A year ago Gucci put an offensive jumper on their Milan catwalk, although it took that long to actually cause offence.
The wool balaclava jumper was black with a cut-out mouth and red lips which, when pulled up over the wearer’s face, bore a disturbing resemblance to blackface. At the time, no one seemed to notice. I missed it too, and I missed it again when it went on sale last autumn, both of which now seem inexcusable – looking at it, it couldn’t be anything else. Yet it wasn’t until February this year that flags were raised – on Twitter, as is often the case these days – and even then only within the context of Black History Month. Gucci apologised, and took the jumpers off the shelves, even though they had already sat there for a good six months.
Of all the trends to dominate the past season, racist blunders like this seem to be one of fashion’s most prevalent. I can’t remember the last time I woke up to a day free of them. Just last week, Burberry had us screaming into our sleeves at the sight of a hoodie with strings tied in the shape of a noose, while in December, Prada was accused of racism for its Pradamalia creatures (more blackface).
As with Gucci, both events ended with the same sorry carousel whirring into action: outcry, response and some form of action, be it the removal of said item (Gucci) or creation of an “advisory council on diversity issues” (Prada). Asking why this keep happening feels a bit like bolting the horse, not least because of how efficiently this carousel works. Yet it needs to be asked, not least because it’s been happening for ever. In my career in fashion alone, I can remember Valentino put cornrows on the catwalk in 2015, when Marc Jacobs did the same with dreadlocks in 2016, and in the same year Dolce Gabbana launched a pair of “slave sandals” in its spring/summer collection.
Diversity in fashion has been a hot topic for the past few years, and one that tends to focus on how its image is projected to the outside world. Translated, this means that the catwalks are generally more diverse than ever – not simply in terms of race but gender too – and that there are more black cover stars on magazines. The editor of British Vogue is black (Edward Enninful), as is the biggest menswear designer in the world (Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton).
But these changes are sadly few and far between, and indeed you could argue that they mean nothing if the rest of the industry is still unable to regulate what seems to be its own inherent prejudice. The incidents with Gucci, Prada and Burberry are indicative of how the fashion industry has been built and how it has failed to adapt to a changing cultural landscape in which a normative, white-western view of the world no longer goes unchallenged.
This goes hand in hand too with globalisation, in particular large European and American fashion houses selling their clothes outside their traditional markets, and growing racial awareness in the western world. Last November, Dolce Gabbana discovered this to their peril, when they managed to cause huge offence in China with a clumsy, irresponsible ad campaign, compounded by racial slurs made on social media by Stefano Gabbana. He claimed his account had been hacked, but still it remains a staggering misstep given that the region is responsible for 30% of their global luxury sales.
The problem is that fashion has a habit of borrowing from other cultures, or even tragedies, without thinking it through. As if we can divorce an image or design from its original narrative in the name of creativity. In 1999, GQ’s then editor James Brown had to resign after including the Nazis in a list of the 200 most stylish men of the 20th century – if style is your only criteria, it turns out you can forgive anything, including genocide, right? Still, the idea that the uniform of the Nazis could be disassociated from what the Nazis actually did was baffling. But it happens. This removal of meaning, a variation on the idea of the empty or floating signifier, is often seen on the catwalk, and sometimes in relatively benign ways. Balenciaga took something that meant something – Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run – and turned it into a scarf, the colours and logo of the Sanders campaign stripped of any meaning.
Still, in a world in which PR is king and in which major corporations have to at least pretend to care about diversity, fashion houses will look to telegraph their egalitarian and multicultural bona fides, with an eye on the good press and sales that might come as a result. But the system, elsewhere as in fashion, is not an equal one. History tends to gets written by the victors, and the experiences of the voiceless will be interpreted by those who have no real understanding of them. Thus, you get the Gucci blackface jumper or the Prada dolls, the Burberry noose and of course last year’s HM “monkey” hoodie, which resulted in the company hiring a diversity officer.
Whether the offence is intentional or not is beside the point. It is avoidable: the more diverse a design team is, the more relevant, and in turn successful, the end product will be. Now that the lone voice on social media has weight – Burberry’s noose was called out by a model on Instagram, the Gucci jumper by unknown Twitter users – it’s harder to ignore. The industry needs to internalise a similar culture in which saying something is wrong is OK.
It’s easy to blame Fashion with a big “F” here, but like any other area of life it has its good people and its bad people and, furthermore, it exists within capitalist society. The climate activist group Extinction Rebellion has been disrupting fashion week in London to draw attention to the industry’s culture of excess, but they know that there are plenty of designers showing at fashion week who agree with them – and some who are actively helping them.
People often dismiss fashion as something purely commercial, and transient. But like all art – and it is art, whether you like it or not – it reflects the times we live in. It is not simply fashion that has a problem with racism, but society.
• Morwenna Ferrier is the Guardian’s acting joint fashion editor