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 New York included one style that recalled a Golliwog, the 19th-century 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, on Friday 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.
By Saturday evening, the company had gone further, promising to form an advisory council “to guide our efforts on diversity, inclusion and culture,” and to perform a post-mortem to determine just how such a product reached the sales floor at all.
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 and cosmopolitan.
These past few weeks, fashion has been particularly toxic. 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. In response to criticism, an insult-laden rant appeared on Gabbana’s personal Instagram account that lashed out at the entire country of China. (He said his account was hacked.) The designers apologized, but as serial offenders on subjects including gay parenting and sexual harassment, their apology fell on deaf ears. Indeed, in 2012, the two put their own version of Blackamoor jewelry — featuring black caricatured faces — on the runway.
“The spread of fashion across the world has perhaps become too easy and careless,” wrote veteran fashion columnist Suzy Menkes in her Condé Nast International column last week, assessing the controversy.
The list of companies that have insulted whole religions, ethnic groups and races is long. Chanel scrawled a verse from the Koran across the bodice of a dress and appropriated Native American headdresses. 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. They are treading in sensitive territory. 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. Yes, they have public relations offices around the world. And today, every company has its roster of paid micro-influencers. But they have few safeguards to assure that they have a sophisticated understanding of their various markets. If there are employees who are informed enough to raise a red flag about possible cultural insensitivities, are those same employees empowered to do so? And if employees do speak up, will they ultimately be heard?
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.”
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, where it rattled a design house that has recently taken significant steps to overcome its struggles with diversity. Designer Miuccia Prada was considered one of the prime instigators of the all-white, homogeneous runways of the 1990s, but in recent years she has been lauded for casting models of color in her advertising as well as her catwalk presentations.
In September, her contemporary art foundation opened “The Black Image Corporation,” an installation conceived by artist Theaster Gates that explores the photography archives of Johnson Publishing, featuring highlights from Ebony and Jet magazines and the legendary Fashion Fair traveling runway production. To celebrate the opening of the Milan exhibition, directors Spike Lee and Dee Rees did a panel discussion with Gates on racism in America.
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 point of view. To some degree, that is their job. They digest a bounty of inspiration. 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 decision-making equation.
Often, when outcries and protests begin on social media, companies are faced with trying to appease or apologize to some amorphous mob. And that cyber-gang often is more interested in revenge than resolution. (Witness the online conflagration that consumed Menkes, whose column on Dolce and Gabbana’s China debacle dubiously described the designers as “chastened” and has since been villainized beyond all proportion for it by her Twitter critics.)
That’s not the case this time. Ezie, the spark that started the fire over Prada, 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.”
In a letter of apology the company sent to Ezie, it acknowledged her request: “Given your suggestion, we will donate proceeds from these products to a New York-based organization committed to fighting for racial justice, which is a value that we strongly believe in. We will learn from this and we will do better.”
Sunday, Dec. 16, 8:30 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional comment from Prada.