Black History Month is not off to the best start.
February has long been dedicated to celebrating black people and their landmark achievements, but just a week into this year’s observance people are already calling for a “redo” — and blackface is largely to blame.
On Friday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) initially admitted to being in a photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook that showed one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Later, Northam insisted he was not in the picture, but did say he had once used black shoe polish on his face to look like Michael Jackson. On Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said he dressed in blackface during college — the same day the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill condemned a 1979 yearbook with a picture of two people in Klan attire appearing to hang another person in blackface.
But the month’s latest blackface controversy doesn’t involve a Virginia leader or college students. This time, the offender is a sweater made by the Italian luxury brand Gucci.
A lanky white model with glossy brown hair is pictured against a light gray background. A black turtleneck obscures most of the bottom half of her face, save for her mouth, which peeks out through a hole cut out of the fabric. Outlining the mouth hole is a ring of red in the shape of what appear to be lips.
Images of the sweater, a wool balaclava jumper that retails for $890, were shared to social media on Wednesday and sparked intense backlash, many calling the garment’s design “racist,” or “Haute Couture Blackface,” as one person described it. Late Wednesday night, Gucci issued an apology and confirmed that the turtleneck had been “immediately removed from our online store and all physical stores.”
“Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper,” the company said in a statement shared to Twitter. “We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make.”
The statement continued: “We are fully committed to increasing the diversity throughout our organization and turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond.”
The photos appeared to have first been shared Wednesday afternoon by a Twitter user who wrote: “Balaclava knit top by Gucci. Happy Black History Month y’all.” The same person also discovered that Gucci was selling a black hat that looked like the top half of a ski mask, writing, “They have a mask to match so you can have a chic classic black face moment without the mess of paint.” As of early Thursday morning, the pair of tweets had nearly 2,000 comments and had been retweeted roughly 5,300 times combined.
“someone obviously didnt let gucci know its Black HISTORY Month and NOT BLACKFACE Month,” one person tweeted.
Another person wrote, “ah yes, black face but make it fashion huh?”
The sweater was part of Gucci’s fall winter 2018 collection, according to a description from ModeSens, an online fashion shopping search engine. The multicolored knitted balaclavas, a form of closefitting cloth headgear, featured in the line were inspired by vintage ski masks, the description said, noting that the turtleneck “combines the accessory with the ready-to-wear collection.”
But for many critics, the top’s hybrid design and the way it was modeled created an image that too closely resembled the title character of a 19th-century children’s book called “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” which has historically been used as a racist trope.
One person argued that the design was “intentional.”
“They could have literally chosen any other color scheme, but they went with this,” the person tweeted.
It didn’t take long for “boycott Gucci” calls to begin spreading across social media.
“This is DISGUSTING,” a person wrote on Twitter. “I don’t wanna see any of you with Gucci belts and slides after this.”
Some, however, did not appear to agree with the outrage.
“This is ridiculous, it is a . . . sweater, stop thinking so far into things,” a person tweeted. “Since when do sweaters have anything to do with race?”
Gucci isn’t the only fashion brand to be accused of marketing a product that invokes blackface. In 2016, Moncler pulled a jacket and shirt bearing designs of what was intended to be a penguin-inspired character with white rimmed eyes and a grinning red mouth, Essence reported. More recently, in December, Prada was widely panned for a window display in its New York SoHo boutique that featured giant versions of a keychain charm that looked like a monkey with a prominent red mouth, The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan reported. Prada also apologized, took down the display, announced it would no longer sell the $550 keychain and vowed to create an advisory council “to guide our efforts on diversity, inclusion and culture.”
Social media users pointed out that these blunders signal a need for brands such as Gucci and Prada to hire more people of color. According to an August 2018 article in the Cut called “What It’s Really Like to Be Black and Work in Fashion,” statistics showed influential positions in the industry are seldom held by black people. Out of the 495 members in the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a prominent trade organization, only 15 are black, the Cut reported at the time. During last year’s fall New York Fashion Week shows, less than 10 percent of the designers were black, according to the Cut. A black photographer’s work didn’t grace the cover of Vogue until August 2018.
“I am a @gucci fan, and I was going to buy a jacquard cardigan because it’s a forever piece, but until they and other luxury brands hire some people of color to consider the imagery of items like the ‘blackface’ balaclava sweater (Randy Jackson voice) its a no for me dawg!” a person tweeted.