The story behind Nike’s collaboration with Harlem’s Fashion Row is a powerful corporate lesson in not allowing discomfort to stop meaningful change

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If any company in the footwear industry can write the book on successful collaborations, it is undoubtedly Nike Inc.

But as the athletics giant — and dozens of brands and companies around the world — continues to evolve its business strategy as part of a broader consideration of racial equality, its executives tell you, running collaborations takes on a new form.

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And, in true Swoosh fashion, the brand — known for its provocative marketing and years-long partnerships with black athletes — has been ahead of the curb.

For a virtual panel today as part of Harlem’s Fashion Row’s third annual Digital Fashion Summit, two Nike executives sat down with HFR Founder and CEO Brandice Daniel to discuss how a collaboration of sneakers in 2018 between the Harlem-based organization and Beaverton, Ore.-based brand took shape. (Daniel started HFR in 2007 as a platform to support underrepresented black and Latino designers.)

And the meeting and efforts leading up to the release of the Nike LeBron 16 LMTD HFR provided key lessons for fashion brands looking for “non-traditional collaborations” — as HFR dubbed it — with minority talent and minority-led brands in today’s racial climate.

Lesson #1: Be comfortable being uncomfortable.

“As a white man in the room, I was really scared that we were going to mess it up and it would get inauthentic and like we were trying to use this story of black women in an inauthentic way and we would get some feedback from the community that we’re actually trying to tell the story of and bring to life,” said Josh Wachtel, General Manager of LeBron James & Athlete Business Development at Nike Inc., of the early stages of the HFR project. -Nike, adding that his “greatest fear” quickly dissipated once the meetings began.

Yet it is important for corporate stakeholders – who may perhaps see black talent as the primary beneficiaries of the racial calculus that has resulted in a slew of monetary and other pledges from national organizations – to recognize that minority talents also feel this discomfort.

In fact, this unease is often heightened by the level of responsibility that people of color feel when presenting themselves as the voice of their community in business.

“I was totally terrified because it was one of those things in my gut: I was like, ‘This is a really good idea.’ But I’m a black woman telling this story to this group of guys and I have no idea how they were going to take it,” said Melanie Auguste, VP of Global Brand Defining, Purpose & Athlete Brand Marketing. at Nike, from his first experience discussing an HFR collaboration with the brand.

Auguste was relieved to be “welcomed with open arms” by her white male colleagues, but said she faced another fear-based hurdle when Nike brought HFR’s diverse team to her campus.

“He was one of those [moments] where I was afraid of the other side of things, [I thought] “Oh fuck, aren’t black women gonna like us?” she explained, pointing at Daniel. “Like you’re going to show up and be like, ‘oh, no’…I was like, ‘I know we’re Nike and we’re about that [Black representation]”, but we are also a company and we are everything that goes with it.”

According to the story, the collaboration was a success and Nike probably has a lot more to come. But as more and more brands chart a course for meaningful change, the story is a case study for supposedly well-meaning brands who are in their infancy of exploring their role in improving the racial equity within and outside their respective organizations: discomfort should not become an obstacle to progress.

HFR’s virtual event, themed “Beyond the Black Box, A New Conversation on Race,” is sponsored by American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and runs until 5 p.m. ET. More than 50 fashion and retail industry professionals are expected to speak at the event, including Tom Ford, Aurora James, Sergio Hudson and Tommy Hilfiger.

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