Reformation Founder Yael Aflalo Addresses Claims of "Systematic Racism" in Public Apology

Reformation's founder Yael Aflalo has spoken publicly about the steps the company is taking after facing allegations of "racism."
By Samantha Schnurr Jun 08, 2020 6:51 PMTags
Yael AflaloMatt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Following claims of racism toward her and the brand she created, Reformation's founder Yael Aflalo has publicly admitted that she's "failed."

In late May, amid the growing unrest over the death of George Floyd, the fashion brand posted a brief statement to its Instagram account, which read, "If you want to help fight for justice right now, here are a few organizations we recommend supporting. We will be donating to the organizations above." The organizations listed were Black Lives Matter, Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective, the NAACP and the ACLU. 

In response to the post and among comments from others expressing criticism of the company, former employee Leslieann Elle Santiago wrote, "Working for Reformation deeply traumatized me. Being overlooked and under valued as a woman of color who worked & managed their flagship store for 3years was the hardest. I cried many times knowing the color of my skin would get me no where in this company. Yael never looked at me. She would walk pass me and never spoke to me. But would tell white associates that they were pretty. I once went to visit the shop after a couple years gone and a new black associate asked me if I honestly thought there was a chance for black people to move up in the company. And I said if youre asking this 2yrs after I left, than [sic] the answer was and will always be no. This story goes deeper and Ive always been afraid to tell it. But no more fear from me."

After receiving a request from Reformation President Hali Borenstein in an online message to discuss Santiago's experience over the phone, Santiago declined the phone conversation and shared her typed response to Borenstein publicly on her personal Instagram account, explaining that she had her exit interview with Borenstein back in 2016 and shared her experience with her then. "After a lot of heavy thought I've decided to decline you 10min phone conversation but rather hope you take 5min to read this as I do not want to give you the opportunity to hear without listening," she wrote to Borenstein in her reply message. While it's unclear when the digital conversation between Santiago and Borenstein took place, Santiago posted her reply message on her Instagram account on Thursday and Instagram account Diet Prada further publicized her post over the weekend. It appears the messages between the women were sent on Instagram, but Santiago did not specify.

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In her message to Borenstein, Santiago alleged that Borenstein "consistently hired white women with the same or less qualifications as me, over me" while Santiago had worked as an assistant manager allegedly without a manager above her for more than a year. Santiago further claimed that "none of you ever even talked to me" or "cared about my growth or any black or non-black poc working there." She alleged that no person of color had ever been flown to the Los Angeles headquarters. She reiterated her allegations about Aflalo, claiming that she looked Santiago "up and down in disgust and walked away" when she introduced herself to Aflalo as the flagship's assistant manager. She also claimed Aflalo would "purposely not answer if I called her name" and that Santiago would need the "white district manager" to tell Aflalo anything Santiago needed to say "even when we were in the same room." 

"Her mentality is why the leadership table at Ref has always looked like it has and has always treated black & non-black roc the way it has. Systematic racism," Santiago alleged. 

Santiago further claimed in her message to Borenstein that "women not so trendy or not so skinny" were also treated with disgust and, allegedly after being shown a potential black model, Santiago claimed Aflalo responded with "we're not ready for that yet." Santiago also raised the subject of an alleged photo of Aflalo and Elana Rosenblatt, Vice President of Wholesale at Reformation, eating fried chicken posted to Instagram to celebrate Black History Month. Santiago also claimed there were unequal physical working conditions for employees of color. "I've spoken to many employees, past and current from Ny-LA and the stories of harmful work environments, of black and non-black poc being in back stock without heat while white girls service customers on a shiny heated sales floor have mortified me," Santiago claimed. 

On Sunday, Aflalo addressed the allegations against her and the company in a statement posted to Reformation's Instagram account. 

"I've failed," her statement began. "Our mission is to bring sustainability to everyone, and part of sustainability is treating people equally. I realize that I have failed all of you in that regard—especially the Black community. I'm sorry. Unfortunately, the way we have practiced diversity in the past has been through a 'White gaze' that falls too close to ignorance. After asking and listening to our team members, especially those who identify as BIPOC—I see that now. I am so angry at myself for not seeing it sooner. As a company, we have not leveraged our platform, our voice, and our content to combat the racism and injustice that pervades our country, and that will change, starting now. I was not a very good leader when it came to our team, which is why I stepped back two years ago."

As her statement continued, "When former team members make accusations that I ignored them in the past, I know that this is true. I am so sad and regretful for it. This is inexcusable in itself, but when I hear Black colleagues who felt that I avoided them because of the color of their skin, I burn inside thinking about the sadness I inflicted. Please know that for me this was not about the color of your skin, it's about my shortcomings as a person. The new leaders at Reformation are smart, supportive, caring individuals. They don't deserve your criticism, I do.

She also announced that they are launching an independent investigation "to look into the workplace concerns that have been raised in our stores so that we get to the bottom of it."

Aflalo noted, "We are so sad to see the comments and allegations of racism on social media and take them incredibly seriously. Reformation does not support or tolerate racism or discrimination. We spent the last week listening to our team. We learned so much but most importantly we realized how ignorant we are and how much we need to improve to become an ally and actively anti-racist brand. As a result, we are digging into every part of Reformation—our values and goals, marketing, recruiting and training."

Listing changes they intend to make, Aflalo said, "We will be launching a Diversity and Inclusion Board, composed of team members and external advisors, to direct our plans along the way. We will update our quarterly Sustainability Report to include goals and metrics on diversity and inclusion and publish it. We will put more emphasis on working with Black creators throughout the creative process and we will strive for authentic diversity in our imagery, partnerships and voice."

She also shared that she will be personally donating $500,000 between the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the National Black Child Development Institute.

Aflalo concluded, "We know this isn't everything and it won't all happen overnight, but we are committed to using our brand to promote anti-racism, using our voice to stand for equality and justice, and using our platform to end systemic racism."