Fashion world vexed by racist imagery
Fashion, fashion, fashion.
What now? An avoidable pratfall into America’s racist history.
A display of expensive tchotchkes in the windows of Prada’s Soho boutique in downtown New York included one style that recalled a Golliwog, the 19thcentury blackface character with big round eyes and large red lips. The thing also resembled the title character from “Little Black Sambo,” a children’s book of the same era. Either way, the connotations were unequivocally racist.
After complaints from the public, the Prada Group issued an apology, dismantled the display and announced that it would pull the offending $550 charm from circulation. “They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface. Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery,” the company said in a statement.
When it comes to the subjects of race, ethnicity and diversity, the fashion industry’s ability to confound and enrage seems to have no bounds. It has demonstrated a limited capacity to learn from its mistakes even as companies become more global.
In November, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana were scheduled to host a fashion extravaganza in China, but the event was canceled after the designers mounted an online promotional campaign that played into cliches and stereotypes about Chinese food and docile Asian women — they featured a model struggling to eat spaghetti with chopsticks, for example. The designers apologized, but as serial offenders on subjects ranging from gay parenting to sexual harassment, their apology fell on deaf ears.
“The spread of fashion across the world has perhaps become too easy and careless,” wrote veteran fashion columnist Suzy Menkes in her Conde Nast International column assessing the controversy.
The list of companies that have insulted whole religions, ethnic groups and races is long. Chanel scrawled a verse from the Quran across the bodice of a dress. Dutch label Viktor & Rolf covered white models in black body and face paint, creating a look that called to mind a high-fashion minstrel show. Even American designer Marc Jacobs caused a stir when he incorporated fake dreadlocks on white models in a New York runway show.
Fashion companies aren’t just selling gadgets. They are selling personal identity, intimate fantasies and even self-esteem. And as fashion companies have become ever more international, with their products reaching wildly diverse audiences, these brands still struggle to inform themselves in a deep and considered way about the customs and sensibilities of the countries in which they are doing business.
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.
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.
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.
Ezie juxtaposed her pictures from the Prada store with histori- cal 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.”
Her post made its way through the social media biosphere, stirring outrage along the way, until it reached the doorstep of Prada Group in Milan.
Fashion companies are fluent in the language of marketing. Designers are savants of the visual arts. But both often lack the ability to see beyond the surface — beyond the sales pitch and the color palette — to get at the complex humanity of people. A designer can be deeply moved by one individual’s story yet able to overlook or ignore the story of an entire population. And designers, for as much as they travel around the globe, are often still deeply rooted in their own culture. They continue to see everything from their own singular point of view. To some degree, that is their job. They digest a bounty of inspira- tion. And they create something personal and proprietary.
That’s an explanation, however, not an excuse. “I don’t cut them slack” because they’re an Italian company, Ezie says. “There are black people everywhere. They’re a multinational brand. That tells me they don’t have black people in their boardroom.” Globalism demands allowing more voices — more diverse voices — into the creative process and into the decisionmaking equation.
Ezie, the spark that started the fire over Prada, has yet to hear from anyone at headquarters. But she is clear about how the company could begin to make amends. “Take a step back,” she advises, “and reckon with what their company looks like and if diversity is embraced.”
“And since this is not blackface on some college campus, but blackface at $550 (a charm) — divest the profits,” she says. “Donate the proceeds to an organization committed to racial justice.”
Critics said some of Prada’s Pradamalia fantasy charms evoked the racist imagery of blackface characters from the 19th century.