Another fashion debut, another designer brand facing accusations of insensitivity.
This time around, the offending label was Burberry, a company best known for its distinctive check pattern — at least, until it showed off one of its latest items at London Fashion Week on Sunday: a hooded sweatshirt that featured, instead of the usual drawstrings, a rope tied into a noose.
Observers quickly condemned the sweatshirt and accused the fashion house of evoking racist lynching imagery and of being insensitive to suicide. Burberry later responded with an apology and said it was removing the sweatshirt from its collection.
“How many people saw this before it made it to the runway?” asked Bernice King, the chief executive of the King Center and daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “The larger question: How can people guard their hearts and minds from normalizing and trivializing symbols and images that historically represent racism, bigotry and oppression?”
In an Instagram post on Sunday, model Liz Kennedy criticized Burberry and said a brand “typically considered commercial and classy should not have overlooked such an obvious resemblance.”
“Suicide is not fashion,” she said.
Kennedy, who wrote that one of her family members died by suicide, said she felt “extremely triggered.” She tried to speak to someone about the design, she said, but was told all she could do was write a letter and that “it’s fashion. Nobody cares about what’s going on in your personal life so just keep it to yourself.”
“Well I’m sorry but this is an issue bigger than myself,” she wrote. “The issue is not about me being upset, there is a bigger picture here of what fashion turns a blind eye to or does to gain publicity.”
After Kennedy’s post, two top Burberry executives issued statements of apology and removed the sweatshirt from the company’s collection. They said the design was intended to be “nautical” or “marine”-inspired.
“Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake,” said Marco Gobbetti, Burberry’s CEO. "The experience Ms. Kennedy describes does not reflect who we are and our values. We will reflect on this, learn from it and put in place all necessary actions to ensure it does not happen again.”
The company’s chief creative officer, Riccardo Tisci, pledged that he “will make sure that this does not happen again.”
“I am so deeply sorry for the distress that has been caused as a result of one of the pieces in my show on Sunday," Tisci said. “While the design was inspired by a nautical theme, I realize that it was insensitive. It was never my intention to upset anyone. It does not reflect my values nor Burberry’s and we have removed it from the collection.”
It was at least the second time this month — Black History Month, as many noted — that a brand had to issue an apology for products perceived as racist or insensitive. In early February, the designer Gucci pulled from its online and bricks-and-mortar stores a sweater that resembled blackface. The sweater ignited a firestorm of criticism and boycotts — and even an actual fire, as the rapper 50 Cent burned a Gucci shirt in protest.
In December, Prada apologized for a window display in its New York boutique featuring trinkets that The Washington Post’s fashion critic Robin Givhan said “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.”
The list of companies to insult “whole religions, ethnic groups and races is long,” Givhan wrote.
Her tally: “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.”
Indeed, fashion brands have had to apologize so often that some commenters are positing that the companies may be stirring up controversy on purpose.
“Maybe lay off the black face and nooses for a while?” said comedian Whitney Cummings on Twitter. “This is starting to feel like some weird bet about who can go out of business the fastest.”
“At this point, they are trolling us,” wrote Shelby Ivey Christie, who hosts a fashion and culture podcast.
Dani Kwateng-Clark, an editor at Broadly, said fashion houses are merely seeking attention.
“There’s no fathomable way that fashion pulls from art and culture, yet is completely oblivious to triggering symbols,” she wrote. “When will this mess end?”