Gucci’s ‘blackface’ implores fashion to strip down and get real
It’s time for fashion to face up to its cultural insensitivity problem
Another week, another fashion gaffe.
This time it’s the turn of the previously impeccable Gucci, whose championship of gender fluidity, diverse, unconventional take on beauty, rejection of fur and occasional embrace of the slightly woo-woo has earned it love and financial loyalty across generations.
Only yesterday The Lyst Index, a quarterly report that analyses the online shopping behaviour of more than five-million online shoppers, named it the world’s most popular brand.
Blame today’s blip/crisis on Gucci’s black high-neck jumpers, complete with a pull-up collar that covers the nose and features an outline of a large red mouth, which have been exciting the social media brigade and not in a good way.
“Haute couture blackface for the millennials???” and “So @gucci puts out a sweater that looks like blackface… on Black History Month… And then issues an apology because they didn’t know that blackface images are racist,” were two of the milder ones. This comes weeks after Prada had to pull a charm (also with a dark face and oversized red lips) from all its store windows.
Dolce e Gabbana got a monumental roasting in China, where a controversy over one of its adverts featuring a Chinese model trying to eat classic Italian dishes such as pasta and pizza with chopsticks led, via a series of mishandled “apologies”, to its biggest fashion show ever being cancelled and a boycott of its stores in Asia – a serious problem for a brand that derives at least 40% of its turnover from that region.
Oddly given the hoo-hah that greets each of these missteps, they keep occurring and with increased frequency.
Just days before the Prada fandango in December, I’d been to Milan to interview Miuccia Prada, who had told me not only how aware – and wary – she was of the changing cultural landscape among luxury consumers, but that it was okay, because now that her 30-year-old son Lorenzo had joined the business, everyone at Prada was so much more culturally sensitive.
At least Prada had the wit to withdraw the offending charms immediately, as Gucci have done with this jumper, although there are some reports this morning that it’s still available at some outlets.
On the one hand, the howls of outrage that greet these XL faux-pas have all the gravitas and longevity of a sneeze.
But they can still wreak havoc on a business even if some or much of the wounded outrage is synthetic, whipped up by those with vendettas and carried out by the social media trolls who always rush to grab their pitchforks before they engage their brains.
In fashion, as in all areas, these arguments descend into brawls with depressing rapidity.
Nuance and perspective go out of the window and a white model wearing cornrows at Valentino is deemed as disgracefully racist (a mini-thunderclap of disgust broke over the “cultural appropriation” of the label’s catwalk homage to the Maasai Mara in 2016) as a charm with inflated human-looking lips or an anti-Semitic diatribe from John Galliano that expressed regret that Hitler hadn’t “finished the job”.
No one is exempt from the tidal wave of opprobrium, and that can be frightening, even if some of the anguish expressed is obviously confected.
In December, Suzy Menkes, senior fashion journalist at Conde Nast, was harangued on her social media accounts for attending a Dolce e Gabbana show after the Chinese debacle – the gist of the criticism being that she ought to have struck it off her list.
When she felt compelled to justify her actions (her argument was that she was merely doing her job as a reporter) and emphasise that she was in no way racially motivated, her more deranged critics claimed it wasn’t up to her to decide whether she was being offensive, but up to the offended ones.
Legally, they’re right. But surely intention should be taken into account. If not, this is a dangerous road.
Today you’re mortally offended by Gucci. Tomorrow you wear/say something or look at someone in a way that causes them acute distress.
Yet while it’s easy to roll your eyes over how easily some are offended, it’s no bad thing if fashion finally finds itself called to account for its actions. For years, because it was considered fluffy and indulgent, it got away with egregious offences and countless infractions.
Every so often a minor Italian designer would send something utterly crass and cynically designed to create a media stink down the catwalk – an overload of scantily dressed barely legal models, a pattern that looked like a swastika.
And there would indeed be a very minor fracas in the media. Publicity gained. Job done. Underlying attitudes unchanged.
The whole ethos of fashion has for years been that bad behaviour, unsavoury attitudes and (largely unspoken, but widely accepted) prejudices such as the one about black models not selling product were an inalienable part of a creative ecosystem.
If you questioned why models had to look so thin/ill/abused/underage/junkie or why there had to be quite so much ostentatious use of fur (much of it dyed to look fake), you were in the wrong galaxy. Suck it up or go and work somewhere safe and boring, was the general doctrine: creativity should not be hidebound by petty moralities.
It’s this la-la-la-la-la fingers-in-ears loftiness that explains why fashion brands keep finding themselves on the backfoot where public mores and opinions are concerned. Italian brands seem to be particularly tin-eared when it comes to tuning into the emotional zeitgeist.
It doesn’t help that the zeitgeist changes dramatically, depending on which part of the world you’re in. What seems patronising or racially offensive in the West, might pass, uncommented on, in the Middle East. That’s why, much as the Gucci jumper’s major sin – as far as many observers are concerned – is an aesthetic one (“it’s just ugly” is one consensus) it’s not really for white people to judge whether or not it’s genuinely offensive.
It’s only when you find yourself part of a targeted minority that you appreciate how painful a thoughtless gesture – even a frivolous fashion one – can be.
Surely it’s time for brands that seem to find it impossible to empathise with people other than themselves to employ consultants who can explain the way the modern world works to them.
Here’s another problem that explains, at least partially, why fashion keeps bursting its bubble of social progressiveness: it really isn’t remotely social progressive.
And it doesn’t properly listen to intelligent criticism, relying instead on kneejerk reactions and half-baked apologies. Then it forgets all about it.
Yet as we’re increasingly seeing, when brands transgress and see their turnovers stall, albeit in some cases temporarily, that approach no longer works. Wake up and smell the change.
– © The Daily Telegraph