The fashion industry has somewhat of an abysmal reputation. Since its birth in the mid-1800’s fashion houses and designers have been accused of sexism, cultural appropriation, and advertising unrealistic beauty standards for both men and women. As recently as the 1990’s, most models of color had to bring their own makeup for lack of provided resources. The industry has made efforts to change, but as soon as a step is taken forward, one offensive piece sends them flailing back. 2018 and 2019 specifically have seen an uptick in outrage against luxury designers.
In just these two years alone, brands have sent questionable designs out onto the runway to the dismay and disgust of the American population. Gucci’s infamous blackface sweater, H&M’s monkey sweatshirt, and Burberry’s noose sweater are the most recent blunders. It’s not just Americans getting offended either. Late last year Dolce & Gabbana released a video of a Chinese model attempting to eat pizza, spaghetti, and a cannoli with chopsticks while the narrator mocks her for her ignorance. Chinese citizens were outraged and called the video explicitly racist. This prompted their Shanghai show to get cancelled.
These ongoing mistakes make us wonder why this keeps happening. How do designers not know by now to double check their work before showing it to the world?
There are a few theories. One posed by Italian fashion author and journalist Paola Jacobbi is ignorance. Jacobbi told The Hollywood Reporter, “Italian culture is insular. While Italians travel a lot for business, they don’t typically mingle with other cultures.” Most of the fashion houses committing these blunders are, indeed, Italian.
A secondary theory is that they’re just honest mistakes. After all, why would a designer offend on purpose? Brands need to appeal to their customers in order to get business. Commentators and those within the fashion industry agree. Negative publicity is not the kind they want. So, according to them, it’s most likely a mishap.
There’s also the undeniable truth that there aren’t enough people of color in power within these fashion houses. Nicola Fumero of Forbes wrote on H&M’s hoodie debacle, “[The scandal is] not terribly surprising, though, when you take a look at the company’s board of directors, all of whom are white.” H&M doesn’t exist in a vacuum either. Though all these companies sell clothes to countries like America where there is a history of racism and other atrocities, they don’t employ people from those countries or cultures to give their designs a once over.
When Center for Constitutional Right lawyer, Chinyere Ezie, saw Prada’s racist keychain in their SoHo shop window she was shocked. In a Facebook post she wrote, “There are Black people everywhere. [Prada is] a multinational brand. That tells me they don’t have Black people in their boardroom.” Lack of representation increases the chances of this sort of insensitivity to continue. As to why these companies haven’t already employed people for these positions, they won’t say.
Lastly, there’s the insidious but not farfetched assertion that these controversies are generated on purpose. Critics postulate that these gaffes are not truly missteps but rather tactful publicity stunts. Kirsten Holtz Naim, former fashion executive, is dubious to the claims of ignorance. “I found this defense a bit peculiar… each item goes through a series of meetings, run-throughs, and approvals before it comes anywhere near a store shelf,” she says. “The blackface controversies in fashion are not sporadic anomalies. They are enabled by multiple levels of a fashion industry that’s encouraged consumers to buy in, over and over.”
Amanda Marcotte, author of Troll Nation, told Salon, “Sure, [these companies] get blowback and criticism when they do something obnoxiously racist, but they also get their name into the news cycle and remind consumers that they exist.” Later on in the piece she adds, “Even more troublingly, I worry that these controversies might help their image with certain kinds of consumers. The brands are now even more strongly associated with eliteness and whiteness, qualities that still appeal to the moneyed customers they’re trying to get. Plus, they now have a reputation for being ‘politically incorrect.’”
No matter the reason or intent for these behaviors, fashion designers have a responsibility to their consumers to do their due diligence. It’s 2019 and nothing they’re doing hasn’t already been called out.
Moving forward, companies must do better. The good news is that some of them already are. Gucci, Burberry, and Prada all have implemented their own diversity programs to promote understanding and education for employees, providing scholarships to North American college students and an influx of people of color in high powered positions. H&M hired diversity leader, Annie Wu as their new Global Leader for Diversity and Inclusiveness. Though there are still holdouts like Dolce & Gabbana — who have done nothing more than film a seemingly forced apology video — there is a strong effort being made.
Even with this progress however, it’s worth noting that what got those lead feet moving in the first place was the outrage online. As Nicola Fumo wrote, “It is disappointing that brands are having to learn this from the bottom up — through tweets and literal riots.”
From this point onward, excuses of naivety should not be tolerated nor accepted. The people have spoken, the brands have responded, and now all that’s left is consistent action.
Johanie Martinez-Cools is a blogger, writer, and editor. She loves writing about life lessons and mental health. She regularly reads a diverse array of books including: The Queen of Water, Who Fears Death, and Persepolis.