally destructive protests that resulted in store closings across South Africa, a bigger issue was how they would redeem themselves. Could H&M restore confidence in their credo and ensure respect for their customers of color?
Looking at a fashion landscape that now includes similar transgressions from Prada, Gucci, Burberry and more, it’s hard to believe more brands didn’t learn from H&M’s mistake—and proactively follow their lead before they faced public relations nightmares of their own. H&M’s first step? Creating roles specifically tasked with addressing the issue head-on—and filling them with women of color.
“[T]he group CEO made an immediate commitment to set this entire process rolling after the terrible mistake we made with the children’s sweater,” said Annie Wu, who was appointed Global Leader for Diversity and Inclusiveness of H&M Group (including all the company’s various sub-brands) following the controversy last spring. Speaking on her newly formed role, based at the company’s headquarters in Sweden, Wu told H&M’s site:
“If we’re honest, we must admit that there is some truth in the fact that we have maybe been too centralized and that we need to challenge ourselves in an open and constructive way to get everyone, everywhere to be more culturally sensitive, racially aware, and more critical of how the outside world might see what we do.”
Granted, “diversity” and “inclusion” have become the buzzwords du jour, as of late—but fewer seem clear on what they really entail. In challenging themselves to do the necessary work, it quickly became apparent specific and strategic attention was needed in H&M’s North American market, where issues of race are currently heightened (and “cancel culture” looms especially large).
Enter Ezinne Kwubiri, the first to hold the position as H&M’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion, North America, who joined the team last fall. The Nigerian-born, Bronx, N.Y.-raised Howard University graduate was formerly the Director of Change Management, Global Business Services at Viacom. She tells The Glow Up she was looking for a change in direction when she noticed online that H&M was seeking someone to helm their diversity and inclusion initiative.
“The first couple of times that I saw [the opening], I didn’t even really think to apply, to be honest. I just kind of was like, ‘Oh, good. They’re doing something,’” she laughs. “I looked at it like, ‘Well, that’s a step in the right direction!’”
Up for a new challenge (and boy, what a challenge to take on), Kwubiri finally threw her hat in the ring, embarking on a process she describes as equally interviewing H&M as a corporate culture as being interviewed for such a highly visible and suddenly crucial role.
“During that process, I really started to connect with the people I was meeting, and the brand,” she says. “And I could tell this was not a quick fix, and I could tell this was something they’d done their research on.”
Stepping into the role of having to help rehabilitate not only the image, but the education of H&M’s 71 markets worldwide is no small feat. Before taking it on, Kwubiri was adamant it be one in which she could affect real and meaningful change.
“What I did not want to do—and I was very vocal about this during the [interview] process—I didn’t want to come in and be a token,” she firmly states. “I didn’t want to come in and just be here to be here, or—there’s always kind of like a stigma, like, ‘oh, the black woman is here to save the day.’ That’s not what I wanted it to be, whatsoever. I wanted to make sure that if I was in this role, I would have the support, the influence and the authority to really make key decisions, and that the management team was prepared for me to disrupt whatever the norm was.”
Working closely with Wu and reporting directly to the president of H&M North America, Kwubiri is so far the only executive in her role in any of the company’s major markets, a choice she credits to H&M wanting to immediately address the issues made apparent by the backlash (which, notably, took place overseas).
“That’s what we’ve done: instead of waiting for someone to be on board in every one of the markets, it’s like, ‘no, let’s start now. You know your organization and you recognize some of the challenges. What strategies are we able to start implementing in order to move forward?’” she asks, later adding, “It’s so much bigger than the title; if you really understood the magnitude of my scope, and the magnitude and the influence—I am really embedded into every part of the business. We’re really trying to make sure that I am touching hands with a lot of the different things that are going on.”
But what are those different things, and how are they propelling necessary change at H&M? Though less than five months in the role, Kwubiri has already initiated a top-down approach of developing and launching unconscious bias training throughout the corporate ranks, training regional teams, district teams, and most recently, store managers to disseminate info to their sales advisors and implement new protocols within their stores. She’s also strategizing within the H&M community to increase awareness and make a positive social impact that engages the communities those stores and teams serve.
“The sweater incident last year was a teachable moment; I think it kind of brought things closer to the forefront,” Kwubiri admits. “We, as an organization, felt like we were inclusive and diverse, but I think that it was an awakening moment in realizing that we needed to do more and needed to be more intentional with that.”
“I think for me, what I want to do is make sure that as we train people, there’s that sense of community and awareness,” she adds. “What do I want to see from an organization that I’m a part of?”
But as H&M works on restoring trust, don’t call it a comeback. “I think it’s more of an awareness, and now we’re pushing forward to change the mindset a little bit more,” she says. “I think that the hunger is there, and I think that everyone is ready to take action and ready to see how they can support it and move forward.”
As we know, positive change generally starts from within, and Kwubiri says the internal response thus far has been “truly phenomenal.” So, what advice would she give to other brands now struggling with the same issues?
“If I could speak more as a global citizen, and not necessarily the head of Diversity and Inclusion at H&M, I think I’d say that diversity and inclusion is not a trend. It’s not a quick initiative, it’s not a quick fix, and I think all companies, regardless of sectors, should really be more intentional [about] fostering an environment where they do have diversity and they do have inclusion. ... I think a lot of times we focus on process, and we don’t focus on people.”
“Think about the people,” she continues. “How can people make and optimize your organization? And how is your organization changing, the way the world is changing? And I think that if those two things stay in the forefront of a lot of the different functions, you will organically start to do things that will foster more diversity, because at that point, you don’t have a choice.”
Kwubiri is also clear on the fact that diversity and inclusion aren’t just racialized issues, pointing to H&M’s recent size range expansion, and increased attention to representation among models in its advertising. But most important, she hopes the work the brand is doing behind the scenes is given a chance to prove to the general public that the company is truly committed to doing better—and that the public is gracious enough to allow for that growth.
“You have to give them time,” she says. “I mean, I think that the fact that my role was created shows that the brand is listening to their customer, and is listening to the population.”
“I’m not here to create a fantasy or sell a dream, but I’m here to do really good work. So what I would say is continue to follow the journey, and then make a decision as to what you want to do—and not just, when you see the name, then think negative,” she continues. “And it’s the same thing in our personal lives—I’m sure we’ve all done something that we regretted, and it was a lesson learned, and we were able to move forward from it. So, that’s the thing: how do we learn from it and move forward? My role is, in a sense, ‘Okay, we’re learning, and we’re listening, and we’re taking steps to move forward. ... Give it a chance.”