Fernando Torres has made serious allegations against his former employer, online fashion retailer Zalando.As an art director, Torres wanted to book mo
Fernando Torres has made serious allegations against his former employer, online fashion retailer Zalando.As an art director, Torres wanted to book models of color for the online shop as well as for campaigns on the company’s website, but he told Business Insider that many hurdles were put in his way as a result of racism.Torres was told there are “too many Black models” on the site.Zalando has said it is taking the allegations seriously and has begun an internal investigation.Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
On Tuesday, June 2, fashion retailer Zalando shared a black square on Instagram, intended as a display of solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the US after the death of George Floyd.
“Blackout Tuesday” was sparked by the music industry, with a number of leading names agreeing to refrain from posting on social media or releasing new content on that day, instead using the day “to disconnect from work.”The movement spread quickly, with individuals and major brands alike all pledging to show solidarity and to use the time to find better ways to fight racism.In 2019, as part of its “Free to Be” campaign, the company had also made a public statement on the culture at Zalando: “The culture at Zalando is very inclusive, so therefore representation of different backgrounds is key to what makes us successful and innovative. Diversity for us isn’t just one-dimensional – it is age, background, body shape, and ethnicity, as well as gender identity.”Like many other major brands, Zalando had intended to show solidarity by posting the black square, but its plans quickly went awry.
A number of former and current employees at the retailer don’t support the company’s statement on its culture, however, and have asserted that it’s merely virtue-signaling.Fernando Torres, a former employee and art director, called out the company’s statements on its culture and publicly accused it of racism, saying it had jumped on the bandwagon.
Business Insider spoke with Torres, as well as several former and current employees at the same Zalando studios where the art director previously worked.Torres was responsible for the men’s department at Zalando after the company had poached him from competitor ASOS in May 2018. He was brought on to make Zalando’s website more international and diverse, and he said Zalando had hoped to also coax over some younger ASOS customers.
“Too many Black people on the site”When Torres wanted to carry out this work order and book models of colour, he said that he was hindered early on.”The booker told me that there were far too many Black people on the site. Then she started comparing their skin colors saying things like ‘Look, on one, the skin looks like milk chocolate; on the other, it’s like dark chocolate.’ The booker in question is known throughout the studios for her racist statements. The studio management was also aware of all of this,” Torres told Business Insider.The booker in question wasn’t just complaining about too many Black models in their online shop; the booker outright refused to greet non-white Zalando employees.A number of former employees told Business Insider the individual would regularly stir up a fuss with crude and openly racist jokes and comments about people of other skin colors.
Torres and his colleagues had complained several times to their HR department and to the studio management.But nothing came of the complaints: The same booker is still employed by Zalando and is responsible for the selection of models, Torres said. Several employees with whom Business Insider spoke supported his statements.But the reports of racism weren’t exclusive to this one booker; studio management and purchasing at Zalando were also part of the problem, said Torres.Black models were rejected for looking “too street” or “like chavs”This was also confirmed by other ex-employees. The person leading studio management, a British woman, had insisted on using mainly white models, said Torres.
As an example, he mentioned a campaign for Tommy Hilfiger on the Zalando site in 2018.According to Torres, he wanted to book Black models but the studio management refused.Torres had to present old Hilfiger campaigns and show to those in management that there were Black models in them to force them to agree, he said.”Once, when I wanted to book a Black model with dreads, the studio manager said that it didn’t look like Zalando, saying it was too ‘street’ and that the model looked like a ‘chav,'” Torres said. (“Chav” is a British term for people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.)
Torres and his colleagues tried to book models of colour as discreetly as possible, he explained. When model-booking did become an issue, Torres said he was usually under pressure to justify himself when trying to book non-white models.He had to justify his decision to book the models by saying that the clothes demonstrably sell better with them.Torres, who left Zalando in November 2018 and continues to work in the fashion industry, said he never felt pressure to justify booking white models.”The Black model looks cool, but he looks like he’d rob you in the street.”Apparently, pressure came not only from studio management but also from Zalando’s purchasing department.
Business Insider spoke with the former head of Zalando’s premium line, who said she’d heard statements from the purchasing department like: “The Black model looks cool, but he looks like he’d rob you in the street.”Zalando retouchers were asked by “those above them” to edit images of Black models on the site so their skin looked lighter. The head of Zalando studios was said to have stood by without intervening.The former premium boss is not European. When she expressed her dismay to colleagues who are not from Germany either, they told her: “This is Germany. That’s what they’re like here.”Zalando was quick to send Torres a direct messageOnce Torres spoke out about his experience with Zalando, the online retailer responded quickly. The company sent him a message through Instagram, saying that Zalando regretted what he had gone through.
Zalando also wanted to know which department he’d worked in, so they could put him in touch with the right person if he wanted a conversation.Torres was dissatisfied with their response and criticized it in another public Instagram post.
The racist incidents in themselves are a huge problem, but Torres highlighted that it was particularly concerning considering that they took place at the biggest fashion e-tailer in Europe.The Zalando online shop is available in 17 countries and receives 380 million visits per year.
This time, Zalando publicly commented on his Instagram post, admitting that the abuse Torres had outlined was unacceptable, that the company was taking the claims seriously, and would launch an internal investigation.Business Insider once again approached Zalando concerning Torres’ statements and other employees the magazine spoke to.The company responded, saying: “Racism has no place at Zalando. We are a European company in which people from over 130 nations and of different backgrounds — be it gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation — work together. Diversity and inclusion are firmly anchored in Zalando’s corporate culture. We want to create an environment in which all people feel equally valued, heard, and empowered. This is firmly anchored in our Code of Ethics, which is binding for all employees.”Zalando also said: “Discrimination will not be tolerated at Zalando. Our anti-discrimination office and our compliance team are available for confidential discussions and advice. These teams immediately investigate and investigate reported cases and take appropriate action. For anonymous reports we also offer a protected whistleblowing tool.”
Though the internal investigation into Torres’ statements has been initiated, it’s not yet complete.The company invited Torres “to contact us for further clarification of the facts” Zalando said.
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This post originally appeared on Business Insider Deutschland and has been translated from German.
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