Wtf is really going on in fashion? Over the past year, there have been several high-profile cases of European fashion houses appropriating black culture and displaying seemingly racist and insensitive imagery. Prada, Gucci, H&M, Moncler, and Burberry have all received backlash on select items in their collections. Should these brands be forgiven for their thoughtlessness? Is this a problem we can change?
Prada had a toy brown monkey with red lips. H&M put a black kid in a hoodie that read, “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Moncler and Gucci both had articles of clothing that refer to blackface imagery. Burberry made a mockery of lynching and suicide with their hoodie featuring a noose. I’m not shocked when things like this happen, racism is embedded in society. Black people have been told to get over it; racism happened so long ago. But just a few decades ago, this type of behavior was the norm. These types of images refer to a barbaric time in history, the JIM CROW era.
Jim Crow laws happened from the late 19th century to 1965 but the residual effects still bleed into society today. The civil rights movement was at its strongest from 1954 to 1968, (50 years ago), slowing down considerably with the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. I say “slowed down” because black people are still fighting to this day to be treated fairly and equally. With insensitivity shown by European brands as well, it shows that racism is global and not only an American problem.
These are global brands whose audience is expansive and diverse. The leaders of these brands should hold enough responsibility not only for their individual direction of fashion but also doing enough research to know when they step over cultural boundaries. If the heads at fashion houses are not aware of what they are doing, then that shows how racism and colorism is ingrained in people’s subconscious. It tells me how many people have grown up to think blackface and minstrel imagery is okay, or perhaps that they are ignorant to the connotation of such imagery. I can’t decide which is worse.
When we are not being insulted, our culture and art is appropriated and repackaged to a new audience. This has been happening for the better half of the century and the trend continues in fashion. For example, despite his ravaging, romanticized and delicately intricate collections being a smash hit these last few years, Gucci’s Alesandro Michele is one of the largest culprits of such aesthetic plagiarism. Michele stole original designs from Harlem’s legendary tailor Dapper Dan in Gucci’s Cruise 2018. The company’s way to make amends was cutting a fat check and bringing Dapper Dan in to have his own collection at Gucci and a boutique in Harlem. This seemed like a productive way to properly make amends and credit an inspiration instead of directly thieving designs. That is, until Michele released that black and red lipped jumper. * straight face emoji* Alesandro stated he drew his inspiration for the jumper from the art of Leigh Bowery. Through my own research, I can see where Michele got the lips from, but Bowery never used the combination of red lips and black or brown face paint. Soooo wtf? Again, I ask if this is ignorance of the grotesque history behind such imagery, or a blatant disregard for its significance.
Each fashion house previously mentioned has felt the pressure to create a response to backlash for their insensitivity and oversight. Most apologized, but does that even matter? The continued ignorance and thoughtlessness of these global brands is truly appalling. The fact that these things have happened show the lack of diversity in the boardrooms of these brands. If more POC were represented in leadership roles, these things would not happen at all. It would be smart for brands to have someone or a team catch insensitive imagery before it got out to the public. Despite a lack of representation, slowly there has been more and more pushback from the real culture creators and auteurs.
Recently, there have been efforts from more companies to include a more “diverse campaign”. This means they have been using more black models to give the illusion of inclusion. I can’t fault these huge companies for wanting to stay relevant and trendy, but a sentiment that is being made only to affect a financial bottom line is not true justice. My solution to this problem is say, “fuck ‘em” and move on. I can get my drip elsewhere, and so can you. There are a ton of POC designers (and other designers in general) who can offer the same quality of clothing without all the racism, if you are interested. If you’re looking for a different, youthful narrative to inspire or work into your wardrobe, Virgil Abloh of Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s, Heron Preston, Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean Raymond, Chitose Abe at Sacai, and Laquan Smith are changing the game in fashion. These are just a few names. I encourage you to do your own research and find your own favorite designers who you can resonate with. Support your local designers, too! There are so many dope brands run by black people, other minorities and POC here in Detroit too like Not Sorry Apparel, Roslyn Karamoko’s Détroit is the New Black, Tommey Walker’s Detroit Vs. Everybody, and The Wealthy Brand by Rashad Hosea. You know these guys will appreciate you more than these huge brands will.
BY: Ryan Daniels, a student, activist, cultural writer and photographer