Policing Racial Insensitivity: Fashion Faces A Reckoning

Think of all the times in recent years that fashion brands have had to apologize for culturally offensive imagery or ad campaigns. Urban Oufitters is a repeat offender, to the extent that its "mistakes" are now regarded as deliberate trolling. But international powerhouses like Prada and Gucci cannot afford to outrage large sectors of its markets. Their mistakes have been costly, not just in sales.

Prada, Gucci, Dior and Dolce & Gabbana have all been obliged to apologize and claim ignorance when criticized for insensitivity verging on outright racism.

Policing Racial Insensitivity: Fashion Faces a Reckoning

But now, in New York, apologies won't be enough. The New York City Commission on Human Rights, the law enforcement agency of the municipal government mandated with overseeing human rights laws in housing, retail and other areas, has been investigating both Prada and Gucci for caricatures that reference blackface racist tropes.

In a settlement reached with Prada, which denied racial discrimination, the brand has committed to internal re-education, financial and employment outreach with minority communities, and submitting to external monitoring of its progress for the next two years.

Policing Racial Insensitivity: Fashion Faces a Reckoning

Gucci is still in negotiations with the commission, as is Christian Dior, for "perpetrating Native American stereotypes." These crackdowns reflect both a new activism in local government but also a growing demand to hold brands accountable for their imagery, not just internal practices. Your reaction to this development will depend on your wokeness, and your view on the limits of free speech.

It may also depend on your ethnicity. As a pale-skinned person, I am often pretty obtuse. And I have been annoyed by critics of cultural appropriation, especially in fashion, which has always been a mishmash of historical influences. But I do know black-face when I see it. Prada's excuse of ignorance regarding its Pradamalia figurines is just ridiculous. When first called out on the figurines, Prada took to Twitter, saying:

Prada Group abhors racist imagery. The Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.

The replies were brutal, deservedly, I think. Look at the image and decide for yourself.

In its settlement with the NYC commission, Prada must provide sensitivity training, including “racial equity training,” for all New York employees within 120 days of signing the agreement — as well as for executives in Milan, since the commission argued that decisions made in Italy have repercussions in New York. Prada must also appoint a diversity and inclusion officer, whose job will include "reviewing Prada’s designs before they are sold, advertised or promoted in any way in the United States.”

Policing Racial Insensitivity: Fashion Faces a Reckoning

Whew! Take that, Prada and your oeuvre! Gucci has already done penance for its awful black-face sweater, which the company called in its official apology "the unintentional balaclava jumper incident". It announced four initiatives in a "long-term plan of actions designed to further embed cultural diversity and awareness in the company."

But those who have followed Gucci know that it has a long history of exploiting the Black community, and its ongoing stream of apologies and promises are viewed with cynicism. These brands want your money, period. Let's face it, they are not our friends, social media marketing notwithstanding. Their values are one value only: Make money. If they have to placate us with Directors of Diversity, they will hop to it.

Can we trust fashion brands to police themselves? Clearly not. But do we want the industry to be regulated in a manner that other sectors are not? What about magazines, paintings, and book covers? And whose sensitivities do we need to protect? As a person of Jewish ancestry, I'm disturbed by swastikas but not in favor of outlawing them. Regarding free speech, I'll quote the ACLU:

Symbols of hate are constitutionally protected if they’re worn or displayed before a general audience in a public place — say, in a march or at a rally in a public park. The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects symbolic expression, such as swastikas, burning crosses, and peace signs because it’s “closely akin to ‘pure speech.’”

Policing Racial Insensitivity: Fashion Faces a Reckoning

In other words, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. So when we decide to address reforms designed to protect certain classes of people, we must err on the side of inclusion and reparation.

Recognizing the impact of cultural imagery, and the need for racial, gender and ethnic diversity for the greater good, will require more than good will. It will also require an examination of the limits of free speech and where we want to redraw the lines. Perpetuating racist stereotypes is harmful to society. I just wish the fashion world could have figured this out without government intervention. But as my husband likes to remind me, they want ice water in hell, too, but they ain't getting it.


Images Credit:
Prada store window display - Washington Post
Gucci Sweater -- Gucci.com
Gucci runway - Vogue.com
Prada window with vintage blackface - Chinyere Ezie on Twitter