Fash­ion world vexed by racist im­agery

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Good Life - By Robin Givhan The Washington Post

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.”

PRADA

Crit­ics said some of Prada’s Pradamalia fan­tasy charms evoked the racist im­agery of black­face char­ac­ters from the 19th cen­tury.

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