New Rule: Fashion Brands Are No Longer Allowed to Claim Ignorance After Racist Missteps

In 2019, there’s no excuse for ignorance anymore

A Burberry model wearing a hoodie with string tied in a noose
Photo: Imaxtree

Uh, did some trend forecaster highlight racism as the trend of the season or something? Because yet another big-name fashion brand just sent a highly offensive design down the runway.

On February 17, Burberry dressed a model at its Fall 2019 show in a hoodie with drawstrings tied in the likeness of a noose. The oversized strings managed to evoke not only suicide, but lynching, too.

And Burberry is far from an anomaly. The luxury fashion house joins a growing list of brands that have faced criticism for controversial products in recent months. Back in December, Prada released a brown monkey keychain with oversized red lips. And earlier this month, a knit turtleneck by Gucci featured an over-the-mouth collar with cut-out, oversized red lips, while Katy Perry’s eponymous line released a flat mule with black skin, blue eyes and red lips. All three brands apologized for their products’ resemblance to blackface iconography, but we can’t help but wonder if there’s something more than ignorance going on here.

Let’s consider how Burberry’s faux pas went public. After seeing the look at a pre-show fitting, model Liz Kennedy took to Instagram to voice her disgust.

“Suicide is not fashion,” wrote Kennedy, who was hired to walk the show, but didn’t wear the look herself. “It is not glamorous nor edgy and since this show is dedicated to the youth expressing their voice, here I go… There are hundreds of ways to tie a rope and they chose to tie it like a noose completely ignoring the fact that it was hanging around a neck. A massive brand like Burberry who is typically considered commercial and classy should not have overlooked such an obvious resemblance.”

View this post on Instagram

@burberry @riccardotisci17 Suicide is not fashion. It is not glamorous nor edgy and since this show is dedicated to the youth expressing their voice, here I go. Riccardo Tisci and everyone at Burberry it is beyond me how you could let a look resembling a noose hanging from a neck out on the runway. How could anyone overlook this and think it would be okay to do this especially in a line dedicated to young girls and youth. The impressionable youth. Not to mention the rising suicide rates world wide. Let’s not forget about the horrifying history of lynching either. There are hundreds of ways to tie a rope and they chose to tie it like a noose completely ignoring the fact that it was hanging around a neck. A massive brand like Burberry who is typically considered commercial and classy should not have overlooked such an obvious resemblance. I left my fitting extremely triggered after seeing this look (even though I did not wear it myself). Feeling as though I was right back where I was when I was going through an experience with suicide in my family. Also to add in they briefly hung one from the ceiling (trying to figure out the knot) and were laughing about it in the dressing room. I had asked to speak to someone about it but the only thing I was told to do was to write a letter. I had a brief conversation with someone but all that it entailed was “it’s fashion. Nobody cares about what’s going on in your personal life so just keep it to yourself” well I’m sorry but this is an issue bigger than myself. The issue is not about me being upset, there is a bigger picture here of what fashion turns a blind eye to or does to gain publicity. A look so ignorantly put together and a situation so poorly handled. I am ashamed to have been apart of the show. #burberry. I did not post this to disrespect the designer or the brand but to simply express an issue I feel very passionate about.

A post shared by 🦎 (@liz.kennedy_) on

Kennedy went on to say that she had tried to voice her concerns to the Burberry team before the runway show took place, only to be told she should “write a letter.” No, really. “I had a brief conversation with someone but all that it entailed was ‘it’s fashion. Nobody cares about what’s going on in your personal life so just keep it to yourself,’” she wrote.

The model’s post prompted a serious social media backlash.

Burberry apologized amid the fury, and claimed it has since pulled the sweater from production. In a statement released to CNN on Tuesday, the brand’s CEO, Marco Gobbetti, said he is “deeply sorry for the distress caused.” He also said he called Kennedy to apologize as soon as he became aware of her distress on Monday. Show designer Tisci added, “While the design was inspired by a nautical theme, I realise [sic] that it was insensitive. It was never my intention to upset anyone… I will make sure that this does not happen again.”

But let’s be honest—it probably will, if not at Burberry then at another big-name fashion brand. After all, these companies don’t have a great track record when it comes to racial sensitivity. Back in 2016, Moncler had to pull a jacket and shirt from their website because of a logo that resembled blackface. In 2013, Anthropologie sold a candlestick that clearly featured a Mammy caricature. And in 2012, Dolce & Gabbana also featured Mammy caricatures, this time on earrings and a dress. And please don’t even get us started on the racist imagery and language that (still!) populate some fashion mags.

Many of these brands issued apologies and claimed that the racial undertones in their designs were unintentional. Along with a mea culpa, some have even announced initiatives, such as diversity councils and de-escalation protocols, to help correct their mistakes and avoid future ones.

But… how unintentional can these choices really be? Kirsten Holtz Naim, an event producer and fashion writer for Slate, was spot on when she argued that we should be skeptical when brands claim ignorance, as large companies generally have rigid approval processes before designs are actually produced.

“As a former fashion executive who worked both in retail buying and in a fashion office, I found this defense a bit peculiar. Designers and retailers alike spend months planning, researching, and studying color, trends, and silhouettes far in advance to both capture the designer’s vision and to ensure a product sells,” she wrote. “Each item goes through a series of meetings, run-throughs, and approvals before it comes anywhere near a store shelf. The blackface controversies in fashion are not sporadic anomalies. They are enabled by multiple levels of a fashion industry that’s encouraged consumers to buy in, over and over.”

If you buy the “unintentional” argument, you should still be mad, because it points to a serious lack of attention and, more importantly, a lack of POC at these companies. But, honestly? We don’t buy it. Which leaves us wondering whether the controversy is all deliberate—a stunt to gain brand visibility and publicity in an overheated, competitive industry.

However you slice it, though, it’s a bad look.

Related:

Why I Don’t Buy H&M’s Apology for Their Racist Sweater
Fashion Has Been Obsessed With Turbans for Centuries… and It’s Still Not OK
Hiring More Models of Colour Isn’t Enough to Fix Fashion’s Diversity Problem

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