Reformation founder says 'I've failed' after racism accusations from former employees

Multiple former employees described racist incidents at the company.
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Yael Aflalo, Reformation's founder, has apologized after accusations of racism at the company.David Livingston / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Editor's note: This story was updated on June 12, 2020, to include comment from Leslieann Elle Santiago.

A former employee of the clothing brand Reformation is speaking out about alleged racism she experienced during her time at the company. The company's founder, Yael Aflalo, has since apologized on Instagram, saying, “I’ve failed.”

The controversy began when Reformation, a high-end, sustainable clothing brand founded in 2009, shared a message of support for the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram and shared a list of civil rights organizations where they would be making donations.

Then Leslieann Elle Santiago, 33, who formerly worked at Reformation, commented on their post and described racist treatment during her time at the company.

“Working for Reformation deeply traumatized me,” she wrote. “Being overlooked and undervalued as a woman of color who worked & managed their flagship store for 3years was the hardest. I cried many times knowing the color of my skin would get me nowhere in this company.”

She also described alleged mistreatment by Aflalo.

“Yael never looked at me,” Santiago wrote. “She would walk pass me and never spoke to me. But would tell white associates that they were pretty. I once went to visit the shop after a couple years gone and a new black associate asked me if i honestly thought there was a chance for black people to move up in the company. And i said if youre asking this 2yrs after I left, than the answer was and will always be no. This story goes deeper and Ive always been afraid to tell it. But no more fear from me.”

Other former employees also chimed in, sharing their own experiences from working with the brand. Several people cited alleged disparities in working conditions between black and white employees.

“This was by far one of THE most racist companies I have worked for. I was a part of the Back of House team, made up of predominantly Black people. We did not have water, they did not provide us heat during the winter and the pay difference between colored employees and white employees were vast,” one person commented on Reformation’s Instagram post. “When we would voice our opinions and tell them how unjust this was, they told us we were EASILY REPLACEABLE and did nothing to fix it. So your performance activism is cute but let’s see you make a real-time change in your organization.”

“Your practices at the stores do NOT reflect this statement, and you all should be ashamed that you have never acknowledged the needs and concerns of your black workers,” another person wrote.

In response to the backlash, Aflalo posted an apology on Reformation’s Instagram page.

“I’ve failed,” she wrote. “Our mission is to bring sustainability to everyone, and part of that sustainability is treating people equally. I realize that I have failed all of you in that regard — especially the Black community. I’m sorry. Unfortunately, the way we have practiced diversity in the past has been through a ‘White gaze’ that falls too close to ignorance.

“After asking and listening to our team members, especially those who identify as BIPOC — I see that now. I am so angry at myself for not seeing it sooner," she added. "As a company, we have not leveraged our platform, our voice, and our content to combat the racism and injustice that pervades our country, and that will change, starting now.”

She said the company would be launching an independent investigation “to look into the workplace concerns that have been raised in our stores so that we can get to the bottom of it," as well as setting up a diversity and inclusion board.

Aflalo added that she would be personally donating $500,000 to three civil rights organizations this week, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Asked about some of the concerns raised by former employees, Reformation said in a statement to TODAY Style: "Reformation does not tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind. We have launched an independent, third-party investigation to look into these allegations so that we can resolve these issues, take appropriate corrective actions and make sure that all employees feel comfortable and valued working here."

Santiago said in an email to TODAY Style that in her view, many higher-ups were to blame for discrimination at Reformation.

"Accountability is important but accountability must happen for every person involved in the mistreatment of others. Yael's apology seemed to try and deflect blame away from her leaders and solely onto herself," she said. "The leaders at HQ have continuously carried out the leadership Yael encouraged and placed her values above the betterment of their employees."

She also cited leaders she viewed as complacent about these issues over the years.

"All of the staff at HQ are witnesses and we know what they say about silence," she told TODAY Style. "So if they truly plan on rebuilding the brand they will have to start from the top and unfortunately that top has created a business foundation rotted in degradation, prejudice and neglect."

In a separate Instagram post, Santiago revealed another leader at Reformation had reached out to her, asking for a phone call to share her experiences. Santiago declined, and shared screenshots of her response to this request.

Racism and prejudice is prevalent in many areas of our world. We have been made to believe we have to play along to the rules of their game in order to survive, in order to maintain our livelihood,” Santiago wrote in the caption. “But this is one of the countless lies they have manipulated us into believing. We all deserve better than what we have been given and it is only up to us to refuse anything less than the respect, recognition and retribution we are owed. I stand for every one of my black and brown brothers and sisters who have been denied their right to prosperity. I am proud to be a part of this fight.”

Santiago says she has been overwhelmed by the responses she has gotten to her messages about her experience at Reformation.

"It has been the most insane experience ever. I never imagined it would reach so many people," she told TODAY Style. "This work experience has been so heavy on my heart because I know it has continued long past me, so it felt both cathartic and giving to be able to release this pain. The messages have been overwhelming but I am so overjoyed by the support of such good people.

"So many employees, past and present at Ref and at other companies, messaged me about their own similar or worst experiences and I have never felt closer to strangers in my life," she added. "Now is a time when we fight collectively, none of us feel alone anymore and that is magic when it comes to change. There are many roles to play in a revolution and I am so grateful I've been able to inspire others to be courageous and to tell the truth."