After Last Year’s Pride Month Backlash, Are Footwear Companies Taking a More Cautious Approach to Inclusivity in 2024?

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It’s nearly June, which means it’s time to commemorate LGBTQIA+ Pride month.

But unlike in recent years, it isn’t business as usual for some companies, following a fierce backlash in 2023 over Pride-themed marketing and merchandise. Some Americans took their displeasure for Pride to a new level — for instance, by slamming Adidas and Nike online for using trans models and damaging store displays at retailers like Target.

The firestorm came at the same time as a record number (over 500) anti-LGBTQIA+ bills were presented to state legislatures last year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

For Target, chief executive officer Brian Cornell blamed the collection’s extreme reception for falling sales in the company’s second-quarter earnings call last August, while also condemning the backlash. “We denounce violence and hate of all kinds, and the safety of our team and our guests is our top priority,” the CEO said in August.

Fast forward to 2024, and Target is paring back its Pride initiatives, announcing in May that it will only offer a Pride collection of adult apparel, home and food and beverage items “based on consumer feedback” that will be available “in select stores, based on historical sales performance” and online.

Rob Smith, a former Macy’s executive who founded The Phluid Project in 2018 — a business commitment to diversity, inclusivity, and supporting the LGBTQ+ community that often collaborates with brands on Pride-related merchandise — told FN that he is seeing a definite pull back from retailers versus last year.

“I get the sense that retailers are very cautious this year,” Smith said. “One could look at it as a response to last year’s situation or even erasure. It could also be seen as highlighting who these companies were — as simply rainbow-washing in the past.”

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Reebok’s 2024 Pride campaign.

To investigate this further, FN reached out to footwear leaders to discuss their plans to mark the occasion. While they did not address the prior backlash, most brand execs said they are moving full steam ahead with Pride-related activations this month, approaching the month as usual.

At Ugg, for instance, president Anne Spangenberg said that the shoe label continues to invest its time and resources in initiatives that embody its brand DNA of making self-expression comfortable for all. “Doing our part to support and celebrate underrepresented communities through these partnerships, campaigns and charitable contributions will always be woven into our brand,” she said.

In 2024, Ugg’s Pride campaign and all-gender footwear and apparel capsule collection was co-created with multidisciplinary artist Alok.

At Reebok, Portia Blunt, senior vice president of global product, told FN that the company believe it’s important to give the LGBTQIA+ community a “platform to shine” — both within the walls of Reebok and beyond. “We are constantly inspired by the creatives and the athletes within the community and are honored to play a small part in helping amplify their stories,” Blunt said.

The athletic brand mandates that the design of its Unity by Reebok collection be produced in partnership with its LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group, “Colorful Soles,” as well as make a charitable donation to support the community. This year, it has pledged to donate $10,000 to The Boston Alliance of LGBTQ+ Youth (BAGLY).

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Caleres employees participate in local Pride events.

Brooks also released a shoe for Pride this year with queer illustrator Adam Dalton Blake. For the Run Proud collection, Blake dressed the Trace 3 shoe with custom iridescent designs and illustrations centering around connectivity.

“Along with our collection of gear for Pride, we continue to support our local Pride parades, and we are continuing our support of Front Runners run club,” said Shannon Woods, senior manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at Brooks. This year, Brooks will donate $50,000 in cash and gear to Front Runners chapters in New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle, bringing its total donations to more than $175,000 since 2019.

Jordan Yob, brand marketing director at Saucony, noted that with the launch of its Pride shoe, Saucony will be supporting and donating to the AYA Youth Collective, a Michigan organization that champions belonging and stability for young people of all identities.

Chaco will release its fourth collection Brave Trails, a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ youth find their purpose, place, and passion. This inclusive, limited-edition “shimmery timbers” sandal is inspired by Camp Brave Trails and the vibrant way their community illuminates the outdoors with queer energy. Ten percent of proceeds from each sale will be donated to Brave Trails.

And in lieu of product, Merrell will sponsor the AspenOut All-Inclusive Pride Hike in partnership with Aspen Youth Center, Cook Inclusive and Stepping Stones on June 25. “While we do not have a product or collab launch tied to Pride Month, we will be outfitting the 30 youth participating in the hike in our all-new Moab Speed 2, which we launched earlier in the year and spotlighted at Aspen Gay Ski Week benefiting the AspenOut organization,” said Pallav Tamaskar, chief marketing officer at Merrell.

So what continues to drive footwear’s commitment to Pride? Many executives noted that their inclusivity efforts start from within.

This can be seen in full effect at Caleres, where Amy Hunter, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, has worked to make the footwear firm more welcoming to all. “We changed our benefits to be more inclusive and we also got our employee resource groups up and running,” Hunter said. “Our LGBTQIA+ group is called CalHaus here, and we have programming throughout the year, every single month for the community. We say we’re gay every day, not just in June.”

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