NEW YORK — It all turned on a tweet, as so many controversies do these days. Twitter blew a hole in Gucci’s image. When faced with the damage, the company decided it required more than just a patch.
In mid-January, Gucci head Marco Bizzarri was leading a company meeting in Milan on diversity. The focus was the Changemakers program, which had launched in 2018 to support social justice issues. Bizzarri was delighted with the way things were going: “I was thinking, ‘I’m the CEO of the best diversity[-driven] company there was.’ ”
Then about two weeks later, social media exploded in outrage over a Gucci sweater that critics described as evoking blackface. It was black with a high turtleneck collar that covered the lower half of the face with a cutout for the mouth that was rimmed in bright red. Some people called for a boycott of the brand. Others threatened to burn any Gucci merchandise in their own closets.
Gucci executives were shellshocked — the sweater had been on store shelves for months without generating a single negative comment. But Bizzarri also knew that “in the digital era, if someone says this is blackface, it’s blackface.”
“It was hard to see such a small thing put in danger everything we believe,” he says.
But Gucci’s sweater scandal was not such a small thing. It turned out to be a catalyst for company investments in long-ignored communities. It opened the door to an expanded conversation about corporate responsibility in the luxury realm. And it raised the question: As our world becomes ever more interdependent, what do we really know about each other?
On Friday afternoon, Gucci’s key decision-makers were in town for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala. The company is the lead sponsor for the accompanying exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” But three days before team Gucci walked fashion’s most extravagant red carpet Monday night, Bizzarri and other top execs were at the Nomad hotel, tucked into a stylish, mid-century meets Harry Potter cupola, where they talked about what the company has learned from the experience.
Three months after the conflagration, Gucci is taking the long view. How Gucci reacted to accusations of racism reflects the history of the company itself, as well as the challenges of reaching detente with the social media mob.
In the midst of the uproar, Gucci issued an apology. But critics were not in a forgiving mood.
The controversy unfurled in February, when blackface and its racist history were in the spotlight. Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, was awkwardly denying that he was one of the people depicted in blackface on his law school yearbook page, while simultaneously confessing to wearing blackface on a different occasion. Prada had just apologized for a cartoon charm that called to mind a Golliwog, a 19th-century blackface character. And Dolce & Gabbana had insulted Chinese consumers with a condescending advertisement followed by an angry and defensive Instagram screed.
By March, Gucci had announced plans for scholarships in partnership with schools across the globe, from Accra, Ghana, and Lagos, Nigeria, to Mexico City and New York. The company set aside $5 million to invest in community programs in 10 North American cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Toronto and Washington. There’s now a formal policy that allows employees to spend company time volunteering in their communities. Gucci is also hiring a global director for diversity and inclusion, and it has formed an advisory council that includes model Naomi Campbell, racial justice activists, academics and a sprinkling of celebrities.
Now, in this calm after the storm, first things first: “I think it’s ridiculous for people to say they were burning their [Gucci] clothes,” says Campbell, who joined the conversation at the Nomad. “Don’t burn your clothes. It wasn’t intentional.”
“And on a positive note,” she says, “there’s a silver lining.” By that she means Gucci’s scholarship investment in Africa. “In a lot of countries, football was a way of getting out,” Campbell says. “Now those interested in fashion and creativity have a way.”
Campbell adds that “regardless of what happened, I was always going to Gucci” to propose this new effort.
The brand, founded in 1921 in Florence, stands apart from Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Burberry, which apologized for including a noose-like necklace in a recent runway show.
Gucci was the brand that in 2017 formed a partnership with Harlem’s Dapper Dan who, in the early days of hip-hop, bootlegged the Gucci logo for his own creative purposes. Gucci helped shape the “ghetto fabulous” aesthetic that took hold in the 1990s. When designer Tom Ford served as the company’s creative director from the mid-’90s through 2004, his runways were notable for their diversity, particularly at a time when so many other catwalks were homogeneously white.
When Creative Director Alessandro Michele took over in 2015, Gucci began celebrating outsider beauty with multicultural castings for its shows and advertising.
“When you think about Gucci, you imagine the jet set, bourgeois, rap and black people. That’s the story of the brand,” Michele says. “Gucci is half black.”
Against that backdrop, Bizzarri says, everyone wanted to know how it happened. How did the sweater ever reach the marketplace? Bizzarri didn’t conduct a postmortem. “I didn’t want to go through that process. I didn’t know about blackface,” says Bizzarri, who is Italian. “It was easy for me to say, ‘Okay, who made the mistake? I’m going to fire you to save my face.’ If we made a mistake, I was the person who made the mistake.” In other words, the buck stopped with him.
“To me, the real point is to have a conversation and not to point fingers,” he says. “You’ve never made a mistake? It was a mistake.”
The important question for him was what could the company do to decrease the likelihood of such a mistake happening again? How could he create a culturally sensitive corporate environment? How could he foster communication throughout a company of 18,000 people? And how could he create a safety net for a design team that still needs to be adventurous and even provocative? “I’m going to kill the creativity of Alessandro if I put him in a cage,” Bizzarri says. “If we stop being creative because we’re afraid we’re going to make a mistake, what happens to the company?”
In addition to the measures mentioned earlier, Gucci has hired Kimberly Jenkins, who teaches a course on fashion and race at Parsons School of Design, to serve as an in-house scholar and first responder educating employees on the role that race plays in perceptions of identity, beauty and intrinsic human value.
With education, perhaps people will feel more comfortable speaking up about race. “In Rome and Milan and Paris, I can understand” that no one noticed the blackface, says François-Henri Pinault, the Paris-based owner of Kering, Gucci’s parent company. “The teams are not aware of the sensitivities that were shocked with that product. But we have thousands of people working in America. How come no one raised a finger? How come? It’s our responsibility to make sure they feel comfortable saying, ‘Hey guys, are you sure about that?’ ”
Ensuring that level of comfort in many ways depends on who sits in the seat of power. With the legions of qualified applicants readily available in Italy or France, Pinault says, it’s all too easy to hire yet another white European manager.
“It’s not enough to talk and express and convince,” Pinault says. “We’re at the point where we have to force it.” It’s a similar realization he had when Kering set a goal of gender parity and pay equality by 2025. Thus far, women make up more than half of its company managers.
When considering potential employees, Pinault says, “Diversity is a skill.”
Much of what Gucci has discussed has been through informal conversations with prominent African American members of the fashion and creative community — but also with those who consider diversity outside of those rarefied worlds. There has been the familiar debate regarding how much diversity, financial investment and communication is enough. But in the era of social media, that is a particularly doomed exercise. The same social media that made Michele’s work go viral and helped turn Gucci into a company with 2018 revenue of more than $9 billion can also be a megaphone for a perpetually disappointed fan. “Whatever you do today, they’re going to criticize,” Bizzarri says. “Some people will say we’re not doing enough.”
They may ultimately choose to walk away from the brand. Others may be drawn to it precisely because of its actions. “We can’t please everyone,” Bizzarri says. Gucci is the sum of its employees. “It’s not mechanical. It’s human.”