Philanthropic Fashion: Designers and Brands That Give Back

by Jennifer Sams

Philanthropic Fashion: Designers and Brands That Give Back

There’s no worse feeling than coming home from a day of shopping and realizing you just broke the bank. Soon after the rush of buying that perfect black sweater has worn off, you’re left feeling guilty and disgusted with yourself. You sit looking at all your purchases knowing that you really don’t need that black sweater, or the $189 pair of designer jeans, or those shoes that you already own in two other colors. This is called buyer’s remorse, and at some point or another, every woman alive has felt it at least once. Fortunately, there are clothing companies out there that may actually make us feel good about indulging. These fashion labels are stepping up, not only offering the season’s most-wanted must-haves but also giving something back to the world.


By far the newest player in the lot, TOMS boasts a simple business practice called One for One. For every pair of shoes a customer purchases, TOMS donates a pair to a child in need. Many children in impoverished countries suffer from podoconiosis, which is a painful foot condition caused from walking barefoot that can sometimes even lead to permanent disfiguration. TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie confessed in a Wall Street Journal article, “I wasn’t out to do good. I’m an entrepreneur.” However, while vacationing in Buenos Aires, he learned that children there couldn’t attend school simply because they didn’t have shoes. Mycoskie realized he should start a company based on charity, and TOMS Shoes was born. To date, TOMS has given away some six hundred thousand pairs of shoes. A pair of TOMS runs anywhere from $48 to $54 and comes in a variety of colors, including basic black to glittery gold. This is a shoe that looks good and feels good—in more ways than one.


Kenneth Cole
In 1987, Kenneth Cole joined the Board of Trustees of amfAR (The American Foundation for AIDS Research). Today, he is Chairman of the Board, and he matches donations to amfAR dollar for dollar, up to $100,000. Cole, who has publicly supported AIDS research since 1985, is known for the controversial advertising of his brand, such as its “We All Have AIDS” campaign. The amfAR Web site quotes Cole as saying, “It is great to be known for your shoes. It is even better to be recognized for your soul.” In addition to his work with amfAR, Cole also sits on the board of HELP USA, the largest provider of jobs, homes, and services for the homeless. Many in the fashion industry consider him one of the strongest, most important voices for positive change.


Diane von Furstenberg
Just as she recognized the power of a simple wrap dress, style maven Diane von Furstenberg also understands the power of a single female voice. Von Furstenberg works with Vital Voices, an organization that discovers influential women around the world and helps bring visibility to them so they can assume into potential leadership roles. The Vital Voices Web site describes the organization as “the preeminent non-governmental organization (NGO) that identifies, trains, and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe, enabling them to create a better world for us all.” During International Women’s Week, 10 percent of all DVF sales, both online and in-store, were donated to Vital Voices.


Donna Karan
Fashion powerhouse Donna Karan created the Urban Zen Foundation in New York City’s West Village to promote creating, connecting, and collaborating on awareness for well-being, empowering children, and preserving cultures. Karan, whose husband died of lung cancer in 2001, devotes much of her philanthropic endeavors to the research of holistic medicine and cancer treatment. Through her Urban Zen Foundation, Karan has partnered with the chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, Dr. Woodson Merrell, and with Beth Israel Medical Center’s Continuum Center for Health and Healing to establish “a major multi-component initiative that includes physical changes to the environment of the oncology unit, the introduction of skilled yoga therapy, staff retraining to encourage optimal healing, and a rigorous research program.” In April 2009, USA Today reported that Karan donated $850,000 to the Beth Israel Medical Center to “bring yoga therapy and a new kind of caregiving to the cancer wing.”


These brands are doing good all around:


American Apparel
Known for its provocative photos of young girls in skimpy onesies and thigh-high socks, American Apparel is perhaps one of the most active and aware apparel companies around today. Founder and CEO Dov Charney started the vertically integrated (meaning the company does all the design, advertising, and marketing) business in 1989, and, according to an April 2006 New York Times article, the company is “the single largest garment factory in the United States.” American Apparel has supported a number of socially conscious issues, such as immigration and gay rights, bringing attention to the causes with its campaigns Legalize L.A. and Legalize Gay. The company distributed more than fifty thousand garments to a number of groups providing relief to Haiti just hours after the earthquake there.


Bono started this ultra-eco-conscious brand in 2006 with his wife, Ali Hewson. The pair set out to create a for-profit fashion line that focuses on raising awareness of the possibilities in Africa by ultimately encouraging the fashion community to do business there. The label actively engages in sourcing organic and sustainable materials whenever it’s possible. The brand promotes the idea that organic cotton provides healthier working conditions and is a valuable market opportunity for farmers in Africa.


Making a difference in the world is no easy feat, but those in the spotlight do find themselves with a leg up, a sentiment to which StyleforHire cofounder and CEO, Cindy McLaughlin, can attest. McLaughlin recently admitted to me that “[b]rands and retailers tend to have extraordinarily thin margins, so they don’t often have lots of extra cash on hand to donate outright.” However, she added, “People in the fashion industry are often very socially conscious and are also in a great position to make a difference, as they tend to be highly visible to press.” That’s great news for those of us who love to shop and are looking for a way to do some good with our expenditures.