Pulling inspiration from previous eras is commonplace for the fashion industry, but designer clothing brands have recently found influence in a period of American entertainment thought to be left in the past: blackface performances from the late 1800s.
In early February, Gucci cancelled the production of a black turtleneck sweater with big, red lips on the neck, reminiscent of early blackface caricatures. Retailing for $890, many were offended at the brand for such blatant racism, including multiple celebrities who expressed their disappointment.
Calls to boycott Gucci have emerged, most notably from rappers T.I., Soulja Boy (the owner of a Gucci logo forehead tattoo), and 50 Cent, who went as far as posting a video of him burning a Gucci shirt on social media.
In an effort to make amends, Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri promised to increase diversity among employees and introduce a scholarship program in 10 cities.
Gucci is not the first clothing brand to use racist references in their designs recently, which indicates this sweater was more than a one-off mistake.
In early 2018, H&M made headlines for releasing a hoodie reading “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” modeled by a young black boy on their website. Additionally, Prada denied accusations in December that figurines in a Manhattan storefront were inspired by blackface, although they appeared to be black monkeys with oversized, red lips.
Moncler recently faced backlash for a jacket with a logo that resembled a blackface character more than the penguin it was supposed to look like, and Katy Perry apologized for releasing shoes with similarly racist designs.
With so many high-end companies and figures “accidentally” using images of blackface, how and why has this trend risen?
The knee-jerk reaction is to proclaim the fashion industry as inherently racist, which may have some truth to it, albeit sounding harsh. These controversial products go through multiple levels of quality control before public release, and nobody pointing out the offensive implications of these designs suggests a shortage of diversity in the fashion industry.
In 2018, strides were taken on the runway to increase diversity, with 32.5 percent of models being people of color during the fall season. Prada had Sudanese model Anok Yai open their runway show, making her the first black model to do so in over 20 years.
These efforts are appealing, but the issue of dominating whiteness at the corporate level of fashion is still very prominent. Virgil Abloh, head menswear designer at Louis Vuitton, and Rihanna’s partnership with Fenty are a few examples of black presence at the very top of fashion, but their peers are almost entirely white.
What is puzzling about the blackface controversy is that black celebrities, especially in music, provide huge support to designer brands through wearing and singing about their products, yet brands continue to let down their most valuable clientele. One would imagine that brands would do everything in their power to keep their highest-paying customers happy, so they continue to push their logos onto impressionable youth.
To prevent incidents like the Gucci sweater or the Prada figurines from happening again, the fashion industry must follow through with increasing diversity and promoting internal change within companies. If white executives cannot recognize that blackface images are racist, then they need to hire people with such cultural awareness.
One of the main values of fashion pushing the agenda forward, and new generations of designers will practice acceptance of race, gender, and body size as the older creators of the aforementioned racist designs are phased out of the industry.
If the fashion industry really is racist at its core, it is up to the consumer to choose the right brands to support and who to shut down with their purchases.