Everlane’s Promise of ‘Radical Transparency’ Unravels

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Everlane’s Promise of ‘Radical Transparency’ Unravels

Michael Preysman, a founder and the chief executive of Everlane, a fashion brand that targets the ethically minded with minimalist basics, stood onstage in May 2019 at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and preached the gospel of his company.

“Everlane launched eight years ago with the basic principle that the fashion industry and retail in general really needed transparency and honesty to come to the forefront,” he said.

The audience was rapt, as had been celebrities (like Meghan Markle and Angelina Jolie) and venture capitalists before them, entranced by the vision of a San Francisco start-up that wouldn’t be predatory, a direct-to-consumer fashion company that wouldn’t be gluttonous. Everlane promised to reveal its pricing markups, its clothing suppliers, its ecological footprint. This vision of “radical transparency” was so compelling that after only five years Everlane reportedly brought in $50 million in revenue and sought a valuation of more than $250 million.

But last month, Mr. Preysman found himself on a stage of a different sort: at an all-staff meeting, after waves of public allegations of hypocrisy, with former employees having accused the company of anti-Black behavior and union busting, of selling an image to the world that did not reflect their damaging experiences inside the company. Three current employees described a culture of favoritism, particularly toward those known as “Foreverlaners” — loyal employees defensive of Mr. Preysman and the brand that they loved. An internal investigation was promised.

“It’s been the hardest three months of my life,” Mr. Preysman told his staff at that meeting, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times. He’d cried for an hour at the start of the pandemic, after the company sent employees home, he said. Just two years ago, the company had been profitable. Now his company’s internal culture was being laid bare online.

On July 23, during another all-staff meeting, Everlane leadership said its completed internal investigation confirmed many of these complaints.

Investigators found that insensitive terms were used while discussing Black models; that leaders violated employees’ personal space by touching them, and used inappropriate terms when referring to people of color; that new hires felt isolated and unwelcome; that there was lack of consistent policies around promotions; that there were no formal processes to effectively escalate harassment or discrimination.

Everlane also announced that Alexandra Spunt, the company’s chief creative officer who has received significant criticism from staff, will be “no longer leading the creative team” and will be “transitioning” while “advising the senior leadership team as needed.”

In a statement to The Times, Mr. Preysman said that the company had “urgent work to do to rewrite Everlane’s code of ethics.” It would be opening a seat for a Black board member in the next year, adding a Black person to the senior leadership team in the next year, rolling out anti-racism training for the entire company by August, and teaming with two racism accountability organizations.

But whether Everlane can continue selling what may have been its most valuable product — its image — is now in question, all the more relevant as Mr. Preysman told the company he expected a $15 million decline in revenue this year.

“A good chunk of us were zealous fans, because we really, really did believe in the mission,” said Toni Kwadzogah, 28, who was laid off this spring. “When you cultivate an image in such a progressive style, you attract people, workers and customers alike, who have those progressive values. And when you fail them, well, good luck.”

Ms. Kwadzogah was one of a group of remote customer-experience workers who announced in December they were unionizing. Broadly speaking, they’d come to feel like “second-class citizens,” said Jon Foor, who joined Everlane’s customer experience team in 2018, with no opportunities for career growth and none of the start-up perks — annual retreats, kombucha on tap — enjoyed by full-time colleagues at headquarters. Everlane said that multiple members of this team have gone on to become full-time employees in other departments but did not specify how many.

Three months later, 290 employees were laid off, including 42 of the remote customer-experience team’s 57 employees.

Everlane said the company didn’t know which employees were part of the unionizing effort and attributed the layoffs to the economic pressures of the pandemic. The workers described it as union busting and were publicly supported by Senator Bernie Sanders.

Then, in June, brands everywhere rushed to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement amid protests over George Floyd’s killing. Everlane was one of them. But the support rang hollow to many, including those who said they had experienced racism while working at Everlane.

A collective of 14 anonymous former employees called the Ex Wives Club published a lengthy document on their experiences with what they called “anti-Black behavior” at Everlane. The employees wrote about being overworked, underpaid, deprived of career opportunities and punished for speaking up. Everlane said this was not accurate.

They also shared stories about Ms. Spunt, the creative lead who had been a content director at American Apparel in the mid-2000s.

Ms. Spunt’s team had so much turnover that people in other departments would place bets as to who would leave next, said three current employees. But also, the Ex Wives wrote, she often rejected casting suggestions for Black models, calling them “too severe” or “too edgy” or, in a 2015 email shared with The Times, not enough of a “traditional beauty” to carry a cashmere campaign. Black models did not begin appearing regularly in Everlane marketing until 2016.

Everlane said Black employees currently make up 6 percent of the overall team (264 employees) and 8 percent at the leadership level.

However, Mia Ward, a technical designer from 2016 to 2018, believed she was the only full-time Black employee at the company during that time. (Everlane denied this was true.) Ms. Ward characterized the culture as one of dismissal and insecurity, but said she felt uncomfortable and exposed if she spoke out. “It was the only job I’ve had where it made me want to go into therapy to deal with it.” Ms. Ward said.

She wasn’t the only one. Annabel Ly, a social media manager at Everlane in early 2012, said her six months at Everlane were more “traumatic and demoralizing” than three-and-a-half years at Uber, a company long scrutinized for its workplace culture.

One member of the Ex Wives Club, a 26-year-old Black videographer who worked on contract at Everlane between 2018 and 2019, wrote in the document that Ms. Spunt had shoved “her hands in my hair, pulling at my roots,” and had referred to the two of them as “soul sisters.” A witnessed who confirmed the incident to The Times said the moment “didn’t feel malicious — it just felt really misplaced.”

That videographer, who told human resources about the incident, described feeling “off-brand” and professionally sidelined and socially isolated at Everlane: “I felt really alone.”

In a team meeting last month, Ms. Spunt said she felt “absolutely sick that anybody felt like my behavior toward them was in some ways discriminatory or made them uncomfortable.” Everlane maintained that no formal complaints were ever made about Ms. Spunt related to hair-pulling or casting.

“I stand for diversity and equity and inclusion with every fiber of my being,” Ms. Spunt said, according to a recording of the meeting. “If nobody says something, you don’t know that you’ve necessarily done anything wrong.”

Ms. Spunt declined to respond to inquiries from The Times.

Two employees in Ms. Spunt’s now-former department said they were disappointed that Everlane had announced she was stepping back without explicitly acknowledging why — they felt the decision was “performative” and a “Band-Aid solution,” obscuring shortcomings in the company’s leadership.

The Ex Wives Club has grown to about 50 members since it went public, which includes current, former and freelance employees, and plans to continue releasing testimonies.

In the aftermath of the first Ex Wives Club revelations, the three current Everlane employees who spoke with The Times have described many of their colleagues’ moods as tense, betrayed and defeated. This summer’s events had reinforced their belief that radical transparency was “just a nice tagline,” one employee said.

In last month’s all-hands meeting with Mr. Preysman, a Black employee spoke about feeling a “constant pressure to show up as if nothing’s happening.” An employee of color was worried about being taken seriously, despite being urged to speak up: “The line seems blurred on what we are considering as right or wrong.”

“I wish we had done things differently in the past,” Mr. Preysman said, and had “made it clear that we were working toward diversity in our models, that we’re working toward our diversity in our hiring.”

Mostly, he apologized to his workers: for anyone who’d had a bad experience, felt discriminated against or felt Everlane hadn’t provided them a safe space.

“We have no idea how to control it. We have no idea how to have a conversation with each other about it,” he said. “I am trying to figure out that right line of how to be as human as possible, while also running a business.”

Sometimes, especially in the marketing, the line was hard to see.

For instance, Everlane was criticized for not providing extended sizing across its line and in stores, despite releasing ads with curvy models and saying for years that this was on their “road map.” But inside the company, the attitude toward plus-size shoppers was even more explicitly dismissive.

“It was not on the road map because it was not aspirational to be fat,” said a former employee, a web designer who had worked at Everlane since before it sold its first T-shirt. “Everything at the company at that time had to be aspirational.”

Ms. Ly said that in 2012, she asked Mr. Preysman how she should respond to a male customer asking when Everlane would start carrying size XXL. Mr. Preysman suggested the man lose weight, she said. He told her there was no money in larger sizes. Everlane denied Mr. Preysman made this comment; another former employee recalled Ms. Ly telling her about the conversation at the time.

Customer service representatives said they received daily questions about plus sizes. Mr. Foor said he was instructed to send an automated response, essentially saying the company was working on it and that the message would be forwarded to the appropriate department. But the messages weren’t forwarded, because that department didn’t exist, Mr. Foor said.

Three former members of Mr. Foor’s department shared similar accounts. “We were all meant to repeat this lie,” one said. “I hesitate to call it such, but I certainly never saw any proof.” Everlane said this characterization was inaccurate. The company acknowledged it did not do enough to expand sizes in its early years but said it has since ramped up production and sales.

In 2017, Everlane went public with its commitment to sustainability, trademarking the phrase “radical transparency. ” By then, its meaning had evolved from being about pricing and production to ethical labor and sustainability, too. Everlane’s major period of growth came as many brands realized consumers were saying they cared about the conditions in which their clothing was made.

By 2023, the company is committing to ensure all of its cotton comes from certified organic sources, and to eliminate virgin plastic in its supply chain by 2021. Both have required heavy investment and are targets Everlane that says it’s on track to meet.

Yet despite regularly auditing suppliers and using some eco-friendly materials, last year Everlane received a “not good enough” overall rating from the brand ratings platform Good on You. Everlane was marked down for failing to track greenhouse gases across its entire line, and for an absence of initiatives to guarantee living wages or reduce water use. Since then, the company has publicly said that it’s working toward third-party certifications, which could improve its future ratings.

The company has never publicly produced a corporate and social responsibility report, and it wasn’t until February that it created a chief supply-chain officer role.

“It’s a tech company that took the concept of fast fashion and made it an iota better — just one notch better — to try to appeal to a kind of San Francisco liberal consciousness,” Mr. Foor said.

“Everlane puts a great deal of focus on ‘radical transparency’ and has made it a key selling point,” said Luke Smitham, a sustainability expert at Kumi Consulting in London. “But fundamentally, what they do is not any different from most mass-market fashion brands who do exactly the same, or more.”

“They do some good work, but I wouldn’t describe it as radical. The most radical thing about Everlane is the marketing.”

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