Instep Today

Why offensive fashion somehow keeps happening

By Bronwyn Cosgrave
Mon, 03, 19

From Prada’s “Little Sambo” Keychain to Burberry’s “Noose” Hoodie, pieces by typically gold-standard luxury names have taken on tarnish.

Safe motifs such as polka dots, pinstripes, houndstooth checks and tweed used to dominate runways primarily during financially challenging periods, like recessions. But they prevailed at the fall 2019 Paris shows for another reason.

“Designers are overediting in fear of offending,” says Eric Wright, an African-American designer who worked closely with Karl Lagerfeld at Chloé and Fendi for 23 years. The current “heaviness in the fashion air,” he adds, is a direct response to the slew of culturally offensive fashion imagery and products that since November have spurred furor.

Flooding the market in rapid succession have been pieces by typically gold-standard luxury names that have taken on tarnish, from Dolce & Gabbana’s “Eating With Chopsticks” video for an ultimately canceled Shanghai show (it portrayed Chinese model Zuo Wei struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks); to Prada’s $550 monkey key chain, removed from the line after a civil rights lawyer highlighted its likeness to Little Sambo; to Burberry’s “noose” hoodie precluded from its fall 2019 collection because it evoked a lynching and not a nautical rope, as intended.

And on February 20, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele was compelled to put a positive spin on his “blackface” sweater with a pull-up balaclava that had been enhanced by stitching suggesting plump red lips, during an otherwise acclaimed show. He explained, “This must be used to create something new; this will help us do things in a different way.” Weeks later, the controversy continued to flare up: On March 7, Jeffrey Lamar Williams — the Atlanta-born rapper, musician and producer known as Young Thug — was flaunting the offending pullover all over Instagram.

Fashion has a history of decrying, then rewarding, offense.

“A lot has changed because with social media, people can hear one another’s outrage and groups can come together,” says Susan Scafidi, academic director of Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute and author of 2005’s Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. “The internet is their megaphone.” Scafidi champions the Instagram account Diet Prada for acting as fashion’s “Jiminy Cricket and calling out behavior that is morally questionable.”

After the uproar, social-change initiatives are taking shape. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay now co-chairs Prada’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to recruit and provide internships and apprenticeships for students of color within the brand and the fashion industry. “I don’t know what the hell happened with that [key chain], but when they called me … for help, I said yes,” DuVernay has told THR.

Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung says “the best way I can respect and appreciate another culture” is to work with local craftspeople to elevate their skills and generate economic opportunity for them. “Casting is another way to pay homage to a culture,” not offend or appropriate it. “If we’re going to show something indigenous, or something that is borrowed from another culture, we like to style the look on a model who shares this background and experience.”

Despite the current unease around misrepresenting culture, Gurung says he remains hopeful that designers will continue to explore perspectives outside their bubbles. “There are so many unique cultures out there, that live in a way different from our Western conventions, and exploring this is so invigorating and provoking,” he says, adding, “For me, it is important to be able to engage with people from the culture I am inspired by, if it is not my own.”

– Courtesy: Hollywood Reporter