Reformation, the clothing brand beloved by influencers obsessed with sustainability and looking hot in equal measure, has recently been forced to reckon with their alleged history of insidious, racist workplace practices after former staffers called the company out for their craven attempt at capitalizing on the collective protests around police violence and the murder of black people.
On May 31, after a week of protests, Reformation posted a bland message on their official Instagram, of the sort that many other brands have attempted in a drive to prove to their customer base that they care, but not too much. The comments section of this post, which did not outline how much money Reformation was giving or if they had even given any at all,
was commandeered by past employees to air their grievances about workplace discrimination and casual racism while working at the brand.
According to reports, Elle Santiago, a former employee at the Reformation flagship store in Los Angeles, shared her experiences in a post, which included witnessing the company’s founder Yael Aflalo, turning away a black model saying, “We’re not ready for that yet.” In response, the company issued a too little, too late apology, promising to “avoid the white gaze” in the future. The post also promised that Reformation would form a Diversity and Inclusion board as well as including diversity metrics in their quarterly Sustainability Reports—a Band-Aid for a blatant issue that has been ongoing for some time.
That this happened at a company that has positioned itself as progressive–making “environmentally conscious” clothing, built by a (white) woman– shouldn’t come as a surprise. This cycle is by now standard in the female-fronted companies with reportedly toxic work environments that damage the people and communities they purport to support. Miki Agrawal, former “SHE-E-O” of period underpants startup THINX, stepped down from her role in 2017 after allegations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior surfaced. In 2019, Instagram-friendly luggage brand Away faced blowback after employees alleged that the founders instituted an open-Slack policy under the guise of inclusion and transparency, but prevented LGBTQ and POC employees from feeling comfortable with sharing their frustrations.
THINX, Away, and Reformation are all cut from the very same cloth: three brands that do well on Instagram, rely heavily on influencers for promotion and marketing campaigns and purport to champion progressive ideals. But unlike THINX and Away, Reformation’s recent heel turn was always going to happen, because Reformation has been showing consumers exactly who it is this whole time.
Reformation has always been the quintessential cool-girl brand, worn by whippet-thin models and famous people like Hailey Bieber. True to their mission, the dresses are flattering and sexy, but many of the offerings are merely gussied-up jersey dresses, the sort found at Forever 21, but offered at designer prices. The allure of a Reformation dress is the promise of the lifestyle that dress might afford: trips to Capri, spur of the moment photoshoots, and a beautiful golden light in which to shoot languorous selfies. The imagery that makes up its brand identity, from the models they chose for their website, is in the image of its founder, Aflalo, who is precisely Reformation’s target audience. The problem isn’t necessarily that they are racist, though this is certainly not a surprise—it’s that they’re boring and have been for the duration of their existence.
Reformation’s cri de coeur has always been sustainability, a tenet that the brand holds dear. The dresses sold by Reformation are Instagram-friendly, influencer-approved, and extremely expensive for what they actually are—but leaning on sustainability as a business practice allows the company to imbue their high prices with value. Any gesture towards size inclusivity, which many other fashion brands have championed for years, has been piecemeal and haphazard. Founded in 2009 by a former model, Reformation’s plus-size offerings launched to much fanfare in 2018—not as a permanent part of their collection, but as a limited capsule collection designed with model Ali Tate Cutler, who has been lauded as a plus-size “first” for other brands like Victoria’s Secret, but has come under fire for her own fatphobic comments and concern-trolling within the body positivity community.
“Sorry it took us so long,” the press release read. “We agree it’s unfair... we’re super sorry we didn’t do it sooner.” While Reformation’s current plus-size offerings are now part of their permanent collection–and include the floaty, breast-forward dresses and going-out tops that made the company so popular in the first place—the tone of the press release, which is breezy, dismissive, with a hint of defensiveness, gives one pause, as does their seeming reluctance to address the needs of a customer base eager to purchase a product that is, increasingly, presented as being not for them. What this really shows, though, is that Reformation wasn’t for everyone all along.