Blackface in Gucci, Prada: Are Fashion Brands Out of Touch With the New Reality?

In 2019, even as #MeToo has taken hold and companies are under unprecedented pressure to up their focus on diversity, as well as take up key social causes, new cases of fashion brands missing the mark with racial insensitivity continue to crop up.

Just yesterday, Katy Perry reportedly pulled several shoes from her line out of concern that they resembled blackface. Meanwhile, a steady wave of criticism continues to roll in several days after an image of a black wool turtleneck balaclava sweater by Gucci caught the attention of social media users.

The Kering-owned brand last week apologized and discontinued the $890 sweater — which included a collar that extended over the mouth to reveal a slit designed with outsized red lips that users said resembled blackface. But that hasn’t stopped several rappers (T.I. and Soulja Boy among them), designers, actors and other celebrities from taking public stances against the high-fashion label, which is a status symbol in many a music video. (Prada also came under scrutiny in December when it sold bag charms and used window displays that featured monkeylike characters with large red lips, also condemned for resembling blackface.)

With the internet at their fingertips and the world becoming increasingly globalized, consumers today are more socially aware than they’ve ever been. So how is it that international fashion brands are so seemingly out of touch?

“One of high-fashion roles is to push the boundaries and possibilities of apparel and accessories, and sometimes that means doing outlandish things that don’t resonate with regular people. But that often goes too far,” explained Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, a brand strategy consultancy.

The fact that Gucci has a sizable U.S. customer base — in 2017, revenues from North America were responsible for 21 percent of its $7 million in sales — invalidates any supposition that it could have missed the memo on the offensive nature of blackface, Gabor added.

Gucci’s situation also isn’t helped by the fact that blackface has recently resurfaced as a relevant topic in current discourse, particularly in the wake of the controversy surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. (This month, a copy of Northam’s 1984 medical yearbook page surfaced displaying one individual in Ku Klux Klan garb and another, suspected to be Northam, in blackface. The governor initially apologized but later denied being the person in the offending photo.)

Prada, storefront
Prada’s store in New York’s Soho, which displayed ‘Pradamalia’ characters that garnered criticism for resembling blackface and have since been removed from the storefront.
CREDIT: Vanessa Carvalho/Shutterstock

“[Luxury brands] are the trend-makers and influencers. What you see in retail stores is influenced by what’s happening at Gucci and other brands,” Gabor said. “That’s why it’s essential that even the highest-end designers keep their fingers on the pulse of trends and market-level conversations happening around them in any market in which they operate. There’s no excuse that Gucci is in Italy. As a global brand, they have a responsibility to be relevant everywhere they have customers.”

While many conversations about diversity have made their way to the public arena — thanks to social media and the proliferation of movements like #MeToo — Elza Ibroscheva, professor and associate dean of the school of communications at Webster University, said the actual and meaningful diversification of fashion brands and their ad agencies has been a slow-moving process.

“Despite the fact that, socially, consumers appear to be making big leaps in terms of what they anticipate from brands, the very top echelon of management and the creative voices who own these agencies and who make the calls still haven’t changed dramatically,” Ibroscheva said. “The top [leadership] of advertising agencies is still very 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. So even though you might be infusing new blood and more socially minded, diverse employees in these agencies, it may take time before this effect rises all the way to the top of the food chain.”

Meanwhile, Ibroscheva said, consumers — particularly minorities who are feeling most disenfranchised by tone-deaf messaging — are left with a “repetitive cycle of brands making excuses and apologizing while missing the opportunity to make amends at the grassroots level, where the creative energy is supposed to come from.”

What’s worse, she added, is that some brands may find themselves benefiting from the supposed fallout of a racial gaffe — and whether that is their intention to begin with can be tough to gauge.

“Is that publicity really bad publicity if it is publicity — clicks and eyeballs?” Ibroscheva argued. “Some of these viral campaigns could literally be a marketer’s dream. You have to wonder if they are positively impacted by a controversy and whether [the backlash] really matters in the end.”

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