Words by Naledi Sibisi
The current state of fashion calls for a reflection on the more strategic side of where the industry appears to be at today. When it comes to luxury brands and elite fashion houses in particular, the systems and structures in place seem to be targeting marginalized groups and appropriating their cultures in their marketing approaches. The callousness around this raises the question as to how big brands can adopt a better sense of morality as we remain in the process of creating a more diverse and humane global society.
When we talk about decolonization, we must of course concern ourselves with what the concept is rooted in. Decolonization challenges dominant groups who enforced a previous order centered on the exploitation of those who were a part of their system. In order to reclaim what is being exploited, certain and specific values and morals must be in place. Above that, there should be consequences when those boundaries are crossed. Throughout its history, the fashion industry has been notorious for its failure to be inclusive and instill a more diverse culture. Right through the last year, particularly towards the close, an increasing number of fashion houses came under fire for producing offensive garments that were culturally or racially charged.
A short time ago, Gucci had to recall problematic sweaters and loafers from their Fall/Winter 2018 Collection because the pieces included Blackface imagery. Non-Black people adopted Blackface through the use of makeup in an attempt to look Black in movies, plays, performances and so on during one of the most racist periods in United States history. The point was to further brutalize African-Americans and systematically prevent them from getting roles in the industry. Today, the use of Blackface is still as offensive, harmful and triggering to the African-American community.
The fashion industry would not be where and what it is if it was not informed by the groups it insists on targeting. Trends are birthed and popularized from the streets to the runway. This interdependent link cannot ignore how these communities have the power to decide what trendy looks like. Historically, a number of luxury brands did not want to be affiliated with hip-hop culture. Dapper Dan – the fashion designer and tailor was infamous for knocking off Gucci’s logo from the 1980s through to the ‘90s. The pair later collaborated on a vintage hip-hop-inspired capsule collection. In response to the Blackface farce, Dapper Dan expressed his grievance with the brand. While he mentioned that he would be in talks with the powers that be at the Italian fashion house; the emphasis remains on the importance of diversity and inclusivity going forward.
The frequency at which these controversies occur is too close to consider them unintentional. Companies should be tasked with the responsibility of hiring competent creative teams. By this, we should simply expect that businesses care enough to have the correct people in place to approve or discredit these ideas on the basis of how they may be offensive or harmful to consumers. It raises the question as to whether big brands are operating with teams that are not diverse enough to provide regulation before the production of these pieces; or whether brands are deliberately operating on an outrage footing to generate interest and further future sales. If we consider the latter, it is plausible that brands are aiming for viral outrage and then claiming cultural ignorance. In the case of the Gucci scandal, the Italian fashion house extended its apologies and withdrew the apparel. They also announced that they would be appointing a Global Director for Diversity and Inclusion along with additional designers. The re-positioning of the brand’s strategy resembles that of fellow Italian fashion house Prada, who also recently announced the appointment of a diversity council following very similar backlash.
When it directly concerns topics of culture, race and diversity - the fashion industry has somewhat exhibited an inability to sincerely want to do better when other corporations seem to be doing so across the globe. The reality is that big businesses understand the ins and out of marketing. The controversy ultimately works in their favour to later demonstrate how they have become more diverse and inclusive in their hiring process following any and all backlash. While it may be a seemingly smart approach, it is also unsettling to place the responsibility of certain societal and cultural knowledges on any person(s) of color specifically. As such, while companies claim it is never their intention to discriminate against particular groups in society, there is something that feels calculated when marginalized groups are the recurring targets; especially understanding the reaction that will inevitably occur on social media ahead of time.
The reality is that the fashion industry is treading on a dangerous path if it continues to push marketing at such a damaging degree; especially when it comes to influential fashion houses. Between Gucci, Prada and Moncler – luxury brands are perpetuating a culture where they can overcome these incidents under the assumption that the outrage will not actually affect the buying power of its consumers on a grand scale. By exploiting the experiences of marginalized groups at the expense of marketing products, fashion brands make a mockery of the importance of not only practicing, but informing the way inclusion and diversity need prioritized as a matter of urgency. More importantly, it spits in the face of those who ultimately influence the culture and their content as a whole.