Fashion’s Year in Cultural Don’ts

Of all the fashion trends that came and went this year, including 1980s shoulders, 1990s grunge and all things Meghan Markle, perhaps the most unrelenting was the prevalence of cultural missteps. They happened high, they happened low, they happened almost every season.

Instead of getting better, it seems as if the offenses are getting worse. Just consider the fact that the year began with a monkey problem and ended with a blackface brouhaha. (Not the Megyn Kelly one.)

I kid you not.

The second week of January, H&M got in trouble for an advertisement featuring a young black boy in a green hoodie inscribed with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Charges of racism flew. The Weeknd cut ties with the company and announced it on Twitter. There were protests in South Africa, and stores were temporarily closed. H&M pulled the ad and apologized.

woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. i’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore…

Then, last week, Prada was pilloried for its decision to include in its Pradamalia collection, a menagerie of quirky bag charms that look like cartoony sci-fi animals, one that resembled nothing so much as a Little Black Sambo figure, complete with giant puffy red lips — and to fill the windows of its SoHo store with said imagery.

A lawyer, Chinyere Ezie, who works at the Center for Constitutional Rights, was “stopped in her tracks” while walking by the store, snapped some pictures and called the company out on Twitter and Facebook.

Her posts went viral, and in a day the store windows were shuttered, the products were gone, and Prada had apologized. It later promised to donate proceeds from the charms to “a New York-based organization committed to fighting for racial justice” and announced it would set up an “Advisory Council to guide our efforts on diversity, inclusion and culture.”

Still, it was impossible not to scratch your head and think: When will these brands ever learn? Apparently, not soon enough.

Fashion has stepped into the morass of cultural appropriation and its close twin, racism, numerous times in recent years, be it Valentino with its cornrows-in-white-models’-hair-to-celebrate-Africa (huh?) in 2015, Marc Jacobs and his runway dreadlocks in 2016 or Chanel and its luxury aboriginal boomerang in 2017. Apologies have become as much an industry staple as cashmere and denim.

But even by those standards, 2018 has been particularly bad. After all, between H&M and Prada, there were many other examples of seeming blindness to the implications, and origin, of a brand’s design choices. Some were worse than others, but regarded from the vantage point of the year end, the critical mass is striking.

There was, for example, the Zara checked skirt, a gathered number that look awfully like an Indonesian lungi, or sarong, that had people speaking out about the bad manners of filching an old look for a “new” product.

There were the turbans on the runway at the Gucci fall 2018 show, which, in their resemblance to Sikh turbans, upset many viewers, who felt the importance of the head wrap as a sign of a belief system had been thoughtlessly pilloried for pictures. As had the prejudice that has often ensued.

There was the Dior cruise campaign, featuring the brand ambassador Jennifer Lawrence in a collection that had been inspired by the Mexican escaramuzas, the competitive equestrians who compete in all-female rodeos in traditional dress. Dior was taken to task for not using a Mexican model or actress, and for using California as a stand-in for Mexico.

This is getting tiresome. But wait. There’s more.

In November, Dolce & Gabbana offended an entire country with a marketing campaign that perpetrated passé stereotypes before a show in China. It then exacerbated the offense when one of its founders, Stefano Gabbana, appeared to stoop to name-calling and racial slurs on Instagram. (He said his account was hacked.) The company had to cancel the show, and some people started burning its products.

There’s a tendency to view this as a case-by-case brand problem and roll one’s eyes: Bad Prada! Ignorant Dolce! Silly Zara! But add it all together and it’s clear that the mistakes are symptoms of a bigger problem, which has to do with a new reality (or understanding of reality), the way the fashion industry has been built and its inability, thus far, to adapt the one to the other.

Some say it is a casualty of the global world, where brands based in one country and run by people with one understanding of history expand into other countries and view those consumers through their own foreign lens. Some say it has to do with the policing power of the internet, which allows individual voices to be heard in a way they never were in earlier times (and, occasionally, go too far).

Both conclusions are probably true, but so is the fact that there are systemic contributors unique to fashion.

Such as, for example, that the current pace of fashion and the pressure to get New Stuff Out Now mean that there are fewer safety checks and less time to consider the potential ramifications of choices around the world.

Also the truth that design has always borrowed the symbols of other cultures and taken them out of context, considering them largely as decoration as opposed to a representation of a narrative — though when they do get into a narrative, it is one the brand itself is creating, as opposed to the story already told. That one, of course, actually belongs to another group, racial or religious, and is already resonant with meaning.

“While designers liked to play with clichés in the past, cultural stereotypes are caricatures,” said Serge Carreira, a lecturer on fashion and luxury at the Sciences Po institute in Paris. “They may be considered, nowadays, as marks of disdain. For decades, brands and designer messages were isolated and never challenged.”

Yet such borrowing often happens with a kind of blithe thoughtlessness, a creative entitlement. If it feeds the imagination, that’s all the justification the designer needs! You hear it again and again: They didn’t mean anything bad by it. That’s probably true. It also doesn’t obviate the pain the products cause, or the problem.

As Burak Cakmak, the dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, said, “While more and more companies are repositioning themselves as a value-driven business, most are not looking deep enough to understand historical and cultural contexts of their design and marketing choices to assess what might be offensive, inappropriate or simply without permission.”

Maybe 2019 is the year everyone finally figures out that retroactive head hanging is not enough anymore. That, as Mr. Carreira said, “The challenge is not only to promote a diversity of faces, but to implement a post-colonial and non-Westernized culture view in the industry.” That proactive change is what is needed — a preventive checkup, if you will, as opposed to a Band-Aid after the fact. Though exactly what that would look like is unclear.

The answer is not simply hiring a chief diversity officer, as H&M did. For real change to occur, it can’t be housed in a small office off to the side of the C-suite, or limited to the visibility of the runway or the trickle-down of an advisory council, or the genuinely laudable advances in diversity on magazine covers.

It has to infuse every level of a business, corporate and creative; it can’t be one person’s sole job, but part of everyone’s job.

“I was standing in the store shaking my head and essentially saying out loud to myself, ‘Do you have any black employees here?’” Ms. Ezie said of Prada. (The company has asked to meet with her; she said it would probably happen in January.) “Did no one tell you this was blackface?” Another question may be: If someone did tell, was there any mechanism to ensure decision makers would hear?

What is needed is “a change of mind-set impacting all behaviors in the industry and the traditional references. They should question the whole making processes of these images,” Mr. Carreira said.

You need an internal culture that encourages the raising of red flags from every quarter and every background — and then listens. After all, you can change your hiring practices to allow in new voices, but you also need to create an environment in which those voices matter. Fashion brands tend to have a centralized structure where messages, even about store design, flows only outward, from a home office; they need to go the other way, too.

As does the realization that it’s not just about representing diversity, Mr. Carreira said. But rather, “how you represent it.”

A resolution, for the new year.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman

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