When Racism and Fashion Collide

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a barrage of fashion megabrands release racist clothing pieces. They are so outrageously offensive that it strains credulity to believe we are witnessing nothing more than a comedy of unintentional errors. It’s a trend at this point.

Burberry just released a hoodie with a noose around the neck, which CEO Marco Gobbetti said was inspired by a “marine theme that ran throughout the collection.” Gucci offered, then apologized for and removed, an $890 turtleneck designed to look like blackface. Moncler released a blackface bubble jacket based on the stylized face of a penguin character. Prada released a blackface purse. Katy Perry even released a collection of modernist-influenced shoes with versions that resembled blackface; they have since been removed from the singer’s website.

Blackface is simultaneously an expression of white fantasy and an exertion of white power. This offensive behavior has continued on for centuries – we’re dealing with an intergenerational pathology of willfully mocking and inflicting pain on Black people. In response to the backlash, Prada announced a diversity council in collaboration with sculptor Theaster Gates and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. But as the fashion industry continues to fail the Black community while appropriating its culture, Forbes questioned, “can Prada’s diversity council help to close the massive gap between a post-racial fashion industry and today’s reality?”

I believe each and every one of these brands did what they did in the name of being provocative and pushing the envelope – making a calculation on whether or not the fallout would be worth the reciprocal coverage and media mentions they would receive in response. What’s particularly revealing is whose pain fashion brands are willing to mock in 2019, and whose pain is off limits.

Beyond simply ignoring these brands, I see three different streams of thought emerging. First, many are taking this moment to renew focus on Black-owned fashion brands. Second, some suggest we should boycott each of the offending companies. Lastly, others say we should use this moment to influence the hiring and decision-making process at companies like Gucci so that the right people have a seat at the table to ensure offensive fashion decisions are never made again.

About the Author

Shaun King is the founder and CEO of The North Star. Hailed by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in the world on the Internet, King brings striking clarity to the insidious and complicated picture of racism today. As a journalist, King has authored 1,500 articles on injustice since the start of the Black Lives Matter Movement. He is co-founder of the Real Justice PAC, and the voice of social justice on the legendary Tom Joyner Morning Show.