Just over a year ago, Bob Bland, the New York-based designer and founder of the fashion incubator Manufacture New York, took to Facebook to air her grievances over the surprise victory of Donald J. Trump in the U.S. election. Little did she know that one small group on social media would rapidly blossom into an international movement and annual event, the Women's March, which last weekend drew some two million attendees nationwide in cities including Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, according to the most recent available data.
"The Women's March has been the startup of a lifetime," says Bland, who soon after posting that fateful day in November teamed up with co-founders Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Lindsa Sarsour to launch the non-profit organization in late 2016. Although many thought the Women's March would be gone and forgotten over the course of Trump's presidency, Bland insists it has only gained steam since last January.
In fact, early research suggests the events of 2018--a veritable watershed moment for women across the public and private sectors--drew even more attendees in select cities than last year, although Bland notes the focus is different this time around. While the Women's March remains conceptually a worldwide protest in favor of women's rights, racial equality, healthcare reform, and reproductive rights, the organization is now focused on getting as many people as possible to vote in the upcoming midterm elections; Bland and her co-founders last week launched their "Power to the Polls" initiative to raise awareness for the importance of casting a vote. "This is non-partisan," Bland explains. "We need to challenge anyone who is not standing up for marginalized communities, including women, people of color, and those who have been incarcerated. We need to make sure that it's possible to see a reflection [of those views] in leadership."
Lessons in ethical business.
Bland identifies first and foremost as an entrepreneur, and rather than detracting from her business acumen, she says participating in the Women's March has made her a more effective leader. "I've spent the last year training myself through this work to look at my industry [fashion] through a gender as well as a racial lens," Bland tells Inc. "Now, I clearly see that we cannot separate work around systemic dysfunction in the fashion industry, for example, from issues like white supremacy and mistreatment of women."
Bland says that Manufacture New York--which occupies more than 160,000 square feet in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood and has helped to launch more than 90 brands since inception in 2012--has taken the back seat since the Women's March went viral last year. However, she is making a more concerted effort to bring more women and people of color into the business of fashion, so that her leadership better reflects the customer base. In the coming months, she plans to launch a philanthropic arm called the Manufacture Foundation, to support more women and minorities in the manufacturing industry.
In the meantime, her incubator has pivoted to support more textiles "of the resistance," from makers of "Nasty Woman" T-shirts to "RESIST" sweatpants (with some proceeds of the latter going to the American Civil Liberties Union.) Bland now partners with designers such as The Outrage, The Amplifier, and Royal Apparel, including men and women who identify as gay, straight, bisexual, queer, black, white, brown, and everything in-between.
With New York Fashion Week kicking off next month, Bland is also quick to point out many traditional retailers did little to support minority communities in the wake of the presidential election. "The fashion industry reacted as if the resistance and the Women's March was just a cool trend," Bland says. "But what would it actually mean to take the unity principles of those movements to fashion manufacturing? That's an example of something that I look forward to digging into in 2018."
It's no small task, especially as Bland continues to work with the Women's March full time, shepherding 35 state coordinators and some 5,500 micro-communities across the country. But it's work she has found to be more than gratifying, and which has challenged her views about what may or may not be "normal" in the business of fashion.
"As a white woman, this has allowed me to reflect both on the extreme misogyny and sexism I experienced at the hands of venture capitalists and real estate developers," she adds, referring to the early days of building her business. "It's powerful actually being able to name that, where I felt completely silenced before."