We're only two months into 2019 and already the amount of racist incidents is at a record high. The conversation around blackface and the controversial history of it in America has swept everything from politics to morning talk shows. At the end of last year, Megyn Kelley's Today show departure due to her defense of blackface re-introduced the debate on what was acceptable, at least to white America. Of course, the fashion industry has been touched by several racist scandals, but the blackface debate reached a fever pitch over the weekend, prompting responses from Spike Lee and T.I.
Several luxury brands have released bigoted and insensitive items and, despite the fact that collectively the industry is becoming more "woke," the hits to people of color keep coming. Just in the past two months, Dolce & Gabbana’s campaign stereotyping Asian people and the namesake designer's insistence that the Chinese people were "ignorant dirty smelling mafia"; Prada's "Pradamalia" collection, which featured monkeys reminiscent of blackface caricatures; Gucci had to issue an apology over a ski mask turtleneck outlined with red lips; and most recently an entire collection by Moncler mimicking blackface cartoons resurfaced on the internet. And of course, this is not limited to the luxury space as just last year, H&M was exposed with the young, Black boy modeling a T-shirt that reads "the coolest monkey in the jungle."
With swiftness, all of aforementioned the brands issued an elaborate, well thought out apologies. The questionable items were immediately pulled from sale, but as this keeps happening, when does sorry finally stop being enough?
Over and over, Black people are failing to mobilize where it counts. In fact, we are repeatedly propping up these companies with clout and, of course, our coin. People might have stopped wearing H&M for a month or so, but things have steadily returned back to normal. Gucci is the number one luxury brand in urban culture. Beyoncé did a full segment on the OTRII tour in a complete Gucci look. Rappers like A$AP Rocky, Migos, incorporate Gucci into their lyrics as well as their wardrobes. Gucci Mane, for example, even has it in his name and the amount of Gucci he owns reflects a deep devotion as well. Even Soulja Boy (Ed note: Soulja Boy calls for a boycott of Gucci following the blackface sweater incident) has a song named "Gucci Bandana."
I think we as a culture turn a blind eye to too many of these occurrences. As soon as the problematic Dolce & Gabbana campaign was spread throughout social media, Chinese buyers were outwardly denouncing the luxury brand, canceled their Chinese show and patrons were even destroying their items. While Black people seem to have a refusal to own up to the influence we have on pop culture or the impact of the Black buying power. We're letting these brands hurt us, mock us, and then giving them all of our money. Why are we such a forgiving culture?
Sure, of course, we are fighting many battles all the time. Police brutality, a government and President who displays blatant signs of racism, the prison complex and a whole host of other issues black people in America face on a daily basis but why is this one not any less important? I should hardly have to emphasize that clothing means something, especially on the celebrity level, which is a given but let's also not forget that the people also have power. What is worn on the streets influences fashion just as much as what's seen on the runway and that symbiotic relationship relies quite heavily on the Black community. With that responsibility in mind, we must do better.
In fashion, we’ve been having conversations surrounding inclusion more than ever. In 2019, it is fortunate that more Black people than ever have a seat at the table. But the truth is, even with a seat, are we actually heard? After speaking to a few of my fashion friends, I believe that the problem is these companies need minority representation at all levels of their businesses. Without it, you will continue to have insensitive situations with their brand’s name stamped on it. Ezinne Kwubiri was hired as the Head of Inclusion and Diversity in North America at H&M after their marketing debacle, and that was the first and last that we heard about it. Clearly, we need more than that.
As far as Gucci, Prada and Moncler go, the problem stems from the fact that having the ability to buy luxury designer pieces also equates to having money and status. Take Oprah, for example, one of the most famous, certainly one of the richest and most respected members of our community. Even Oprah has been racially profiled while shopping at a luxury retailer, but she still wears designer clothing. And why wouldn't she? Once you know the difference, you can't un-know it. Having nice things is nice! I mean we’re all guilty of it. But if the influencer economy has taught us anything, its that if people with power would react more strongly, then others may actually follow.
In that regard, T.I. has finally had enough and recently expressed his outrage with Gucci as a “seven-figure per year shopper,” urging Black Americans to follow his "call to action" to invoke change. The plan has three parts. One, stop purchasing Gucci for 90 days. Two, stop wearing the Gucci items we already have, including perfumes, and three, share it with your network to make an impact.
As an avid Gucci shopper and possible accidental headband spokesperson, Soulja Boy also ranted about Gucci being canceled, vowing to no longer wear the brand. He posted a video on Instagram declaring that he's moved on to another luxury brand, Fendi. Saying, "Fendi and FashionNova drip," from now on.
But the truth is all of these Europe-based brands have displayed some sign of implicit bias at one time or another, so why is the answer simply not creating our own luxury solution?
Spike Lee took to Instagram to express his concerns by saying, “I,Spike Lee Of Sound Mind And Body Will No Longer Wear Prada Or Gucci Until They Hire Some Black Designers " To Be In Da Room When It Happens". It's Obvious To Da Peoples That They Don't Have A Clue When It Comes To Racist, Blackface Hateful Imagery. WAKE UP. Ya-Dig? Sho-Nuff. And Dat's Da "Coonery And Buffoonery” Truth,Ruth.”
Now, people who care about fashion may not look to T.I., Soulja Boy and Spike Lee as the Holy Grail of what to wear, but it is definitely a start.
This blatant racism isn’t just evident on the corporate level. It can be internalized by our own. Black brands can be just as guilty when they are pandering to a white customer base in their attempt to "make it." Over my years in the industry, I know of a notable Black designer who wasn’t initially comfortable with Black celebrities, rappers in particular, wearing their brand or going to their shows as recently as five years ago because this person was so desperate to be accepted by the white-dominated industry and determined not to be pigeonholed as "urban." But, now? It’s a completely different story.
We shouldn't need evidence that the Black dollar has power. I think Liam Neeson's latest movie release can tell you that. We already saw it in the '90s when Tommy Hilfiger received backlash when he made comments on the Oprah Winfrey Show about not making his clothes for "us." His sales tanked. Because, the truth is, fashion fans can drape themselves in labels head to toe, but something doesn’t become popular until a celebrity in hip-hop or urban culture wears it.
Designers may not want to appeal to Black people; however, it is hard to ignore the widespread impact Black culture has had on mainstream western society, and to not acknowledge that is simply short-sighted.
We are popular culture. We set the tone for everyone else to follow. Now, with the world of social media, everything is heightened and fast-tracked. These brands need to be aware of how quick we are to screenshot and expose their missteps.
I remember saving months’ worth of pay to buy my first designer bag. I took pride in going into the Louis Vuitton store and giving the sales girl my debit card to buy my Louis Vuitton Speedy bag. I didn’t care that it meant that I had to eat noodles and pizza bites for the next month! I took pride in walking out of that store holding a Louis Vuitton shopping bag. And I may have been tripping, but I swear people were looking at me. I felt noticed.
Even when I spent $1,200 on a pair of Gucci boots last season, I almost felt a sense of liberation. I know it’s weird, but I truly believe the ability to afford luxury items is heavily tied into the fact that we have been conditioned to believe this is something we should work towards. It's the American way. Now, I’m honestly contemplating selling those very same Gucci boots that I once took pride in, because, as Peter Marshall once said, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
Sadly, to be honest, I don’t think Black people or celebrities will stop wearing these designers because we live in a society that thrives off of status and validation, but I can only hope that they will become more aware and at least think twice about what they cosign with their financial or personal endorsement. If it's one thing I'm sure of, white supremacy is out.