In honor of Juneteenth, online menswear retailer Grailed launched its inaugural Black Seller Spotlight to highlight a number of the top Black retailers and creatives on the site right now.
CASSIUS had the opportunity to speak with Wickel Titalom, Grailed’s Head of Partnerships, about the company’s approach to the holiday, both in terms of the business side as well as for its own culture. We also delved into how the former Big Four management consultant made the move to fashion, what personal attributes have made Wickel a success at Grailed. and the mark he hopes to leave in fashion – through the company and beyond.
CASSIUS: How did you get into this field? You were actually a Spanish major in college, right? I’m just trying to understand how’d we get from there to somewhere like Grailed.
Wickel Titalom: Well, I did a double major in Spanish and Health Systems Management [at Loyola University Chicago]. So, yeah, a very odd transition to fashion and tech!
I started my career in strategy consulting, which is essentially how I got my feet wet, being a bit of a generalist. And towards the latter part of my tenure [at Ernst and Young], I was doing a lot of work around business development, building out new client opportunities for EY.
From there, I transitioned to a role at a startup incubator co-founded by the founders of Fandango and Gilt Group. So that’s how I started kind of transitioning into more of the fashion space as the portfolios companies [the incubator was] focused we’re across e-commerce, personal styling, and then one was focused on health and wellness.” [Then] I transitioned to a startup accelerator program called Techstars. Shortly thereafter, I was at Square and building out the Partnerships team there. And then I spent some time at another incubator called Store No. 8, also building out the Partnerships function for one of the portfolio companies.
I think the narrative [for my career arc] is external-facing roles and partnerships. So I think with all of these organizations, it was me coming in at a pretty early stage [and asking]: How do you take a product or an organization where there isn’t much of an infrastructure in place and scale that?
So when I came to Grailed, partnerships were historically more focused on… they were a little bit more qualitative in nature. So I think, given my background in much more analytically minded spaces, I was kind of able to build out the infrastructure a little bit more to more effectively scale the function. So hopefully that helps [flesh out] little bit more of the motivation in how I got to Grailed.
From a personal standpoint, I think I’ve always been motivated by connecting with people.
I was born in Central Africa, and I moved around a lot as a kid. I was raised in France as well as the Midwest, so I think having such a transient life made it so that partnerships made a ton of sense because I’m engaging with so many different people on a day-to-day basis.
[At any moment], I’m having conversations with A-list celebrities and their teams, and in the next second I’m talking to a retailer or a brand. So I think, for me, the core DNA with all of those interactions is connecting with people. I think in particular, when you break it down with partnerships, there’s sort of a science associated with it.
C: You’re in charge of the Black luxury movement at Grailed, right? But generally speaking, there is such a Eurocentric bias when it comes to the concept of luxury and fashion overall. This lends to a cachet that those certain brands possess de facto, but the discussion of Black luxury is treated as an aside, and so Black culture doesn’t really get the same kind of credit. So from your perspective, and at Grailed, how do you think we can we normalize Black luxury on a day-to-day basis? And how can we make it such that Black brands comfortably “sit at the table” with these other brands and are not treated as “lesser than”?
WT: I think that’s a phenomenal question. With Black fashion designers, they work across the entire style spectrum, even if they are sometimes pushed into the realm of streetwear, regardless of what they’ve designed or produced. And this is a question that I connect to on such a deep level.
Having been raised in France, specifically Paris, we were sort of ingrained that “the best of the best” are the Louis Vuittons, the Guccis. And so even I’ve had to work through that process of “untraining,” if you will.
I think, for us [at Grailed], our aim is to showcase the sheer breadth of Black-owned brands, whether it’s luxury fashion or streetwear, reinforcing that Black designers are anything but one-dimensional.
I think showcasing Black excellence has always been fundamental to Grailed, really since our inception, well before it was popular to do so or in response to the BLM movement. We’ve always encouraged our communities to support Black designers, creators, brands, etc. through editorial columns and activations.
Case in point, we just teamed up with Salehe Bembury on a drop, but we’ve been covering him since 2017. So I think, for us, it’s always been ingrained in us to normalize that. And I think what’s so great about our platform and where we sit in the fashion industry is that we’re not held to any sort of framework. We’re not held to some sort of fashion calendar.
For us, we just want to showcase high-quality product, point-blank. But again, I think we’ve always been very attuned to ensuring we’re giving Black creators a platform since Day 1.
I think that’s why you’ll see, when it comes to Black creators specifically, we profile high-profile designers like Jerry Lorenzo, Salehe, and Virgil [Abloh] all the way down to names that may be lesser-known by a casual audience. So whether it’s Wales Bonner, Josué Thomas, Darryl Brown, and including the sellers and curators on our platform.
Again, I think we’re lucky because we don’t have those guardrails in terms of being beholden to buyers, we’re not beholden to a specific calendar. So we can really kind of push content out there however we want.
C: A few years ago, P. Diddy had an interview with Touré where he made this particular comment on the idea of Black excellence: “There is a difference [between ‘Black Excellence’ and that of other races]. The difference is that we haven’t really forcefully tapped into our excellence. Sometimes you can possess magic or superpowers and be afraid of them.”
So what are some of the barriers that you’ve seen, both within the Black community as well as from outside of it? And how has your recent initiative been working when it comes to taking down those barriers?
WT: Some barriers to entry in owning our excellence include, of course, the lack of traditional means of support and resources given by buyers, retailers, and more to create that needed visibility. The appetite for Black fashion is obviously here and it’s coveted. As seen through European or more Eurocentric brands who take inspiration from these designers, there still is a lack of acclaim [given as is to] their White counterparts.
So that was really the nexus point – in honor of Juneteenth and paying homage to the bustling Black communities, specifically on Grailed – with a spotlight on a series of Black sellers who have interesting stories of how they’ve used Grailed as a means to celebrate their love of luxury and fashion, in addition to how they’ve found community.
What’s great about them is they’re jacks-and-jills-of-all-trades: they’re not only selling on the platform but, in their personal lives, they’re stylists and they have their own personal creative endeavors. So I think it was really exciting to take an opportunity to let them take the front seat as opposed to being a very product-focused initiative. We heavily invested in a video component so that we could ensure that they jumped off the page because they are so dynamic, and we wanted them to really tell the stories themselves.
C: How did you go about selecting those partners who properly embody Black luxury without reducing the initiative or concept to a kitschy cliché? Even your manner of responding tells me there was dedicated and deliberate thought put into this.
WT: Yeah, absolutely! I think we were definitely trying to find that sweet spot, ensuring that we’re putting forth and amplifying diverse voices but not to the detriment of the products we were showcasing. We have thousands of sellers on our platform, but we were just so lucky to find a handful that really just hit those two core criteria for this particular initiative.
C: 2021 marks the first year that Juneteenth is being recognized as a national holiday.
For the readers, can you give a high-level breakdown of how Grailed chose to celebrate the moment? Also, who were some of your more obscure collaborators that made the Black Seller Spotlight initiative worthwhile? And is there a company vision so that something like the initiative doesn’t become a one-off token occurrence, where Grailed did it just to “check the boxes”?
WT: First, let’s answer how we chose to celebrate Juneteenth.
Externally, of course, we had this Black Sellers spotlight that we ran, and alongside that spotlight we donated Grailed fees towards four organizations that we’ve been working with for some time now: BuiltNYC, Black & Brown Founders, the All Black Creatives Foundation, The Black in Fashion Council. To date we’ve directed over $100K between those organizations and [other ones as well].
Moving forward, we’re actually committing a minimum of $30K per year [with an emphasis on] organizations that stand up and fight racial injustice.
We, of course, recognize that giving is a great place to start. But at Grailed, we also recognize that donations are just the first step and know that positive change happens both internally and externally. So we’re really doubling down on providing a more fulfilling, comforting, inviting experience for the Black community on the platform and in the company through a number of diversity inclusion initiatives.
Internally, we have a Diversity and Inclusion Council, we have annual trainings for all staff on unconscious bias, incorporation of inclusion policies, and that’s really just the start. Even prior to Juneteenth being written into law, it was a day that we had actually carved out as a day off for employees, so they’re able to really reflect and take a step back, take the time to understand the weight of the date.
And there’s more to come, so this isn’t going to be the only initiative in which we’re celebrating Black creators specifically. In the coming months, we’re actually rolling out additional content that’s focused around Black sellers and designers. So we’re really excited to bring those [stories] to life.
So this isn’t really new for us. Historically, we’ve kinda done this organically, so we’ve always been promoting diverse voices: through our content, through our partnerships with the bigger designers and also with the smaller designers as well, from Day 1 here at Grailed.
So I really think the Black Seller Spotlight was the first instance in which we were a little bit more overt or deliberate about it, both from a messaging standpoint and from a content standpoint. Not have it be “under-the-line” but really we wanted it to be “top-of-the-line,” above the fold, that this is an initiative that is dedicated to Black creators on our platform.
We’ve always been committed to using our platform to facilitate more inclusivity and diversity for Black people within the fashion industry, agnostic of size. So whether it’s high-profile designers like Virgil [Abloh] or the Jerry Lorenzos of the world or Kerby Jean-Raymond, whom we’ve featured in the past, we’ve also been huge proponents of lifting up lesser-known names to a more casual audience.
Those bigger names are super-important, right, because they help set that precedent within the industry. Virgil getting the creative director role at Louis Vuitton, that was a huge moment within the fashion industry that had pretty wide-ranging implications.
C: You’ve had a very dynamic background up through your time joining Grailed, and you’ve continued to be so involved with everything/behind so much during your two years [so far] with them. What is the legacy that you are looking to leave with Grailed and overall? Both with Grailed as well as for yourself, the individual?
WT: One of the luxuries of being Black as well as an immigrant is the lens you’re given to see the world through compassion and empathy – the other side of that is knowing that everything is so much bigger than you. Therefore, I want my legacy to be less about whether I was able to hit specific business metrics and targets, which to me feels overly transactional as well as almost a table stake for any business leader.
Instead, I want my legacy to be about how I leveraged my influence and role within the organization to advocate for initiatives that give individuals of diverse backgrounds & experiences more of a platform.
In other words, my aim is to leave a lasting imprint here at Grailed, as well as more broadly, as a change agent – someone capable of not only inspiring others, but also having the capacity to influence and persuade others to actually move these impactful initiatives forward.
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