Modern Plight of the Intolerant Luxury Brands

Header: YouTube/Kevin Samuels

Highly influential fashion houses manipulate lower-income consumers and famous rappers to love or hate their clothing during certain seasons in order to protect their labels from over-exposure and to prevent themselves from becoming another forgettable urban brand.

Vancouver, British Columbia is one of three fashion mecca’s in Canada. Toronto and Montreal’s scenes are obviously larger in comparison but on the west coast, there’s something magical in the air that makes it different and bolder than the east. I was there a little while back for the first time visiting my sister Michelle for the holidays. A few days before Christmas, in the shadow of the sixty-two storey Shangri-La tower, Michelle and I passed by several luxury apparel stores like Versace, Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent, admiring the festive window displays. They had the same old cheery disposition exhibited, however, when we passed the Prada store I saw something that didn’t quite fit in.

Displayed prominently, dare I say proudly, was what looked like a tiny keychain or a small figurine; so petite that it could fit inside a coin-pocket. It caught my eye and I literally stopped in my tracks. I thought to myself, “is that really a monkey with big red exaggerated lips on it?” I remember asking Michelle what she thought about them and we were both uncertain how we felt but we didn’t like them. Unknown to me at that time, the Italian luxury fashion house had already apologized and recalled these so-called $550 Pradamalia toys in SoHo, Manhattan because of the outrage that spread from customers and the public on Twitter.

This quote by The Washington Post explains a familiar story of how the news got out in SoHo about these toys:

Prada has been making keychain figurines for years. In October, the company introduced the collection called Pradamalia — fantasy charms that are vaguely akin to cartoon robots. Taken as a group, the characters are a kooky, silly mix. Some resemble primates but with green mouths and yellow hair, some look like robot dogs, others resemble sci-fi octopuses. The company has been posting pictures of these characters on Instagram for weeks, and they have been featured in the flagship store in Milan.

The SoHo store windows, however, were dominated by one particular charm — the one that looked like a red-mouthed monkey. That image has a particular, painful resonance in this country. And it stopped Chinyere Ezie in her tracks. Ezie, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, was returning from a trip to Washington; she’d visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture and been deeply moved by the experience. ‘It’s a heavy space. Our history in this country is heavy,’ says Ezie, who is black. ‘It was a very emotional day. I kind of joked that I’d never wept in public before.’

Ezie had gotten off the subway at Prince Street, suitcase in hand, and then passed the Prada store windows. What she saw reminded her of the racist propaganda she’d just viewed in the museum. ‘I felt enraged. I felt flabbergasted. I felt confused,’ she says. ‘I can’t say that I’m a loyal customer of Prada. I don’t think I would have gone into the store had I not been assaulted by the images.’ But she went in. She took pictures. And then she did ‘a reality check.’ She showed the pictures she’d taken to her mother and her co-workers. ‘Am I missing something?’ she asked them. No. They saw racism, too.

Ezie juxtaposed her pictures from the Prada store with historical images of Sambo and shared them on Twitter and her Facebook page. ‘I didn’t want to have to grieve in silence,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to have to swallow this bitter pill of racism alone.'”

Here’s the scoop, for at least a few weeks after Prada had confessed to the media in the U.S. that they were wrong and recalled the items on moral grounds, they were still silently trying to sell the unmistakably blackface-looking, racist keychains to affluent shoppers on Thurlow Street in Vancouver. Fascinating isn’t it? If I didn’t go to visit Michelle this year, none of us would have known that this was happening.

Another Italian luxury fashion brand has been pushing the limits lately. Gucci—owned by the French parent company Kering (which also owns other luxury brands such as Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen)—made a racially tense balaclava mask, which looks like an over exaggerated blackface-looking scarf or sweater and they only a week ago apologized too for their bad decision. The multi-billion U.S. dollar corporation “promises to increase internal diversity to prevent future missteps.”

What are Prada and Gucci doing messing around with well-known eighteenth-century discriminatory imagery in their modern-day styles? Granted, fashion is there to define new styles and that comes with many risks. Surely, these two events are just examples of accidental coincidences of uneducated hermits who crossed the racial-line because I thought everybody knew about blackface but turns out that’s not true.

Blackface is a “theatrical depiction of black characters by white performers that was part of the American tradition of popular entertainment known as minstrelsy, which typically consisted of comedy skits, dancing, music, and stand-up acts. Minstrel shows were first performed in the 1830s in New York, in which white men blackened their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish and wore torn clothes in caricatures of slaves on plantations in the South. According to the website of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, minstrel shows depicted blacks as ‘lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice’.”

Is it even possible that everybody that was involved from the creative, production and PR rooms of arguably the two most prestigious luxury clothing brands in the world were only naïve executives who had heard nothing at all about the term blackface?

It’s not possible according to rapper Danny Brown. On the Your Mom’s House Podcast with Tom Segura and Christina Pazsitzky (Click here to listen to the podcast), Danny explained how he thinks that these companies have been doing this kind of thing for a long time and they’re purposeful acts, not mere accidents. “I know that in the fashion world a lot of brands feel that once it’s poppin’ in like urban communities, that’s the decline of their line, in some sense,” he said.

Danny, who was once described by MTV as “one of rap’s most unique figures in recent memory,” went on to say that, “Gucci has been re-vibed so many times, like it pops then it falls off, then it pops, and this was their way of saying: ‘y’all niggas stop buyin’ this shit right now so we can get back to, you know, being cool with our audience.'” Tom Segura asked if he thought that this was a conspiracy and Danny agreed, saying it’s on purpose because “they don’t want black people to wear their clothes right now.”

Kirsten Holtz Naim, an event producer for Slate Live, just published an article entitled Why It’s Ridiculous for Gucci to Claim “Ignorance” in Its Blackface Designs writing that Gucci‘s new CEO and creative director “took a more whimsical and inclusive approach to design,” and argued that the company saw tremendous gains in popularity and profits, many of them thanks to black talent who embraced the brand.”

Kirsten lays out a strange course of events: After hiring the new CEO in 2015, Gucci “reveled in the returns of its black fans” by bringing on the fashion designer Dapper Dan in 2017—who has previously worked with celebrities like Jay Z and LL Cool J—and then essentially does a full one-eighty in 2018 by releasing blackface memorabilia. She said that “Gucci, it’s clear, is not alone, but it is exceptional in how it reveled in the returns of its black fans while still managing to release a sweater featuring some of the oldest racist tropes in America.”

“All of these brands have claimed the racism in its designs was unintentional. But as a former fashion executive who worked both in retail buying and 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. Each item goes through a series of meetings, run-throughs, and approvals before 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.”

Are these just human mistakes, simply random circumstances happening around the same time which will eventually pass thanks to apologies and new diversity campaigns? Or are these glimpses into calculated publicity stunts which are designed to pull on subconscious emotional strings of consumers in order to direct sales of certain demographics at certain times in different directions? I suppose, for now, only time will tell.

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