In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Last June, after the police murder of George Floyd brought about a global movement against racism, many fashion brands and publications faced an internal reckoning as they were finally forced to recognize the ways in which they were upholding white supremacy, and hopefully pushed to make some much-needed changes. Gucci, however, had experienced a similar kind of reckoning more than a year prior, after selling a sweater that, to many, resembled blackface imagery.
Of course, this was not the first time that a luxury brand came under fire for doing something racially offensive, but it might have been the first time that said brand actually seemed to acknowledge the systemic issues that led to such a misstep and did something about it beyond a performative apology or one-off donation. Long before any black squares were posted, Gucci began investing in the Black community and establishing programs that are laying the groundwork to ensure more people of color have opportunities in the industry. Helping lead the brand on that mission was Antoine Phillips, who joined Gucci in March of 2019 as its vice president of brand and culture engagement after years in PR and marketing at luxury brands like Coach and Giorgio Armani.
Phillips helped spearhead Gucci’s North America Changemakers initiative, which comprises an impact fund for nonprofit organizations that benefit communities of color, as well as a need-based scholarship program specifically for high school seniors and undergraduate college students with diverse backgrounds looking to pursue fashion-related fields. (Applications for the program’s second round of scholarships are due this Friday, Jan. 29; head here if you’re interested.)
Along with a council of community leaders including Dapper Dan, Bethann Hardison, Cleo Wade and DeRay McKesson, Phillips helps decide where the grants and scholarships go, in addition to connecting with schools and organizations across the country for events, speaking engagements and more.
We caught up with Phillips over the phone from his native Los Angeles to discuss his unlikely pivot to social impact work with authentic support from Gucci, how his own background fuels his passion for fostering young, Black talent at the education level, how he transitioned from retail to PR, his plans for a Gucci Changemakers summit, and more. Read on for the highlights from our interview.
Tell me about your background; were you always interested in fashion?
When I was a little boy, probably back in sixth grade, I used to subscribe to this magazine called Code. It was a Black fashion men’s magazine and it’s iconic. It’s so, so, so major. My dad used to get it, and then I started subscribing as I got older. That was my first time really seeing, outside of family members, Black men being represented and looking good and looking fly. I always had a love for fashion. I think that stems back from my grandmother, seeing how amazing she would look.
I was always raised [with], ‘You can be what you want to be. Shoot for the stars.’ They were very encouraging and supportive parents. I think it’s super important, especially as I deal with students. My communication with my parents, and how they raised me, was so important, and they made sure that I always felt comfortable to share with them what it is I wanted to do or who I am.
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How did you first get your foot in the door in the industry? What were your first jobs?
It goes back to 2002, when I was working at Giorgio Armani as a salesperson on Rodeo Drive. At the time, it was Emporio Armani. And then, full circle, in 2007, I ended up getting hired once I moved out to New York to be their menswear coordinator. But I was a sales boy all throughout my senior year in high school and some in college. I always worked in retail, from Gap to Guess.
From [Emporio Armani], I went to Louis Vuitton as a salesperson but got to do studio services. It was at Louis Vuitton at the Rodeo [Drive, in Beverly Hills] store and helping top clients, VIP clients, and celebrities that would come in, that I was able to understand what fashion PR was, because I worked with the PR team in New York. When they would have shoots here in L.A. where my talent would come in, my boss and I would work and facilitate.
Even though I loved fashion — that Code Magazine was my bible back in the day — I never shared with my parents that that’s really what I wanted to do because I thought as a Black man that… You know what I mean? There were a lot of stereotypes that came with being Black at the time and then wanting to work in fashion.
Also, there weren’t the spaces and places that amplified [what jobs there were] outside of being a designer or maybe a buyer. I didn’t know that you could do comms until when I was at Louis. It was actually [PR exec] Umindi Francis who I saw, a Black woman — at the time I think she was 26 or 27 — I saw her and I went up to her and I was like, ‘What exactly do you do?’ And that’s why representation is so important. I felt comfortable going up to her, and she was so sweet. She was like, ‘You need to move to New York and get your feet wet.’ Louis Vuitton was really great and offered to transfer me. I was able to interview to move out to New York once I explained to them what I wanted to do, what my interest was.
I got transferred to Dior. This was during Galliano days, which was also amazing, and I got to do the same studio services, and then I landed an internship at YSL. Tom Ford had just left. Stefano Pilati had just came in, and it was an exciting time. I believe it was 2004, 2005. This was the birth of [the nightclub] Lotus and bottle service, and Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows were still happening in New York. We would all be out partying, and it would be like Kanye in the club with John Legend. It was just such an exciting time. It was the big days of media budgets.
After YSL, my first job was at Etro as a PR assistant. I did that for maybe eight months or a year, and then I went to Armani. [Seeing] the September issue [of Vogue] with Sienna Miller on the cover, I remember how excited I was as a little 26-year-old sending a dress for that shoot that ended up making it in the magazine.
How did you first connect with Gucci?
I was in conversation with the leadership team, and I also knew a lot of the individuals on the leadership team. It’s important that mentors look like you, but they don’t necessarily have to. And I say that because one of my mentors is Lila Staab, who’s the SVP of entertainment relations. She was my boss when I was at Armani, and now our offices are next to each other.
I get goosebumps when I say that because she is a white woman who taught me everything that I know and really took me under her wing. So, when the opportunity presented itself at Gucci, I believe Lila was a big part of speaking to [SVP Marketing and Communications] Susan Chokachi and [CMO] Robert Triefus. I worked with Robert when I was at Armani, but when I met with Susan, we were just having conversations and there was some exciting stuff that was happening at Coach at the time that I, fortunately, had a part in playing with an amazing team.
We took the Coach Fashion Show to HBCUs. Howard’s iconic fashion show where Diddy went and he played a part in the shows back in the day, Coach was a part of that. We were the first fashion brand [to engage with HBCUs that way]. We closed out the show in 2018, and Susan referenced that [in our hiring conversations].
I credit Gucci for honestly being ahead of all of this before the murder of George Floyd. Very early 2019 was when I was having conversations, and I got hired March of 2019. I commend Marco Bizzarri, our CEO, Susan, and Robert for saying, ‘We see something, how we play in the culture. Let’s really build out a strategy and a team that can make this bigger and impactful, and show up in an authentic way.’ And that was born: brand and culture engagement.
I’m proud to say, to my knowledge, [this is the] first department [like this] in the U.S., and now there’s been a lot of other brands that have had this brand and culture engagement space, after Gucci started bringing awareness to that; we’ve seen Burberry, we’ve seen Coach.
So what was it like building out this department and starting Changemakers?
It took us six months to build out the program, and what we started with was really just things like mission statements and getting in a room and understanding: What is it we’re going to do? How are we going to play in this space? How are we going to do it right?
For me, the passion point is the scholarships. Our mission is to create more opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds to gain access in the fashion industry. And it’s not just Black students, it’s Latinx, it’s Asian. The focus is on really bringing about that pipeline and bridging those opportunities for people who look like me, Black and brown individuals, to be in these spaces.
When we were building Changemakers, I was a PR, comms and marketing person. We needed the right people in the room who know how to do this work. We went out and we did a search for individuals that specialize in social impact that can help us build impactful programming. I got to connect with the NAACP president Derrick Johnson, Alphonso David, to the executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission Sheryl Davis. We were on calls with the city of Chicago. There was an amazing individual by the name of Josh Murphy with IdeasFWD who came on to help us build this.
We took those mission statements and we had to build out rubrics, the playbook, what is all of this going to look like? What was the need for scholarships? Everybody gives out money, but we were like, let’s do a last-dollar scholarship. Most Black and brown individuals usually don’t graduate. It’s not because of grades or attendance, it’s because they don’t have the funds to finish school. We saw that $20,000 was the soft spot of some of those last dollars that are missing on the funding for students. So, our max amount is $20k, and we make sure we are rewarding HBCUs. Up until June, no one in fashion was thinking of historically Black colleges and universities. They have fashion programs. There’s a lot of us in this space that came out of HBCUs. At Gucci we really did our homework and understood what the need was.
You don’t have to look like one thing to work in fashion, and I think that’s kind of what our industry has said to us. That has changed a lot now, but as we’re working on the back end and when we’re identifying students, we want to make sure that we’re casting that broad net around diversity outside of just being Black and brown, but with disabilities and so on.
I have a learning disability. I grew up as a special ed student for English and math. I’m vice president at this amazing brand, and I just say that because we can’t be defined by our past. Of course, growing up I was so embarrassed and afraid to tell people. But I never let that stop me.
We also make it a point through Gucci Changemakers to speak to high schools. We do it on our own. Every week I have the pleasure of joining Cass Tech High School in Detroit, which is a partner school of ours, and Detroit is a focus city through Changemakers. I attend their High Fashion Society Club and just get to listen in. They’re so excited when I’m on the call or when we speak, and they’re just so talented. These are mainly young Black kids from Detroit.
You mentioned there were some challenges getting Changemakers off the ground; can you share what some of them have been?
One was that we knew we couldn’t help everybody. I think a part of my role in being in culture engagement is making sure that we stay in our lanes. We can’t be all things to everybody, right? And we work in fashion. So, for us, a challenge was defining the buckets.
When you’re working on something and it’s for people that look like you sometimes, that’s not the easiest thing to roll out. It was a little uncomfortable because I came from, again, marketing, comms and PR, and I did not know this stuff. That’s why I’m glad that we had Josh with us.
It was growing. I was stepping out of my comfort zone. I was going into a space and knew it was going to be looked at; Gucci is saying that they want to bring about opportunities for diverse people of color. What is that criticism if we don’t get it right? It was more making sure that we had the right program and that we had all our I’s dotted and all our T’s crossed. That was the hard part, and that’s why it took so long. And then, for me personally, it was just being a person of color, sitting in a room with my amazing colleagues, but just trying to make sure that it works and feeling that responsibility and that onus that this has to be done right.
[One question was], should white people be able to apply for this on the application? And that was something that we got to say, ‘No, you have to be of color.’ But that was a challenge because I have some Caucasian friends who are amazing, dope, and want to work in this space and may not have the resources or opportunity. But this in particular was to respond to making sure that we’re bringing in more diverse voices around the table.
Gucci has been a great example of a brand coming back from some cultural missteps and then doing something impactful to make a difference in the industry. What do you think other brands could learn from Gucci, or should be doing in general?
Just hire people who understand what’s needed for this type of work and look internally, too. Who are some of those employees that you currently have that maybe went to an HBCU, or are of color, and find out what their interests are. Move them up the ladder. I know a lot of brands tend to look outside and bring on these agencies to hire people, but look within your own group. Have meaningful conversations, listen and learn, and you might be surprised what comes out of that. I think it goes back to that WWD article we saw last week of a competitor’s brand announcement that they had just appointed this brand new board, and it was all white men. Not one female…
What’s next for Changemakers?
The grants will be announced in February and then this summer, we’ll announce the next round of scholars. We’re going to spend these next couple of weeks going over 131 applications, and narrowing that down to 14 that we award. And then we have the student scholarship piece that will drop. We time it around summer because we like to align it with graduation. In between that, we’ll be hosting a series of virtual town halls with our Gucci Changemaker grantees. What’s next is to keep building this program to make it bigger.
Our dream is to have this Changemaker summit of some sort this year that I believe might be coming to life [virtually] in August. We wanted to be different from what people see from other summits. We want to really develop, again, that Gucci community and allow for a space where students in particular can have an outlet to share, think, deep dive, ideate, meet and listen to amazing speakers.
What are some ways you had to pivot things due to the pandemic?
We were planning to meet with all of our not-for-profits. We wanted to do events. Again, we still are a brand. So, the series of [virtual] town halls, a lot of partnering with them to do virtual volunteering, virtual mentorship. But the exciting piece was that we were able to surprise them with $10,000 rapid-relief grants. We told them to use it however they want. You can throw a pizza party, pay salaries. It was just a nice thing.
We added health equity and wellness as a bucket for us to start funding. It was just about empowering groups like the Black AIDS Institute, a not-for-profit that we work with here in L.A. So, our funding goes towards testing or getting rides for people who can’t get to the clinic to get their free HIV test.
Having started out in PR and communications, had you ever seen yourself doing this kind of social impact work?
Not at all. Because there’s real practitioners that went to school for this, and I’m learning around the way, and I’m surrounded by amazing people. Now that I am in this space, a lot of people ask, ‘Oh, what do you want to do next?’ I still want to be in fashion. My dream would be to head up a foundation within the fashion space.
I think that’s the key: integrating everything you do. There’s no reason why foundation work should just sit with a foundation, and celebrity can be in celebrity. It’s like: how do you tie and bring everything together? So, I still feel like I work in comms. I still feel like I work in celebrity.
But I still want to be in fashion. It was a goal of mine to be a VP at 40. That happened at 38, so two years earlier, but I one day wouldn’t mind honestly being a CEO for brands. And no rush, I have plenty of time. It’s about setting myself up for success, but in the meantime, doing this work is what I love, and I have no intentions of leaving. I love working at Gucci.
Yes, [Kering is] a French luxury conglomerate, but they are allowing us to do what we need to do, and they’re very supportive. And they’re not in it for all the fanfare and press. I know that to be true because when stuff feels right, that’s when we put it out. It’s just about letting people do their jobs, be their authentic self, and being purposeful in the work that we do.
What’s been the most rewarding part of all this — a moment or something more general?
It was when we gave out our first round of funding for those programs. Seeing this come to life was exciting. And I remember a conversation I had with my CEO where she and I sat in her office, and it was roses being given to me. She acknowledged the work that we all had done. That went such a long way for me. I got a text message from her the other day saying, ‘I’m proud of you.’ Just out of the blue. It feels good when someone acknowledges what you’re doing, but more so with the students, those notes that I get.
That’s the best part of my job, connecting with these kids. I have in my wallet [a note] from this young girl that I carry to this day. When I was at Cass Tech High school, we were meeting with all these students and getting ready to leave and this young girl comes over to me and she just hands me this piece of paper. She said, ‘Hi, being a lost soul here in Detroit, you guys inspired me today. Thank you guys for coming to speak with us today. I learned a lot.’ And she just said, ‘Remember my name.’ And she wrote her name, and she was like, ‘Future fashion designer/model/artist.’
You don’t know what that one girl is facing at home or what her day-to-day hardships are, right? She’s still trying to find herself. She’s in high school, but the fact that when we came it left that much of an impact where she said, ‘Let me rip off a piece of paper and write this down and say thank you.’ I don’t know, it’s touching.
So, proudest moments, in a nutshell, are the students.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.