It's 2019, And There's Still Plenty Of Racism In Fashion
By Tiffany Lashai Curtis
Racism in the fashion industry isn’t surprising, given the industry’s longtime struggle with diversity, but what is surprising is that brands haven’t seemed to learn from racist mistakes.
From putting white models in cornrows for an Africa-themed runway show, or appropriating Native peoples’ traditional clothing for an entire collection, it seems like you can’t go a single season without hearing about another ignorant misstep. But it’s only recently that brands themselves have had to answer for these missteps. Thanks in part to social media, if a brand now releases a racist campaign, product, or design, they often face consequences: rightful consumer outrage, threats of boycotts, and even an executive stepping down.
We’re only a few months into the year and already several fashion brands and major figures in the industry have used racist imagery in a myriad of ways, ranging from their designs to home decor choices to window displays. It seems that almost every week, people have called out a new instance of racism, and especially anti-Black racism, from the minds of revered fashion houses and esteemed fashion folks.
While some brands have admitted that they should’ve known better, others have been noticeably silent, plead ignorance on the matter, or offered little tangible follow-up on their mistakes. In 2019, it’s all too clear that people from all creative disciplines need to educate themselves on experiences outside of their own. It remains to be seen how exactly the fashion industry will take note.
January 13: Prada
In December 2018, Prada was criticized for sambo-inspired keychains window displays that they released and later removed from stores. According to the Washington Post, the brand also donated all of the proceeds from their blackface designs to a New York-based racial justice organization after Center for Constitutional Rights staff attorney Chinyere Ezie suggested they do so.
But in an interview with WWD published on January 13, 2019, the brand’s head designer Miuccia Prada remained defiant.
“I increasingly think anything one does today can cause offense,” she said, later adding, “People want respect because now there is talk of cultural appropriation, but this is the foundation of fashion, as it has always been the basis of art, of everything.”
January 23: Balmain
On January 23, Balmain closed out Couture Week in Paris with a runway show that featured Black models done up in ebony-colored makeup. Other models were covered in white makeup; as Fashionista reports, lead makeup artist Val Garland referenced the hashtag #statuesque on an Instagram of model Ysaunny Brito, but did not elaborate further.
Social media users and fashion industry watchdogs like Diet Prada raised questions over the choice of makeup used in the show, which some people likened to blackface.
According to Fashionista, Olivier Rousteing, who is the creative director of the French fashion house, offered no hints about the intention of this decision in the show notes, merely saying that designing the collection gave him "the immense luxury of stepping back for a minute — a chance to clear my mind, dream and revel in a moment of unfettered creativity." He doesn’t appear to have ever addressed the controversy. MTV News has reached out for comment.
February 6: Gucci
In early February, the Italian fashion house produced a sweater that evoked blackface. The black, balaclava-style sweater featured a cutout surrounded by red, cartoonish lips, which called to mind images of picaninnies, golliwogs, and sambo; it was listed at the retail price of $890.
When images of the sweater made their way across the internet, backlash ensued. On February 6, the powers-that-be at the fashion house issued a swift apology via Twitter after boycott threats caught fire, and stated that the sweater had been removed from its online store and retail shops.
"Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper," the brand said.
"We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make. We are fully committed to increasing diversity throughout our organization and turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond."
However, Black celebrities and consumers alike were not immediately forgiving, expressing outrage and calling for a boycott of the brand.
On Instagram, rapper T.I. wrote, “APOLOGY NOT ACCEPTED!!!! We ain’t going for this ‘oops my bad I didn’t mean to be racist and disrespectful towards your people.” He also encouraged people of color to stop buying and supporting the brand, which has been a staple in the hip-hop community, and stressed the buying power of people of color, which is more than $1 trillion dollars a year, according to a 2018 Nielsen report.
Filmmaker Spike Lee stressed the need for Gucci to employ more Black people: “I, Spike Lee Of Sound Mind And Body Will No Longer Wear Prada Or Gucci Until They Hire Some Black Designers To Be In Da Room When It Happens,” he wrote on Instagram. The brand was also “cancelled” by rapper Soulja Boy.
On February 10, renowned Harlem fashion designer and tailor Dapper Dan expressed his frustrations with the blackface sweater: “Another fashion house has gotten it outrageously wrong,” he said in a statement he posted to Twitter. “There is no excuse nor apology that can erase this kind of insult.”
Dapper Dan has a longstanding history of with Gucci; he made a name for himself in the 1980s by creating custom designs with logos from luxury brands, including Gucci, and once had his designs pilfered by Gucci, before beginning a joint collection with the brand in 2017. On February 15, he and a group of “experts in inclusivity and accountability” met with Gucci reps to discuss demands, according to Fashionista.
As a result, the brand announced a “Multicultural Design Scholarship Program” to hire five new designers from around the world, and created a new role titled Global Director for Diversity and Inclusion in order to focus on recruitment practices and other diversity initiatives.
Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele has since taken “full accountability” for the incident.
February 7: Grace Coddington
On February 7, photographer Brian Ferry Instagrammed an editorial spread that featured shots of Vogue contributor and former creative director-at-large Grace Coddington in her home for Les Echos Série Limitée, a French publication. Yet the decor detail that drew most people’s eyes was the collection of mammy jars sitting on a kitchen shelf just behind Coddington in one of the photos.
“I’m not surprised that Grace Coddington can’t be trusted but I continue to be surprised that photographers will casually publish this stuff,” said Aminatou Sow, a podcaster and digital strategist.
After the shoot drew ire from social media users, Ferry took down the images and replaced them with other images of Coddington, sans mammy jars. "I am re-posting the photos of Grace Coddington and her apartment from yesterday. I've deleted a couple of shots after the mammy cookie jars in the kitchen were brought to my attention. I'm truly sorry for my oversight, and I'm grateful for the call-in about this. I'm embarrassed that I didn't notice or call them out myself earlier, and I'm committed to doing better in the future,” he said on Instagram.
But Ferry’s explanation was swiftly criticized; several commenters called him a hypocrite for not removing the entirety of the shoot from his Instagram profile. One commenter wrote, “You can't *both* bow to self-righteous censors AND honor the person whose decor is ostensibly so upsetting. Either they so upset you when you realized what they were (obviously an honest mistake on your part) that you disavow the entire series, or you leave them all up as a rather more honest depiction of your subject.”
At this time, Les Echos Série Limitée hasn’t published the spread or addressed the incident. At publish time, Coddington did not respond to MTV News’s request for comment.
February 9: Vogue Brazil
On the week of February 9, a now-deleted photo of Vogue Brazil’s then-fashion director Donna Meirelles at her 50th birthday party surfaced on journalist Fabio Bernado’s Instagram. The image featured Meirelles in a throne-like chair, flanked by two Black models in all-white outfits, and the celebration — which took place in Bahia, where like much of the rest of Brazil, the majority of the population is Black — appeared to evoke Brazil’s slavery era.
Stephanie Ribeiro, who writes the #BlackGirlMagic column for the Brazilian edition of Marie Claire responded to the photos in an Instagram post, “The black women were used as objects to create an exotic scene,” she wrote.
“It’s reminiscent of colonialism and romanticizes those times. She was recreating the image where whites are superior and blacks are dehumanized.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Ana Lucia Aruajo, a history professor at Howard University, said the photos were “tone deaf.” As she explained, the Black models were dressed as baianas, and their costumes represent the traditional dress of women from Bahia, but aren’t necessarily racist. She added, however, that context matters, and referenced Brazil’s long history of racism and white supremacy. “This continues to be a central issue in Brazilian society and this event will lead us to pay much more attention to how black women are depicted and commodified in Brazilian culture,” she said.
Renowned Black Brazilian singer Elza Soares expressed her anger via Instagram, and spoke of “wounds that have not healed,” in reference to her experiences as a descendent of slaves and the injustices faced by Black Brazilians.
According to Fox News, after criticism made its way across social media, Meirelles wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post that the chair was an artifact from the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion, and that the models’ outfits were traditional attire.
She also apologized if she had caused “any different impressions” and resigned from her position on February 13.
Vogue Brazil issued a statement after Meirelles’s announcement, saying, “Vogue Brasil profoundly regrets what happened and hopes that the debate that has been generated serves as a learning experience.”
The magazine promised to create a panel of scholars and activists to help them combat inequality within the company, but the move has been met with skepticism.
“They should just hire black people to work at Vogue Brasil, not create a forum for black activists to act like babysitters telling them whether something is racist or not,” Ribeiro wrote.
February 11: Katy Perry
Katy Perry’s fashion label came under fire in early February after images of two footwear styles, released last summer, resurfaced online. As critics noted, the designs looked suspiciously like blackface.
Quartz reports the two shoe styles – one a flat mule, and the other a block-heeled sandal — featured googly blue eyes, as well as bright red lips that are the stuff of Jim Crow legend. Both designs were stylized on a black leather backdrop.
Social media criticism was swift, with one Twitter user noting that information on the history of blackface is easily accessible. Another came to Perry’s defense and called the criticism against her a “character assassination.”
In a statement obtained by the New York Times, the singer apologized by saying, that she “was saddened when it was brought to my attention that it was being compared to painful images reminiscent of blackface. Our intention was never to inflict any pain. We have immediately removed them from [the website]."
February 17: Burberry
On February 17, Burberry sent a noose hoodie down the runway during London Fashion Week as part of its Fall/Winter 2019 collection. In what the brand later said was an attempt to adhere to a “nautical” theme, the hoodie featured ties at the neck that blatantly resembled a noose, which has long been a visceral symbol of both lynching and suicide.
Model Liz Kennedy, who walked in the show, called out the offense on Instagram, stating that "Suicide is not fashion. It is not glamorous nor edgy.” She added, "Let’s not forget about the horrifying history of lynching either. There are hundreds of ways to tie a rope and they chose to tie it like a noose completely ignoring the fact that it was hanging around a neck." She also made claims that, while she was at the venue, her concerns about the hoodie were dismissed by unnamed company employees.
After online fallout ensued, Burberry’s Chief Executive Officer Marco Gobbetti issued a statement to CNN:
“We are deeply sorry for the distress caused by one of the products that featured in our A/W 2019 runway collection. Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake."
The brand’s creative director Ricardo Tisci issued an apology of his own. ”I am so deeply sorry for the distress that has been caused as a result of one of the pieces in my show on Sunday,” he said, according to Harper’s Bazaar. Burberry plans to remove the piece from the collection.
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