When fashion gets it wrong: the labels accused of cultural appropriation

Amid more accusations against Gucci for its designs, we take a look at others who all, quite frankly, should know better

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2018 file photo, models display items from Gucci's women's Fall/Winter 2018-2019 collection, presented during the Milan Fashion Week, in Milan, Italy. The top civil rights organization for Sikhs in the United States says Nordstrom has apologized to the community for selling an $800 turban they found offensive, but they are still waiting to hear from the Gucci brand that designed it, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)
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Behind the slick glitz and glamorous shows, the fashion industry is precisely that – an industry. Turning over billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands around the globe, fashion labels – like every other sector in business – must keep moving, or perish.

But always being one step ahead is a precarious place to be, where those bold steps forward can as easily bring adulation as they can criticism.

Catering to both millennials and the middle aged, fashion labels now have the unique task of tiptoeing a delicate path between honouring brand history and delivering ever more eye-catching ideas to a hungry new audience. As the world gets smaller, and cultural lines are becoming ever more blurred, references can – and are – increasingly hitting the wrong note, as we are collectively left scratching our heads wondering how on Earth designs got approved.

A model wears a turban on the Gucci FW18 runway
A model wears a turban on the Gucci FW18 runway

Case in point: the Italian house Gucci, much loved for its geeky awkwardness and thrift-store style, is once again in trouble.

This weekend, the brand was lambasted for selling a turban, entitled the "Full Indy Turban", for Dh2,900, with its arrival into department store Nordstrom sparking a social media backlash. Amid accusations of cultural appropriation, the store quickly vowed to pull the product.

Of the turban, The Sikh Coalition tweeted: "The turban is not just an accessory to monetise. It's a religious article of faith that millions of Sikhs view as sacred. Many find this cultural appropriation inappropriate, since those wearing the turban just for fashion will not appreciate its deep religious significance."

Gucci has since changed the name of the product to “Full Indy Head Wrap”, and it is currently listed as sold out on the Nordstrom website.

 The Gucci FW18 balaclava that drew comparisons to 'blackface'
 The Gucci FW18 balaclava that drew comparisons to 'blackface'

The irony, of course, is that this comes only months after Gucci was criticised for promoting blackface, with a balaclava that sported cartoonish red lips. The backlash it triggered in February prompted Gucci to announce it would set up an external Changemakers Council to help guide the label in matters of diversity.

The head of Gucci, Marco Bizzarri, also met with New York streetwear designer Dapper Dan for advice – himself the victim of appropriation, when Gucci ripped off his designs. This, however, had a happy ending, when Dan was invited to collaborate on a collection.

Earlier this month, Australian website RedBubble launched a line of skirts, tote bags and cushion covers bearing images of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp where more than one million people were tragically murdered during the Second World War.

The Auschwitz Memorial was quick to condemn the action, describing the use of images of a place of such “enormous human tragedy” as “disturbing and disrespectful”. The site later withdrew the items from sale.

The Auschwitz Memorial condemning the website RedBubble for using images of Auschwitz on its products
The Auschwitz Memorial condemning the website RedBubble for using images of Auschwitz on its products

In February, British brand Burberry faced backlash when, during its autumn / winter 2019 show in London, it sent a model down the runway with the draw string of a hoodie apparently tied into a noose.

Another model in the show, Liz Kennedy, was the first to flag it, and posted an image of the design on Instagram, writing: "How could anyone overlook this and think it would be OK to do this especially in a line dedicated to young girls and youth. The impressionable youth.

"I left my fitting extremely triggered after seeing this look (even though I did not wear it myself). I had asked to speak to someone about it but the only thing I was told to do was to write a letter."

Burberry London Fashion Week RTW FW19_20 - London - February 2019
The FW19 Burberry hoodie with noose detail. 

The brand's chief executive, Marco Gobbetti, publicly apologised, saying: "We are deeply sorry for the distress caused by one of the products that featured in our A/W 2019 runway collection. Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake."

The noose detail was removed from the hoodie.

Katy Perry's 'blackface' shoe designs
Katy Perry's 'blackface' shoe designs

That same month, singer Katy Perry had to rapidly act and withdraw part of her shoe line after complaints that a face design on two styles featured large red lips. As retailers dropped the offending items, Perry released a statement saying she was "saddened" by the offence, adding the shoes were "envisioned as a nod to modern art and surrealism".

The Prada figures accused of referencing 'blackface'
The Prada figures accused of referencing 'blackface'

In December 2018, Prada was forced to recall part of its key ring and figurine range, when a New York lawyer took to social media to accuse the brand of selling Dh2,019 figurines that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the "golliwog" dolls of the 1930s.

The brand apologised, saying it "abhors racist imagery", and vowed to establish a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to guide the brand.

Of the move, head designer Miuccia Prada said: "Prada is committed to cultivating, recruiting and retaining diverse talent to contribute to all departments of the company. We look forward to working with [the Council] to help us grow not only as a company but also as individuals."


Read more:

Fashion site RedBubble puts Auschwitz on its products

Blackface is never fashionable and pleading ignorance is no excuse for it

Prada lambasted for 'blackface figurines'