Imagine David Guetta’s “shout out to George Floyd and his family” statement, but instead of a well-meaning sentiment coming from a DJ who lacks tact, it’s coming from a British retailer that sells clothes, underwear, and (very good) snacks.
Marks and Spencer has launched an “inclusive” nude underwear line more fitting for a wider range of skin tones. In other words, “nude” isn’t just synonymous with beige, but also tans and deep browns.
A statement explains that the retailer has been focused on ‘redefining its “neutrals” (nude) underwear’ because previously, ‘the offer at M&S was inconsistent and inadequate for all ethnicities.’
‘What the team has now created in “new neutrals” is a truly inclusive range – a selection of our customer’s favourite styles available in five great shades named Opaline, Rich Amber, Rich Quartz, Rose Quartz & Topaz.’
‘We listened when our customers and colleagues told us we hadn’t got it right when it came to colour; both in the choices available and the way we talked about the neutral shades,’ says Laura Charles, director of M&S Lingerie.
‘The global conversations around race and equality over the last 12 months spurred us to go faster in creating a better, more inclusive range.’
On the face of it, this is a harmless move to garner positive PR and boost sales from various racial and ethnic demographics. Plus, the ad campaign is a beautiful array of models of various skin tones as well as sizes and ages.
But in their press release, M&S were a little more specific about how the last year pushed them in this direction. Daily Mail reports that M&S “said the range was partly inspired by ‘the global conversation on racial inequality following the horrific death’ of Mr Floyd...”
George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by white former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 after Floyd was accused of paying with a counterfeit $20 bill, a claim which was never verified. Floyd’s death, indeed, inspired global protest against racism and police brutality and led to the largest mass protests in U.S. history. In April, a jury found Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd.
Despite the discomfiting normality of the circumstances around Floyd’s death—an unarmed Black man killed by an aggressive police officer—it was undoubtedly a watershed moment for many. M&S isn’t the only brand to boast of using the Floyd tragedy as an opportunity to reflect. But the idea that it took video footage of a Black man getting suffocated to death while a white police officer kneeled on his neck for over nine minutes for M&S to think that they, perhaps, should make sure their Black and brown customer base feels included is bleak.
The United Kingdom is diverse. There are millions of Black and brown people who live there, and that has been the case for generations. At least half of that population likely wears bras. Why did it take a tragedy across the pond for M&S to decide that inclusivity is smart business?
To cite one example, in 2014 Ade Hassan founded UK-based lingerie brand Nubian Skin—which offers an array of bras, underwear, hosiery, shapewear, and bodysuits in a range of rich browns—because she knew there was a gap in the market for neutral-colored underthings for women of color. She wasn’t inspired by Black death, but rather models like Iman and Fashion Fair cosmetics, not to mention her own experiences as a Black woman trying to find nude-colored bras that actually matched her skin tone.
Nubian Skin isn’t the only lingerie brand that has cottoned on to the fact that, for most of the population, nude isn’t synonymous with white. Several others have introduced similar lines in recent years. If anything, M&S is late to the game.
M&S’s customers now have a wider range of colors to choose from, so it’s still a win no matter how you slice it. But perhaps it would behoove M&S and other lingerie brands stuck in the 1990s to just take a look at their existing and prospective shoppers instead of the news or trendy Instagram infographics for cues on where to go next. Using a man’s tragic murder and the outrage that followed as a jumping-off point is as deeply cynical as it is bleak. Besides, were the traumatizing experiences of Black Britons at the hands of their own police not sexy and inspirational enough?