At least three women donned all three accessories at the showcase, which coincided with New York Fashion Week. Two others wore the false ears and eyebrows onstage but did not sport the exaggerated lips. One woman refused to wear any of it.
“I stood there almost ready to break down, telling the staff that I felt incredibly uncomfortable with having to wear these pieces and that they were clearly racist,” 25-year-old model Amy Lefévre, who is black, told the New York Post last week in an interview about the Feb. 7 show. “I have never felt like that in my life.”
Now, the president of the institute in New York and the chair of the school’s fashion design master of fine arts program apologized for sending models onto the runway wearing the accessories.
“It does not appear that the original intent of the design, the use of accessories or the creative direction of the show was to make a statement about race; however, it is now glaringly obvious that has been the outcome,” Joyce F. Brown, the college’s president, said in an open letter Tuesday. “For that, we apologize — to those who participated in the show, to students, and to anybody who has been offended by what they saw.”
Lefévre finished her runway walk without the prosthetics. However, she said the showrunners pressured her to wear the same costumes as the other women in the show.
“I was told that it was fine to feel uncomfortable for only 45 seconds,” she told the New York Post.
Despite Lefévre’s objections, several other models who are not black agreed to wear the ears and lips. They displayed the outfits in front of an audience of about 100 people, including photographers who captured the designs.
Allegations of racism or of racial insensitivity have dogged the fashion industry for years. In 2018, Prada pulled from its stores small black figurines that resembled blackface characters dating to the 1800s. People flooded H&M with complaints about an ad featuring a black child wearing a sweatshirt printed with “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
Last year was filled with fashion faux pas. Three companies had to discontinue designs in February 2019 alone. Burberry apologized for a sweatshirt designed with a noose where the drawstrings would typically fall around the neck. Gucci yanked from its stores a black turtleneck with red lips that could be pulled up around the wearer’s mouth. Katy Perry jettisoned two designs from her footwear line after people said a pair of black shoes decorated with bright red lips evoked blackface imagery.
Designers have also faced criticism for designs perceived to make light of mental-health disorders and school shootings. Some designers, such as the duo behind Sandy Hook-inspired sweatshirts riddled with bullet holes, have defended controversial products as edgy artistic statements. More often, fashion brands are quick to apologize and discontinue sales.
For Lefévre, the offensive accessories hit her hard.
“I could not control my emotions,” she told the New York Post. “People of color are struggling too much in 2020 for the promoters not to have vetted and cleared accessories for the shows.”
FIT administrators have issued multiple mea culpas and promised to investigate how the accessories were approved for use in the fashion show.
The chair of the MFA program at FIT apologized to Lefévre in a public statement Wednesday.
“It was never our intent for the show’s styling to be interpreted as racist or to make people feel uncomfortable but I now fully understand why this has happened,” Jonathan Kyle Farmer said. “I take full responsibility and am committed to learning from this situation and taking steps to do better.”