Defining the Ins and Outs of Cultural Transformation

Cultural transformation is something that scores of brands are trying to reach and yet there is no direct route to get there, or way to succinctly define it.

Like the varied people that so many companies have as customers, but may not recognize as such, finding the right quotients requires blending authenticity, diversity and inclusion. Mining and defining the topic in “The Culture Factor” discussion were Sissi Johnson, MBA professor and SelfSells founder; Roberto Ramos, chief executive officer and chief creative officer at Ideatelier, and Matthew Yokobosky, senior curator of fashion and material culture at the Brooklyn Museum. Tara Donaldson, WWD’s executive editor and head of diversity and inclusion at Fairchild Media Group, moderated the discussion at the WWD Apparel & Retail CEO Summit.

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Starting the conversation, Ramos said, “We’re living in these extraordinary times and there’s nothing more extraordinary than culture. When we’re at points of inflection, we look at both the past and the future to be able to envision the road ahead.”

That said, from his perspective there is the need for greater psychological depth and discovery. In addition, there is a hunger for physicality, theatricality and storytelling “to remind us that we are not robots” and to “defeat and surpass the premise of algorithms and robotics.” Ramos singled out the “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibit (that wrapped up in February at the Brooklyn Museum) as a fine example of the pageantry, theater and immersive storytelling that is being craved.

There is also a premise for new legends, as proven by such talents as the late Virgil Abloh and “the new possibilities that he put forth.” Such limitlessness can also be seen in terms of the metaverse.

“This idea of culture with a capital ‘C,’ with no limits comes with a little bit of messiness,” Ramos said. “So [the question] is, ‘How do brands develop that intuition, and that sense of core, in order to be agile around culture?’ A lot of what we see in terms of brands getting it wrong is [due to executives] overthinking it, not having that core [authenticity] or chasing a lot of shiny objects, right? How do we do that in a stronger, more intuitive sort of fashion? At the end of the day, right now, culture is the ultimate example of power of influence.”

However culture is defined, Ramos noted that in the top 10 U.S. markets, 80 percent of the next generation is multicultural and multiracial and companies need to reflect that internally and through their outreach. After years of “self selection” in the fashion industry, where “we go to the same places and the same parties, and you know, all of us are guilty as charged,” there needs to be more attention paid to Africa, the Latinx community and a more open mindset in general, Ramos said.

Johnson offered another view, suggesting that “we should be looking at culture as the great unlearn.” As a professor, she is helping a lot of schools “shape or reshape their curricula in terms of studying fashion in 2022-23, or luxury as a whole.”

For example, traditional fashion school students don’t necessarily learn about the intersection of luxury, fashion and hip hop, which Johnson is “very passionate about” and includes in her curriculum. In addition to enhancing cultural awareness, such conversations are key and they serve as tools for students before they embark on careers in the fashion industry, she said.

At work on the “Thierry Muegler: Couturissime” exhibition, which bows on Nov. 18, Yokobosky considers culture to be “very multilayered,” particularly at the Brooklyn Museum, where the audience is in three realms — international, local and “very local” as in “Brooklyn itself.” He explained, “We think about that in terms of, there’s high art, there’s pop culture and then there’s a lot of things that we learned from the street. And it’s time to take all those different layers of visual culture and synthesize them into a conversation with our audience.”

In turn, he and his team are always looking for how many conversations can be had at once about culture, but that needs to be modulated. That takes shape in different ways, such as how art is hung in the Brooklyn Museum’s galleries. Increasingly, meetings at cultural institutions now open with an acknowledgement, with attendees being informed, of the original holdings of the land, where the building they are in stands on ceded territory, Yokobosky explained. The reinstallation of the Brooklym Museum’s American Art galleries opens with an introduction to the Lenapehoking, the ancestral homeland of the Lenape people, who were Brooklyn’s original inhabitants.

While many cultural institutions were dealt with a three-year down time (amidst what was already a 10-year downturn for some) the pandemic slowdown gave museums and cultural institutions the opportunity to reconsider some things, he said. “It gave us a chance to reset how we’re talking about culture moving forward,” Yokobosky said.

As for how companies can change their approach to cultural transformation, Ramos said many organizations that he works with “have the best intentions in the world,” but their teams are not reflective of, say, 90 percent of their consumer base. Noting how many creators pull from the same resources and travel to the same places such as Milan, he suggested traveling to different locations. He said, “It begins internally with all of you and challenging your organizations to get outside your comfort zones and having these conversations.”

Considering how things may change in the year ahead, Yokobosky mentioned how in a city with dozens of museums, the Brooklyn Museum often discusses how it can distinguish itself. That, of course, involves doing so through cultural conversations and social issues. The prospect of doing exhibitions on such subjects as climate justice and mass incarceration have been discussed, he said. While aesthetics are always part of the planning process, more thought is being given to how they also relate to having conversations about important issues.

Johnson said, “I would focus more maybe on corporate social responsibility. There are many conversations happening right now, socially. One of the things I’ve been focusing on is global textile waste,” noting how Ghana is overflowing with “every single brand you can think of and that fast fashion is not African.”

Clothes donations that go to the global south hurt local economies and the area’s textile industry. People wear secondhand clothes from the West, and become no longer interested in wearing the locally made ”amazing, amazing” textiles,” Johnson said, “It’s important for brands to think about more circular ways to go forward.”

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