'Rainbow Capitalism' or Not, Pride Collections Are Everywhere
Pride marketing faced harsh scrutiny in 2021. Yet in 2022, Pride collections are just as rampant as ever.
Thank you for subscribing to Back Row! If you like this newsletter, please forward it to friends. Because if Back Row keeps growing, it keeps going! Also, don’t forget to buy my NYT bestselling book ANNA: The Biography. I know the internet had great fun over her go-to lunch, which was a single sentence in the book. Imagine what fun all those other sentences hold? But seriously, while this newsletter is free to read, buying the book is the best way to support it. If you are new here, subscribe to get more posts like this delivered to your inbox around twice a week.
*Note: Today’s post is too long for email, so read it in the Substack app or tap the headline to read it in a browser.*
It’s that time of year, when seemingly every corporation that can slap a rainbow on something and label it “Pride” goes forth and does just that. Over the weekend, I got an email from Bombas, the sock company, about their Pride collection, including things like a “Pride tank and ankle sock 7-pack” ($103.50).
Pride merchandise now floods store websites each June as reliably as corporations that render their logos in rainbow until July 1, at which point they go right back to their usual colors. Pride collections came under increased scrutiny last year, as consumers called companies out for “rainbow capitalism” — a shameless and disingenuous ploy for sales without showing up for the LGBTQ community in ways that could more meaningfully help it, which go beyond pushing rainbow $100 sock packs during one specific month of the year. People like Chris Stedman also pointed out that some of this so-called Pride apparel is just plain hideous.
Chris Stedman, author of digital anthropology book IRL (in real life), went viral online after singling out US store Target for its “ugly as sin” attempt to bandwagon on Pride month. Speaking to the Observer, he said: “The reason this stuff often feels like such a violation to many of us is that the language these brands are slapping on to mugs emerged in spaces we built for ourselves because we weren’t welcome elsewhere.”
Often, the collections feel inauthentic and appropriated, robbing the community of their agency, he said. “Our in-group language and imagery evolved as a way for us to care for ourselves. So to have it used by brands that have little to no stake in our wellbeing feels like it cheapens and ultimately ‘defangs’ the language that we have used to empower ourselves. They think, ‘hey, we can just slap some rainbows on this and call it a day’. It’s dehumanising.”
Many of these Pride collections come with a promise that the brand will make a donation to one or more organizations that help LGBTQ people (though obviously those donations could be made without companies selling stuff; consumers could also simply make donations instead of buying stuff).
This year, Pride month takes place against a backdrop of terrifying uncertainty over LGBTQ rights in the U.S. A leaked draft opinion of a Supreme Court decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade has people worrying that the same arguments could be used to roll back things like marriage equality. Also, owing to Republican efforts, a third of transgender children face the loss of access to gender-affirming medical care, while ten states would enforce such laws through “bounty hunter” suits that private citizens file against medical providers.
And here we are on the eve of another June, with the Pride movement as important as ever, and for-profit companies showing no sign of leaving Pride-themed merch behind. Just Google “pride collections” and you’ll find everything from socks to candles to body wash. For $28, you can get a Pride trucker hat from Under Armour with the brand’s logo in rainbow stitching. Over at Target, you can get a “lesbian flag” maxi dress for $35. Havianas makes flip-flops in rainbow for $34. North Face has a rainbow logo hat for $40.
These products may feel flip and meaningless in the face of the harsh reality LGBTQ people face in 2022. But at this point, as with all those rainbow LinkedIn logos, it feels like no one wants to be the company that isn’t selling a Pride collection. Here is a long — but in no way comprehensive — list of such stuff being marketed this year.
Target’s new Pride collection was expertly reviewed on TikTok by Connor Clary. It features a section of family outfits, including a “pride pronouns” sub-collection. This includes a coral-colored shirt emblazoned with a menagerie of rainbow-colored pronouns ($10) that goes with a red adult-sized shirt ($15) featuring the same motif. Over in the non-Pride apparel section, you’ll find clothing conveniently categorized by two genders — men/boys and women/girls. (Banana Republic has also caught the pronoun top wave, offering a shortsleeved graphic sweatshirt in gray [$12.99 - $16.99] that says “them / they / their.” This is a men’s item.)
Target has been on a long road when it comes to its relationship to the LGBTQ community. It agreed to stop funding anti-gay groups in 2011 in exchange for exclusive sales rights to a version of Lady Gaga’s single “Born This Way.” In 2014, it endorsed marriage equality. In 2016, it became the subject of backlash and boycott when it announced that transgender shoppers could use the bathrooms and fitting rooms that corresponded to their gender identities. It was then praised for releasing its Pride collection that year anyway.
Pride gear for the whole family can also be found at Kohl’s, which offers all kinds of Pride jewelry and clothing, including a Pride skort romper ($30). The store’s Pride landing page highlights ph by The Phluid Project, an LGBTQ-owned, gender-free fashion brand “grounded in community, activism and education.” The Pride landing page also says:
[T]his year we're donating $100,000 to The Trevor Project, the world's largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people. Through our partnership, Kohl's will help to support over 1,500 LGBTQ youth in crisis via free, confidential 24/7 counseling. Since 2019, Kohl's has donated $325,000 to The Trevor Project.
This year’s donation is 0.775 percent of the CEO’s total 2021 compensation of $12.9 million. Or if you want to work off the $325,000 figure, that’s 2.5 percent of the CEO’s 2021 comp. Should we crunch the numbers with her 2020 comp, too? That year she earned $12.855 million.
Bath & Body Works’s Pride collection features a “rainbow waves” fragrance, which it has applied to candles ($26.50), “shimmer gel body lotion” ($16.50), and a “travel-size diamond shimmer mist” ($8.50). The scent is “a sweet, refreshing celebration of pride, love and equality for all,” which is apparently a combination of sangria, melon and “misty waters.” If you like your fragrance more upmarket, Jean Paul Gaultier offers 4.2 oz of “Le Male Pride Collector's Edition Eau de Toilette Spray” in a rainbow bottle ($100 at Bloomingdale’s).
Even Michaels, the craft store, has a Pride collection. It includes rainbow knee-high socks ($4.99) and an unfinished wooden Pride plaque that you can paint/decorate ($4.99). There’s also a rainbow metal connector (like, for making jewelry, $4.99). I don’t see anything on the Michaels site about donating to an LGBTQ organization. The Human Rights Campaign also ranks the company poorly in supporting an inclusive culture and corporate social responsibility:
Coach has rendered its signature “C” motif in rainbow and applied it to a saddlebag ($395) and matching bucket hat ($150). If that much logo isn’t for you, scoot on over to the Pride shoe section where you’ll find ombré rainbow rubber slides ($95). And if you really want to splurge at Coach on your Pride gear, and live in Maine or Alaska or Nantucket, or somewhere else cold enough for this much sweater in June, don’t miss this cardigan ($450). (Coach is owned by Tapestry Inc., which was last year named a best place to work for LGBTQ employees by the HRC.)
Add flare to your look with this pocket square from Brooks Brothers ($55). Consider tying it to your handbag if you’re feeling jaunty like that.
“Let's celebrate the LGBTQ+ community with our new collection of Pride-inspired customer favorites,” proclaims L.L. Bean. Here, you’ll find a rainbow beach towel ($34.95) made somehow less rainbow with the addition of an unmissable L.L. Bean logo. Other items, like this blue drawstring cinch pack in blue camo print ($14.95) seem to have no aesthetic connection to Pride. Unlike many companies on this list, L.L. Bean does not have a perfect score from the HRC in the category of supporting an inclusive culture and corporate social responsibility.
Elsewhere in shoe land, we have Ugg, selling “fluff yeah” Pride sandals in rainbow ($110). To match, you can grab a rainbow logo bralette ($48). Yes, that’s the letters U-G-G repeated in rainbow colors plus, for some reason, brown too.
If you shop for Pride gear at Disney, everyone will know just where you got your stuff because so much of it has Mickey or the Disney logo. For instance, the dog collar and leash set with a rainbow Mickey motif ($34.99). There’s also this rainbow key ($12.99) for which I can think of approximately zero uses. This haunting graphic on the Disney site suggests the Pride collection is not fully rolled out:
(Disney recently received ire for not denouncing Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill which would ban schools from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation; it then reversed course, resulting in ire from Florida Republicans.)
JCPenney’s Pride section includes a 3-piece hard luggage set by Ful in bright rainbow tie-dye ($518 with coupon code, $740 otherwise). If you never thought about getting Pride luggage, well, why not? You probably never thought about getting that Disney key, either.
If you’ve been thinking that your video game console company might not share your values, perhaps you haven’t seen XBox’s Pride collection. (XBox is part of Microsoft, which has a 100 score from the HRC.) It includes T-shirts ($19.99), tank tops ($19.99), and “eco” tote bags (inexplicably $10 more, at $29.99).
Over at FWRD, you can get some Balenciaga Pride pieces on sale. Such as the sports bra ($126, marked down from $350), boxy T-shirt ($324, marked down from $810) and baseball hat ($194, marked down from $495). And oh look, here’s the same sweatshirt in navy for the full price ($850) at Saks. If you want it with a hood, that’ll be $45 more ($895).
If you’re in the mood for luxury Pride stuff but not a Balenciaga kind of person, Netaporter has rainbow Pride Bala bangles ($85.91 for two). I couldn’t tell if these were regular accessories or wearable tech or what, but the fine print reveals that these “ankle and wrist weights add just the right amount of resistance for yoga and bodyweight training, or even walking around during the day to activate key muscles.”
For those who like their Pride gear preppy, Sperry Topsider offers a Pride boat shoe ($109.95). Picture a regular white boat shoe cut and pasted onto a thick rainbow sole. Pairs well with that Coach cardigan, but tie it around your shoulders this time. And please, wear it over a Pride polo shirt while you’re at it. How about one from Ralph Lauren ($98)? That brand has a long history of supporting LGBTQ organizations though only first featured a same-sex couple in its advertising in 2019.
The Pride section on ASOS features everything from jelly shoes ($47) to a glitter rainbow hair clip ($17.50) to a Care Bares notebook (…because the cover has an illustration of bears complimenting one another in front of a rainbow?) ($7.95).
During the month of June, you’ll want to know what time it is. Analog watch people might reach for Skagen’s rainbow style ($135). Of course, Apple watch people can find a rainbow band there too ($99).
If you’ve gotten this far and are thinking, But what about my baby? Look no further than Ralph Lauren, which offers a white T-shirt with rainbow pony emblems across the chest for babies and toddlers ($25). Pairs well with the Bombas baby pride gripper sock 6-pack ($28.50).
And look at that. We’ve come full circle — back to socks! What have I missed? If you’re seeing more corporate Pride stuff in the Wild West of the internet that I didn’t include above, please drop it in the comments.
Subscribe to Back Row if you haven’t yet to support independent fashion and culture journalism.