B Michael America’s Partners on Racial Bias at Retail – WWD

B Michael America has been in business as a luxury made-to-order fashion house for more than 20 years. For most of that time, its founding partners, designer B Michael and chief executive officer Mark-Anthony Edwards, have tried to make inroads at retail with a corresponding luxury ready-to-wear component. It hasn’t worked. Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s all passed at various times. Macy’s carried a collection of bridge dresses, B Michael America Red, for five years beginning in 2012, before that relationship ended. Now the two men plan to launch rtw for fall 2021 via a different model — direct-to-consumer e-commerce.

Michael and Edwards attribute the retail rejections and the finite lifespan of their Macy’s line to one factor: systemic racial bias — “100 percent,” Edwards claimed to WWD. Michael maintained that time and again they encountered “in-store personalities that were very clear to us were racially biased.”

The retailers who passed on B Michael America’s luxury rtw maintain that their decisions were based on standard retail procedure — on the clothes’ strength and appropriateness for their stores. As for Macy’s, Macy’s Inc. chairman and ceo Jeffrey Gennette and former chairman and ceo Terry Lundgren said in separate exchanges that they and the store did all they could to make the line work. “As chief merchant when we brought B Michael into Macy’s in 2012, I was excited about the brand and what B Michael’s vision and product might bring to our dress business,” Gennette said in a statement to WWD. He noted, however, that after five years of trying, the right formula for success proved elusive.

From the retail perspective, choosing new brands is as much art as science or math, as the decision-makers assess which product will speak to their customers with a viewpoint that’s right for their stores while offering something not already available. The math kicks in after a collection gets in the door, when over whatever period of time a brand is given, it either performs or it doesn’t. Retailers vet hundreds and even thousands of hopeful brands each year, accepting some and rejecting many more. Luxury retailers can experiment with tiny buys; for a behemoth like Macy’s, a potential vendor’s ability to scale plays into the store’s decision to purchase or not.

Conversely, each vendor draws conclusions from singular experience. As Michael sees it, if his customers also shop at Bergdorf’s and Saks, and often accessorize his clothes from those stores, then his clothes must be “right” for those customers, and therefore, for those stores. He recalled an in-house joke: that he should be a shoe salesman at Bergdorf’s because when a customer asks for his advice on which shoe to wear with her new B Michael dress, he typically suggests that store. “So if the women are buying shoes at Bergdorf’s or in Saks to go with a dress they want from me, how is it I’m not a brand that they feel is right for their stores? What about it is ‘not right?’” he queried, rhetorically. Given that premise, Michael and Edwards conclude that racial bias within the retail world is the only explanation for their brand’s absence from the selling floor.

The partners named names, mostly stars of traditional retail’s last great golden age: Saks president and chief merchant Ron Frasch; Bloomingdale’s vice chairman and general merchandise manager Frank Doroff, and vice president and divisional merchandise manager Sharon Wax; Bergdorf Goodman’s senior vice president of the fashion office, women’s fashion director and store presentation direction Linda Fargo; Saks Fifth Avenue president and ceo Marc Metrick, and Joe Boitano, both as executive vice president, merchandising at Bergdorf’s and later, as group senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Saks. Several of those retailers have retired or moved elsewhere. Only Fargo and Metrick remain active with the stores listed.

As for Gennette and Lundgren, Michael and Edwards explicitly exempted both from characterization as racially biased — Macy’s is too big for the ceo to engage in the details of merch selection, they said. But not so their staffs and organization. “There are so many tiers within Macy’s [that] it’s very difficult to blame any one specific person because you’re talking about such a massive organization. But our experience was truly what our experience was,” Edwards said.

The partners started finding retail doors closed to them just after the launch of B Michael America. Despite its made-to-order business model, Michael immediately started showing at New York Fashion Week, initially at the Bryant Park Tents, and then at Lincoln Center and other venues. He recalled that right after his debut collection, for fall 1999, Bergdorf’s buyer David Asher requested “the first appointment” for the following season, spring 2000. Asher’s boss for a brief time was Boitano. Initially, Michael said that at Asher’s urging, Boitano saw the spring 2000 collection, shown in September 1999, and deemed it “‘not quite ready for Bergdorf’s,’ and that my point of view wasn’t strong enough, or something to that effect.” However, by that time, Boitano was no longer at Bergdorf’s; he had decamped for Saks in May. Told that, Michael said that while his own timing might be off, “I can tell you emphatically, it was Joe Boitano” who passed on the collection.

In response, Boitano did not speak specifically about the decision to pass on B Michael America at Bergdorf’s and again, several years later, at Saks. He said that he always based his buying decisions on the same distinct criteria. “Any decision on product was made with a customer focus and store needs and design appropriateness,” Boitano said. “Is it something the customer wants? Something the stores need? Is the design something we feel is appropriate for the company? Those were the three important factors in deciding on any collection that was added at Saks or Bergdorf.”

Years later, another attempt with Bergdorf’s fizzled. Edwards said Linda Fargo requested that fall 2013 samples be sent to the store’s fashion office: “After our follow-up, Linda Fargo said the collection was not for them.”

According to Fargo, requesting submissions is standard procedure. “The process we use for reviewing new brands consistently begins with a submission of images and look books,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Based on that, we review with the appropriate buying teams, and either move forward to a product review or showroom appointment. Our gauge for what warrants further exploration is based solely on the strength and alignment of product as part of a total curated edit and whether or not the product fulfills an unoccupied customer need. Designers evolve and grow over time, and we often revisit brands we don’t currently carry. We welcome B Michael to continue to engage with us for future possibilities.”

The brand tried twice with Saks. In March, 2012, Michael requested, and got, an appointment with Ron Frasch, then president and chief merchandising officer, who left the store in 2013. “We were looking for the opportunity to go into ready-to-wear. He gave me an appointment,” Michael recalled. “He said, ‘I will have my team present’…So we go to Saks, and I brought two or three models with me, and we present the collection in a conference room. And heading that team is Joe Boitano. So Ron said, ‘Thank you. We’re going to have a discussion, and we will get back to you.’ Well, the person that got back to me was Joe Boitano, who said, ‘We don’t feel that the collection is for us.’”

While Boitano spoke only generally about his approach to selecting new lines, Frasch was more specific about why Saks passed on B Michael America. “What I remember is that the product was a little flamboyant for us,” he said. “Every store’s got to have a point of view, and that product didn’t fit in with ours [at Saks]. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m right [when] making those decisions. When you’re running a store, that’s what you do. We felt it was just a little flamboyant for us.”

Of Michael’s inference of racial bias, Frasch said, “I don’t know how to defend something that isn’t without validating that it is. I have a career [that indicates], ‘Look, this is how I operate.’ If B Michael thought I was a bad guy, I can’t help that.” Still, Frasch acknowledged, “Does the industry have a lack of Black leadership and Black designers? For sure.”

Michael made one more attempt with Saks after the retailer was acquired by Hudson’s Bay Co. Inc., which installed a different executive team. Following a 2018 introduction to Metrick, who assumed the position of president in 2015, Saks sent someone to look at the collection. Michael characterized that person as “the wrong buyer,” and said his subsequent request for the right buyer went ignored. “We followed up to have the correct buyer for American designer collections,” Edwards said. “No one followed up.”

After numerous requests, a Saks spokesperson sent a succinct statement: “B Michael was referred to Saks through FIT. Saks sent a buyer who went to see the collection, but ultimately did not pick up the line for that season.”

Michael and Edwards approached Bloomingdale’s as well. Prior to the fall 2017 season, they met with Doroff, now retired. To facilitate the process, and hopeful of making other retail inroads, they had hired the consulting firm Marvin Traub Associates — at a hefty monthly rate, according to Edwards. Michael and Edwards expected Doroff to attend the meeting with Sharon Wax and other members of the buying team, but Doroff didn’t attend. According to Michael, Wax told them, “’I don’t think the collection is for us,’” or “‘it’s [not] ready.’”

Wax stands by that assessment now. She recalled that after seeing the collection several times, she’d concluded that “his product just really was not right for us. I had to be highly selective for our designer department,” she said. “Designer at Bloomingdale’s is a small piece of the business. I saw the line a couple of times. [The decision] didn’t have anything to do with B Michael being a Black designer.”

Doroff acknowledged that he wasn’t in that meeting, but said he’d seen some of B Michael’s clothes previously. He pulled no punches in his response. “We really didn’t like his clothes. I don’t know what else to say,” he said. “That was our job, right? To try and evaluate the clothes someone shows you.”

For Michael and Edwards, that meeting felt definitive. “I was sitting off to the side because I wanted to just observe with our team what was transpiring,” said Edwards. “And after seeing Sharon say what she said to Mr. Michael, it was for us clear that we could no longer try to come down these roads.”

B Michael adjusting a full-skirted, silk and cotton dress. 
Masato Onoda/WWD

Macy’s was a different story. Luxury isn’t part of Macy’s universe, so B Michael developed B Michael America Red, a collection of social dresses in the bridge arena. During the five years Macy’s carried the line, Michael and Edwards had direct contact with both Lundgren, ceo until March 2017, and Gennette, who then assumed that role. Lundgren remained executive chairman until his retirement in January 2018, when Gennette also became chairman.

Michael and Lundgren got to know each other through a philanthropic organization, Figure Skating in Harlem, with which Lundgren’s wife Tina was involved. Each said he considers the other a friend. Michael stressed that he does not think Lundgren himself, or Gennette, acted based on racial bias in their professional dealings. Not so unnamed members of their team, who, Michael and Edwards claimed, pushed them to participate in Macy’s diversity program, called The Workshop at Macy’s.

The Workshop was instituted on Lundgren’s watch to aid small minority- and women-owned brands in building tools to help them succeed at retail. Alumni businesses include Verona Collection, Mateo New York, Fe Noel, Foot Nanny, and Eleven60.

In his statement to WWD, Gennette summarized the program’s purpose. “At Macy’s, Inc. our business model operates at scale,” he said. “Historically, we have struggled to bring smaller brands into the company profitably. However, we are always exploring new ways to make that possible including The Workshop, our vendor development program for high-potential, diverse-owned businesses. And we are committed to using The Workshop and other programs to help emerging designers, including those of color, break into the business.”

Michael and Edwards didn’t see the benefit of the program for their company. They wanted to prove that the line could be successful at Macy’s via traditional channels, “with both proper financing and a bilateral partnershipour focus and commitment to the partnership was long-term scale distribution and growth,” Edwards said.

He called the diversity program’s requirements “invasive,” and said that it took a too-narrow view of the brand’s identity. He cited as an example that Macy’s planned to focus advertising of the brand “on publications that serviced Black communities, which is not reflective of the brand’s entire consumer base. With our direction and insistence, we specified that all ads must also be placed in The New York Times.”

Whatever the prelude, Macy’s bought the Red collection. According to a store spokesperson, “The easy-to-wear collection ranged in price from $155 to $400, and offered a contemporary spin on the designer’s signature haute couture style.”

It was purchased for 10 major-market doors, where Michael and Edwards maintain it was insufficiently supported in areas including floor placement, public relations and travel. The men claimed as well that they contributed to the cost of soft shops and events. “We did store visits. We traveled around the country, all at our own expense,” Michael said.

Macy’s said that during the month of August 2012, when the line launched, “B Michael made several in-store appearances…including Union Square and South Coast Plaza.” The store spokesperson noted that it is typical for vendors to cover their own travel expenses for in-store appearances.

In his statement to WWD, Gennette stressed Macy’s desire to make the collection work. “B Michael is a talented couture dress designer…,” he said. “We were happy to carry his product in our stores and launched the line in some of our best doors including our flagships at Herald Square, State Street, Lenox Square, and Union Square, and with dedicated soft shops in highly desirable locations. Over the five-year relationship, we worked together with the B Michael team trying different approaches to every aspect of the line — production, stores, content, value, special events. We offered B. Michael support from The Workshop. While the sellthrough was always low and the business was never profitable, we kept working at it because we believed in the brand and in B Michael. After five years of trying, we were unable to find the right formula that would benefit both brands and we parted ways.”

Michael described two meetings with Macy’s. At one, in 2015, Lundgren and Gennette were present. “We will make a success of this brand,” Michael recalled Lundgren saying. Michael placed a later meeting with Gennette and some of his top people in 2018. However, that timing is fuzzy, because Macy’s had stopped carrying B Michael America Red in 2017, the year Gennette took over as ceo.

Edwards said he and Michael requested that second meeting “to have a real conversation about all of the issues we were having.” The partners insisted that they had been 100 percent compliant with everything Macy’s requested of them, from investigating and agreeing to shift some production off-shore to facilitate higher margins (the collection had been produced 100 percent domestically) to joining GS1 US to buy their UPC codes, as suggested by Macy’s. Still, Michael said, they were informed that the store had “decided to go in a different direction, and that [their department] would no longer have soft shops for designers, and that the merchandise would all be merged together — if they saw something that they even felt was within their direction…

“They were disbanding the shops, and [there was] the question of the level of their commitment,” Michael continued. “We’re looking to scale and grow, and they are looking to scale us back.”

Asked how he and Edwards inferred racial bias if the floor’s other soft shops were also being dismantled, Michael said, “They were not getting rid of all the shops. So there was still going to be, for instance, a Ralph Lauren shop.”

That’s when they asked for the meeting with Gennette, after which they concluded that staying at Macy’s “wasn’t in the best interest of our luxury brand,” Michael said.

They don’t blame Gennette personally. “I know Jeff has a lot to deal with,” Edwards said. “It’s a hard thing being the new ceo at a store and in an industry where the conversation is whether or not brick-and-mortar is even relevant anymore when it comes to e-commerce…So I don’t want to say anything negative, truly negative about Jeff.”

Similarly, Michael made it a point to clear Lundgren personally of the bias allegation. Still, Lundgren was surprised to learn of Michael’s assessment of his time at Macy’s. “B is a terrific person and someone I consider a friend,” Lundgren said. “A very, very talented guy. I went to many of his fashion shows. I was really impressed by his talent.”

That said, adapting a luxury made-to-order collection into an entity appropriate for Macy’s proved challenging, especially given that social dressing isn’t a major category for the store. “I was enthusiastic about it working and trying to make it happen,” Lundgren said. Ultimately, it didn’t work. “The consumer decides, at the end of the day,” Lundgren noted. “The customer always makes the decision about what brands we carry and what we don’t. That happens with all kinds of brands, hundreds of brands. You try, and some work for a while and then over time, some don’t. It just depends.”

In terms of the particular issues Michael articulated, Lundgren rejects the notion that the store made extraordinary demands. “I can’t imagine that B was asked to do anything that any other brand wasn’t asked to do,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual or different about him wanting to negotiate for space and location. I don’t think [he was] treated uniquely.”

Lundgren was and remains proud of The Workshop at Macy’s. He said he personally worked hard in support of minority- and women-owned businesses, to ensure that the company was doing “everything we could do to help build their success. I believe that the only way you’re going to be successful, whether it’s in recruiting talent or brands or otherwise, is if you’re looking at the entire population of opportunities as opposed to a limited population of opportunities.”

Seeking out and developing diverse brands is a top priority for Macy’s, according to Gennette. “Bringing more diverse design talent into our assortments and increasing the women- and minority-owned businesses in our supplier base are two components of our diversity and inclusion strategy,” he said.

Michael and Edwards insist that at Macy’s and all across the retail landscape, opportunities remain woefully elusive for Black fashion brands. For the most part, they blame those with oversight of the buying process. “If you control what’s on the floor, it’s the perfect way to hide the fact that you are biased against Black designers,” said Edwards. “If the buyers…never buy from Black designers, then the curated merchandise on the floor will always be what the industry wants it to be.…But if you are a designer of color and you’re not even included in that grouping, or the curation, that’s where the bias comes in. It is a very genius way to do it.”

For their own company, B Michael America, Michael and Edwards are eliminating that layer by launching rtw via their own e-commerce site. For the broader industry, the conversation is just beginning.

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