There is nothing like a celebrity stepping forward as a do-gooder to bring out the skeptics. (Google: Madonna and Malawi.) After all, it can...
There is nothing like a celebrity stepping forward as a do-gooder to bring out the skeptics. (Google: Madonna and Malawi.) After all, it can be difficult to separate a publicity stunt from a heartfelt desire to help alleviate suffering.
The fashion industry and its stars are especially suspect. That’s because theirs is a business that places so much emphasis on image. There is a tendency to believe all things are in service to the fantasy.
The current most-favored cause of the fashion industry is the AIDS epidemic in Africa. It is the focus of both (Product) Red and the “I Am African” campaign. Neither has been spared from cynicism. Both may simply be guilty of pragmatism.
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(Product) Red was launched in the United States this fall. The project, headed by Bobby Shriver and U2 lead singer Bono, benefited from an Oprah Winfrey juggernaut. The talk-show host spent an entire hour talking about the project and tearing around Chicago, with Bono riding shotgun in a red sports coupe, on a mad shopping spree for Red T-shirts and sunglasses.
The idea behind (Product) Red is simple. Companies produce goods that are sold to the public and a portion of the proceeds will be used “to help eliminate AIDS in Africa,” according to the tags on the products. It’s not a new concept. For example, MAC created Viva Glam lipstick and 100 percent of the proceeds from its sale goes to the company’s AIDS fund, which was established in 1994, and benefits groups that provide care for those affected by HIV. The fund has distributed more than $70 million.
What distinguishes Red, says Shriver, is its breadth. Companies such as the Gap have created an entire line of Red T-shirts, hoodies, jeans and jackets. Giorgio Armani created a collection of Red apparel under his Emporio Armani label and launched it during London’s fashion week in September with a glitzy runway presentation and concert. Converse created sneakers stitched out of mudcloth for sale under the Red banner. The percentage each company will donate varies — Emporio Armani, for example, is donating 40 percent of the gross sales — but the commitments are for five years.
“That it be a main line within the brand was part of the deal. We wouldn’t accept something peripheral. … I don’t want to be in the charity bin,” says Shriver, who helped conceive the “Very Special Christmas” albums as a way to benefit Special Olympics.
The “I Am African” campaign was created in the summer by model and cosmetics entrepreneur Iman, who started with the idea that Africa is the mother continent. In the series of black-and-white images appearing in magazines, celebrities such as her husband, musician David Bowie, actors Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and Richard Gere, singers Seal and Alicia Keyes and “Project Runway’s” Heidi Klum wear face paint based on traditional tribal markings. The goal is to raise awareness about AIDS in Africa and to direct potential donors to the Keep a Child Alive program and its message that $1 a day can provide medicine to an HIV-infected child.
Skeptics weigh in
Suspicious questions have come from the media, bloggers and the fashion industry itself. Why don’t the Red companies donate 100 percent of the proceeds from products? Why did Armani have to undertake such a flashy, brand-enhancing runway production to make his point? Why did Winfrey have to make such a show of buying Red products in batches of 10 and then hand them out on the street in a well-publicized display of generosity?
Internet blogs have been especially unkind to the “I Am African” campaign and, in particular, the image of Paltrow, who also appears in Estee Lauder advertisements. They see her as too much of a Mayflower blonde to espouse any kinship with Africa. Shriver says the Gap offered to create a single item whose sale would wholly benefit AIDS eradication. He declined.
“I hope the people working in these companies, I hope the people in the Gap, have enough Red profits to buy a house in the Hamptons,” he says. Shriver wanted companies to have a selfish, dollars-and-cents reason for revving up their formidable advertising and marketing machines.
The money raised by the Red-labeled goods benefits the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, which was created in 2002. Originally, it was conceived as a partnership between governments and private industry. But after almost four years, governments had committed $10 billion, Shriver says, and the private sector had donated $2 million — almost nothing in comparison.
“If it didn’t work, it would have been seen as a bait and switch,” he says. “Governments could have taken the view, ‘You told me this and it didn’t happen.’ If you looked downfield, you knew that argument was going to come.”
In the first five months of the Red project, which debuted in England, it has raised $10 million.
Iman also is being a realist. Might the celebrities who posed for portraits have their own agendas? Could their participation have to do with a desire to burnish their own image? Certainly. But if “celebrities can do something for Africa, why should I care what their agendas are?” she says.
“I picked them. I felt they didn’t put their face with too many charities, and I wanted different age groups,” Iman says. “None of them asked me to sign anything. I said, ‘I’ll protect your image as if your life depended on it.’
“We’re force-fed celebrities: what they wear, how much they eat, how much they don’t eat,” she says. But those images sell magazines, raise ratings and get people talking. What if that same amount of attention could be directed to the AIDS epidemic in Africa? “I say use anybody, by all means necessary.”
Iman, who was honored last month as one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year for her AIDS work, grew up in Somalia as the daughter of a diplomat. But she also spent time as a refugee in neighboring Kenya after civil upheaval forced her family to leave their home. “I saw firsthand what the nongovernmental organization could do,” she says. “They don’t care about politics. They’re out to help the people.”