Black Face Is Not A Trend: High Fashion's Struggle With Cultural Awareness

It isn’t breaking news that there is a blatant lack of diversity in the fashion industry. But this fact becomes even more painfully apparent every time a designer releases yet another problematic design featuring inappropriate, culturally insensitive imagery. Gucci is among one of the most recent brands to face a firestorm of criticism after they released an $890 ‘balaclava’ black-knit women’s sweater featuring a pull up turtleneck with a design that closely resembles black face. The offensive design was only heightened by its horribly timed release during Black History Month, alongside the simultaneous leak of photos showing Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in black face in his medical school yearbook.

Photo cred: Gucci

Photo cred: Gucci

In response to the controversy, Gucci removed the sweater from shelves. President and CEO Marco Bizzarri explained the misstep to be the result of “ignorance.” In reality, this ignorance is part of a much deeper-rooted problem in the fashion industry, which is its blatant lack of inclusion and a stubborn unwillingness to create seats at the table for a more diverse range of designers and creatives. When everyone in the boardroom and design studio looks the same, there’s a limited scope of cultural awareness that allows seemingly harmless ignorance to spiral into acts of hate that are allowed to pass as a fashion statement.

Gucci isn’t the only fashion house to recently be under fire for using black face in their designs. Just a few days after the Gucci controversy took wind, Katy Perry Collections made the decision to discontinue a pair of shoes that were released last Summer featuring large red lips, a wide triangular nose and blue eyes which came in nine different colorways, including black. In 2016, Moncler has to pull their “Malfi” jacket and shirt from shelves, which featured a similar black-face design.

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Last December, Prada also faced extreme backlash for their ‘Pradamalia’ line, which featured characters depicting monkey-like figures with black faces and large red lips resembling black face. They immediately halted circulation of the line, which included branded keychains, cell phone cases, clothing, jewelry, and various leather goods. Just days after the Gucci controversy made headlines, Prada announced the launch of their new diversity council aiming to "elevate voices of color within the company and fashion industry at large” with Ava Duvernay and Theaster Gates appointed as chairs.

Prada’s appointment of a diversity council is the most extreme response thus far to the black face controversy, with most other brands simply opting to discontinue the products and issue an apology. Although it's a step in the right direction, it wreaks of a publicity stunt rather than a genuine desire to better understand how to properly navigate culture sensitivity. Ava Duvernay has no connection to fashion, however she is a highly revered film director with enough respect in the black community to immediately capture our attention and make headlines. There are plenty of black designers and creatives within the fashion industry who may not have Duvernay’s platform, but possess the talent to contribute great ideas beyond just ensuring that the brand makes socially responsible decisions (*calls up Brandice Daniels*). The internal structure of these companies is what needs to change, rather than them simply implementing a separate entity that sounds like its only purpose is to create the illusion of politically correctness.

This impenetrable glass ceiling for creatives of color in fashion has long existed, as a vast majority of heritage fashion houses are of European heritage. Generations later, few of them have branched out to diversify their internal teams. In fact, it was only a year ago that Virgil Abloh made history by becoming Louis Vuitton’s first African-American creative director and one of the only black designers to ever be appointed to lead a heritage fashion house. Just last year, Gucci regained the good graces of the black community by releasing a capsule collection in collaboration with style icon Dapper Dan. But these slow steps towards progress aren’t enough to combat the cultural gap that needs to be bridged in the fashion community. With black people being among the biggest consumers and possessing the largest buying power in the U.S., it’s simply unacceptable that we are still fighting to break this long-existing glass ceiling in the fashion industry that leads to such poor, culturally insensitive decision making. Intentional or not, it’s a form of profitable exploitation that validates ignorance and intolerance in pop culture.