What Do Fashion and a United Nations Hunger Program Have in Common?

About a decade ago, the actress Halle Berry visited Jinotega, a region in Nicaragua. In video from the visit, Ms. Berry looked on as tidy rows of children filed into their village school, where they would be provided their single balanced meal of the day. The prospect of a hearty lunch encouraged their parents to send them to school, Ms. Berry said in the footage, even those parents who may have been reluctant.

She was acting as an emissary for Watch Hunger Stop, an initiative organized by the designer Michael Kors in partnership with the United Nations World Food Program, to provide meals to schools in developing regions around the world.

Kate Hudson joined the initiative in 2015 and made a field visit to Cambodia in 2017. She and Ms. Berry have since appeared in online campaign imagery, on television, and in promotional videos for the program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.

“At the start, I wasn’t sure we would engage everyone,” Mr. Kors said in recent a phone conversation. “We thought that people would get bored.” But the campaign has prospered through sustained social media messaging and the sale of W.H.S. special-edition apparel and accessories. Donations are solicited in stores and through a link on the Michael Kors website.

“A lot of people think that philanthropy is only for the rich,” Mr. Kors said. He has challenged that assumption, arguing that donations are well within the means of many of his followers. Citing a W.F.P. figure, he stressed that $5, the price of a coffee in many large cities, could feed a child in school for a month.

Such messaging, most successful on the Michael Kors Instagram account, has been effective.Since 2013, Watch Hunger Stop has raised about $7.5 million, the equivalent of more than 30 million school meals (at about 25 cents per meal). The Michael Kors brand expects to donate an additional three million meals throughout the next campaign year, beginning in October, according to Mona Swanson, a spokeswoman.

Mr. Kors said that for girls there is a particular benefit. The prospect of a free meal encouraged parents who would likely have kept their daughters doing chores at home, to send them to school. That decision, he said, could have an enormous impact on the trajectory of these girls’ lives.

Mr. Kors’s eyes were opened to the impact of social activism in mid-1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis. “We were assaulted every which way,” he said. He was aware of God’s Love We Deliver, a meal-delivery service that began around that time, he said. “Still, everyone we knew was ill and we all felt helpless,”

Proceeds from a line of T-shirts and totes by Michael Kors and Sang Bleu will benefit Watch Hunger Stop.Credit…Michael Kors
Credit…Michael Kors

Watch Hunger Stop was small at the outset, but contributions were significant in ways not always tangible. For the program’s beneficiaries, “the knowledge that someone was actually thinking about you, cared about you, made a difference,” Mr. Kors said.

Certainly Michael Kors is not the first fashion brand to embrace the power of positive P.R. Ralph Lauren, Asos, H&M and Tiffany & Company, among others, have stepped up their support of philanthropic initiatives in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Similar endeavors among fashion brands and retailers date back at least to the early 2000s. The prevailing wisdom, as noted at the time in the Harvard Business Review, is that “philanthropy is used as a form of public relations or advertising, promoting a company’s image or brand through cause-related marketing or other high-profile sponsorships.”

That reasoning stands today. So it is no great leap to suppose that Michael Kors and its parent company, Capri Holdings, acquired last month for $8.5 billion by Tapestry, the owner of Coach and Kate Spade, is likely to benefit from its intensified social cause marketing.

Watch Hunger Stop may or may not boost brand recognition worldwide. “But it absolutely allows people to know the values of the brand they are aligning with,” Mr. Kors said.

He has amplifiedhis promotional efforts. Images of Ms. Berry and Ms. Hudson are featured on special-edition watches. A line of T-shirts and totes designed in collaboration with Sang Bleu, a Swiss creative agency, will also be sold online and at some Michael Kors stores beginning on Oct. 1. All profits from the T-shirts and totes will be funneled to Watch Hunger Stop, and $50 will be donated for each watch sold.

On Sept. 11, 2023, the day of the Michael Kors spring-summer 2024 fashion show, Mr. Kors and Cindy McCain, the executive director of Watch Hunger Stop, will host a cocktail reception celebrating the 10th anniversary, at the United Nations headquarters. Ms. Berry will be there as well, and the Kors company plans to donate 100 meals to the W.F.P. for each guest.

“Obviously September 11 resonates heavily with me and so many of us,” Mr. Kors said. “But for me, celebrating on that day is a show of positivity.”

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