Racism in the Fashion Industry

I’deyah Ricketts Whether it’s in the hallways at Latin, on the streets of Chicago, or flooding celebrities’ Instagram pages, designer brands populate the world of retail. Consumers obsess over eye-catching high fashion, saturating it with adoration. But recently, window shoppers have looked past the notorious logos and daunting price tags. Their scrutinization of high-end brands sheds light on the insensitivity and racism within the fashion world. This year, Black History Month kicked off with the debut of Gucci’s $890 balaclava. The black wool sweater that extended over the mouth featured oversized, red lips. While Gucci claimed that they took inspiration from “vintage ski masks,” the design clearly resembled blackface. Blackface dates back to the minstrel shows of the mid-19th century. White performers darkened their faces with polish and cork to mock enslaved Africans. By using blacks as the butts of their jokes, whites demeaned and distorted the African American community. It may be 200 years later, but the painful, racist history still resurfaces in Halloween costumes, Megyn Kelly’s short-lived NBC career, and Ralph Northam’s medical yearbook. As outrage bubbled, Gucci apologized and discontinued the sweater. “Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper,” stated the Italian luxury brand. But in the words of the beloved designer and tailor Dapper Dan, “There is no excuse nor apology that can erase this kind of insult.” The tone-deaf clothing release calls for a redirection of the brand’s process that goes on behind closed doors.    Though brands seem out of touch, consumers may be more socially aware. “It really shows that they don’t have an ally or black representative in their designing process,” said junior Gabriel Moreno. If it got so far along that it’s being sold on shelves, there’s a clear lack of representation in these brands. It’s a big pointer to the fact that corporate offices need to diversify.” The leadership within advertising agencies is still predominantly white and male. “You have about 97 percent of agencies still operating in cultural and institutional knowledge that they’ve seen as the status quo for so long,” says Elza Ibroscheva, the dean of communications at Webster University. Infusing socially minded, diverse employees into these companies builds cultural awareness that they are currently lacking. On a more positive note, Gucci wrote in their apology, “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.” The fashion house claims that a global director for diversity and inclusion will be hired. They will also be launching multicultural scholarship programs in ten cities around the world. Dance teacher Ms. Durant understands that high-end designers must keep up with the market-level conversations around them. “In teaching composition,” she said, “I always makes a point of: is this your intention? Whether it’s art or fashion design, there has to be an awareness of multiple meanings or interpretations of how something will be perceived. That’s a part of your job as a maker to do that work because while I agree it may not be their intention, there’s a responsibility in that field to make sure you’re not offending anybody with your clothes.” But as racism continues to be commercialized, consumers find that brands may be benefiting from the fallout of racial blunders. While their intention may be hard to gauge, the time and effort channeled into each piece can’t be forgotten. Blackface controversies in fashion are far from sporadic anomalies; the same mistake has just been made too many times. Last December, Prada discontinued their $550 monkey figurines from the “Pradamalia” line. The black and brown versions had oversized red lips, reminiscent of blackface. Katy Perry also faced criticism over her line of shoes—featuring protruding eyes and red lips—that drew comparisons to blackface. Moncler joined the list of companies by launching jackets and bags baring images resembling blackface figures. In 2018, H&M was slammed for using a black child to model a sweatshirt with the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle.” While Burberry’s misstep may not have been racially insensitive, the noose they featured in their London fashion Week alluded to suicide and lynching. So, when will withdrawing clothing pieces and posting apologies stop being enough? For T.I., Gucci was the last straw, as he urged black Americans to follow his “call to action.” Stop buying Gucci for 90 days, stop wearing the Gucci items you own, share the plan to make a change. Spike Lee vowed to never wear Prada or Gucci until they start hiring black designers. Soulja Boy “canceled” Gucci while 50 Cent burned his Gucci products in protest. The question of whether black people or celebrities will stop sporting designer brands is hard to answer just yet. But what isn’t up for debate is the power of the black dollar. Black culture defines mainstream western society. Black buying power influences how Americans spend their money. So, while European-based brands may not want to appeal to the black community, a quick social media post or screenshot can turn off any American consumer. “Companies have been racist forever,” junior Kris Walker agrees. “People are just now pointing it out but if you really want to “cancel” them, you need to cancel all brands. But we won’t make change until we’re all united. Comparing the 1960s to now, the black community is completely fractured and we’re not united. We need to work towards a common goal or change won’t be made.” Are designer brands attempting to drive away consumers of color? Are they intentionally excluding voices who would call out their failures? The motive of designers may be up for debate, but the role of the individual isn’t. Buyers must take back the power from outside of the industry’s walls. Because Gucci may love our money, but does it really love us?  ]]>