Calling For Diversity After Insensitive Fashion Decisions

By Maxine An

In an industry where designers are constantly taking risks, ill-informed clothing and advertisements unleash hate and backlash from the general public. High-end brands such as Burberry and Gucci have been targeted for certain products in their runway shows, putting the brands in the spotlight. However, behind this problem lies a bigger question: Why is it important to fashion designers to continue taking risks even when they know the probable likelihood of dislike from the public?

In a Forbes interview, Debra Hepburn, co-founder of the online store Young British Designers, said, “I’m a firm believer in taking risks; in not pursuing a linear career if that career isn’t making you happy.” In this sense, when she is taking risks, she believes she can find out what “definitely isn’t well, as well as what sets you right.” Fashion designers may enjoy taking risks in their designs as a way to separate themselves from their competitors, as well as determining the future design path for the brand from the public’s reactions to their products.

Being recognized as an individual brand is significant for a company’s reputation. That way, they can know that consumers know them by name for the quality and design of their products, and they can count on the future loyalty status of customers if they continue to like what they purchase. Having customers know them by logo, slogan and product design signifies a strong marketing strategy and consumer satisfaction of the brand.

The way the consumers react to the new clothes and accessories a brand releases allows the company to do research on the type of product, quality and design that are currently in demand. A fashion company would probably stop manufacturing and selling a certain handbag that is not selling well or out of style. However, in order for the company to know if a product is going obsolete, testing consumer reactions to it will definitely affect what is made and sold.

Source: Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/)

“Suicide isn’t fashion,” commented Liz Kennedy, one of the models featured in Burberry’s Autumn/Winter 2019 runway collection during London Fashion Week. Referring to the infamous Burberry hoodie with a noose around the neck, Kennedy said “it is not glamorous nor edgy and...this show is dedicated to the youth expressing their voice.” According to Dr. Mark Stibich,  a former writer for Verywell Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers between the ages of 15 and 24 today. Visuals such as the Burberry noose can potentially retraumatize those impacted by suicide or prompt thoughts of lynching that occurred in the past.

The concepts that designers have for their brand should be considered thoroughly, looking into any offensive or racist characteristics that might ignite backlash when the product is released. Burberry’s CEO, Marco Gobbetti, said he is “deeply sorry for the distress” the hoodie design caused. Creative director Riccardo Tisci also apologized for the insensitive product.

The problem continuously discussed in the fashion industry is that there is not a diverse range of designers. Without a large variety of identities and experiences, the same type of person is always running the fashion industry. These same people use similar mindsets and viewpoints to make consequential decisions.

It is likely no one working high up at Burberry has personally been impacted by suicide. Otherwise, they would hopefully have picked up on the offensive and insensitive detail of the noose placed around the neck. Like Liz Kennedy had explained, the knotted rope could have been placed anywhere, but having it placed around the neck evoked shame and insensitivity. Including the perspectives of people who have been impacted by serious issues such as these can help industry leaders look for any details that could be seen as offensive. While Burberry is currently under attack for this decision, it is not the only one to be currently facing this kind of response from the general public.

One of Gucci’s sweaters was recently taken off their online website and racks after a woman claimed that the sweater “resembled blackface”. After an image of the $890 balaclava jumper was released on social media, the ‘ski mask’ sweater faced criticism. The cut-out at the mouth framed by red lips was the part that triggered outroar from the public. The worst part of this product was that it was released during Black History month;  people pointed out that the month was off to an “ignorant start,” according to Sarah Young of The Independent UK. Others threatened to boycott the brand until it started hiring more employees of color, calling attention to the lack of diversity within the Gucci brand. Even though it has been taken out of Gucci stores and off the brand’s website, it can still be found in some third-party retail stores.

Source: Daily Mail (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/)

Since the backlash, Gucci has issued an apology for the offensive product. As reported by Eun Kyung Kim of Today, the company responded: “We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected and at the forefront of every decision we make. We are fully committed to increasing diversity throughout our organization and turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond.” A brand like Gucci should have considered the parts of this sweater that could receive criticism, but they seem to turn a blind eye to the ideas that are offensive, whether it may be overlooking the derogatory meaning of this sweater or simply ignoring the potential negatives to all of their products.

Furthermore, as the brands continue to receive backlash, they are starting to see what’s wrong with their actions. According to Luisa Zargani of Women’s Wear Daily, Gucci recently announced the introduction of four initiatives to “foster diversity and cultural awareness” which includes hiring global and regional directors for diversity and inclusion, setting up a multicultural design scholarship program, launching a diversity and inclusivity awareness program, and launching a global exchange program. Even creative director Alessandro Michele said, “I look forward to welcoming new perspectives to my team and together working even hard for Gucci to represent a voice for inclusivity.”

It is about time that something is done about the inconsiderate cultural appropriation in not only the fashion industry but the world in general. Not one single group of people can be stereotyped as the same, so why should fashion be the exception? Fashion is a way to reach out to different kinds of people and bring them together, but taking differences literally to make similarities is not the way to accomplish that.  

It is clear that the lack of diversity both in the fashion industry and the individual brands themselves has created inconsiderate decisions and impetuous thinking. In order to prevent future brands from facing criticism due to racism and insensitivity, diversifying the work environment is the first step. With a more diverse workplace, different  people can work together and produce something amazing and mindful of all cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities.