Racism as a Marketing Tool: How Fashion Brands Continue to Profit from Stereotypes
Fashion and I have had a long, rocky relationship. A toxic one, some might say. I fell in love with the art more than half my life ago, and I was determined to work in the industry up until now. I obsessed over fashion shows, wrote blog posts about style for four years, and, more recently, attempt to navigate my life-long love with its problematic, capitalist and unfortunately racist tendencies. Of course fashion is rooted in capitalism—it thrives off of this structure, where it can only exist within the purpose of making a profit. Yet, when does this profit-obsessed culture that leads to structural inequalities become more about its capitalist nature than the art, where brands will do practically anything just to increase profit, even if this results from obvious exploitation?
It has become common knowledge that many fashion corporations exploit female workers in the Global South, even when the intention behind the clothes is nowhere near malicious. Because of this, I have strived to only buy from ethical sources or thrift my clothes. Yet, a more undercover issue has also continued to persist, for as long as minstrel shows were popular modes of entertainment—exploiting and profiting off of Black culture has been, and will continue to be, a sad truth about the fashion industry, as long as it continues to be run by white privilege. A few months ago, Gucci pulled yet another racist stunt with their balaclava sweater that exactly imitates black face seen in the previously mentioned minstrel shows, red lips and all, and of course styled by a thin, white model. Although the luxury brand apologized, which seems to do nothing to solve the systematic racism seen in the industry, these incidents continue to happen, whether it’s last year’s children’s hoodie scandal with H&M or Valentino’s Spring 2016 fashion show filled with 100% cultural appropriation and a very small percentage of POC models and even fewer black ones. More recently, Dolce & Gabbana profited off of harmful, Chinese stereotypes and Prada imitated the racist depiction of Little Black Sambo.
This also isn’t the first time Gucci has proven to use other cultures in racist manners, where white models donned Sikh turbans on its Fall 2018 runway, as well as non-white accessories such as bindis and East-Asian garments. Their racism came out to play yet again, just last week, when they put those aforementioned turbans on the market for $800. Yet, the brand and its designer, Alessandro Michele, continue to be praised for his attention to detail and ability to produce breathtaking designs that incorporate diverse inspirations. This so-called “attention to detail” seems to be rescinded by the designer’s fetishization of almost every non-white culture out there while failing to include models that represent these cultures. How can a brand be defined by these details when racist “mistakes” continue to occur? And even if the brand incorporated more models of color and diverse cultures, how can one come back from profiting off of a marginalized groups’ culture just for one’s gain to rise up in fashion’s capitalistic structure which, at the end of the day, contributes to structural inequalities that harm those same marginalized groups?
This grappling dilemma of mine, particularly since I was previously a fan of Gucci ever since Michele joined the brand in 2015, only continues to be strengthened by these ongoing occurrences, and forces me to question if the industry can truly escape this harmful structure, especially since it seems as if brands have no clue how to learn from their mistakes. It also forces me to understand my placement in all of this, where my white privilege puts me in a position of power that only benefits from these systems. I think that we need to listen to Black voices, to Muslim voices, to Sikh and Indian and Chinese voices, when these mishaps take place. Moreover, we need to allow these bodies to be represented in the industry in every possible way, from the models to the designers to even the people selling the clothing in their stores. In an age where being black and working in fashion is far too difficult and successful black designers are a rarity, it’s crucial to first critique the industry that always excuses offensive designs with “artistic licenses,” stripping the art of its for-profit nature. Yet, it’s only futile to ignore this problematic aspect; this method only sweeps racism under the rug that will always crawl back out.
Even worse, this racism extends beyond brands and lies in influential faces in the industry—Vogue’s Grace Coddington was revealed in a photoshoot earlier this year to publicly display her collection of mammy figurines, aka racist memorabilia depicting a trope dating all the way back to slavery, in her kitchen. Of course, the issue was, once again, swept under the rug when photographer Brian Ferry reposted the images of Coddington without the mammy jars, attempting to apologize for his mistake without actually addressing the real issue at hand. Many, particularly people of color, called him out on this act through social media, like Wandie Kabule, who DMed him several times long before he edited the post.
She told us at Camp Thirlby that for her, “It's been very frustrating to watch brands, and people, make such blatant missteps in not supporting racial stereotypes and racist imagery. It feels like, all too often, the apology we are given will inevitably include a promise to be better in future. Racist imagery is so easy to google, research, and avoid. In 2019, we're still having to explain to white people why they can't wear blackface or uses racial stereotypes.” This promise is obviously broken from the constant news cycle of new and recurring racist incidents, where the apology both seems to act as a temporary band-aid, and, as Wandie states, “The apology always seems to put the burden on the person of color. You're telling us that, now that you've been called out, you apologize for any hurt you may have caused. Where is the concern to not do these actions in the first place? It feels very reactionary and defensive.”
This form of emotional labor is nothing new for Black womxn, especially in the age of social media where racism is circulated faster than it takes white people to truly learn from their mistakes. Allyship requires more than making futile apologies while still supporting obvious racists; it also should never require people of color to constantly attempt to educate racists on their neverending “mistakes.” It instead requires us to use our privilege to call out all racism, to critique why this racism in fashion is happening in the first place, to give Black people a break from this emotional labor, and to also give space to Black voices, designers, artists, you name it, to navigate the industry as freely as possible.
So, after far too many incidents, I’ve decided to not only boycott these brands, which sadly feels like a majority of high fashion labels, but also critique why I decide to partake in this action. But more importantly, I leave space for the people of color, whether they wish to use their own lived experiences to call out racism or design their own clothing. While this racism may not be going anywhere, it’s time to at least stop using our privilege to ignore it.
Designers to Know & Support Instead
While the majority of mainstream designers are still white men, further contributing to systematic racism in the industry, many Black designers have been making their way into highly acclaimed labels, or even being the founders of these labels themselves.
Virgil Abloh, the founder of Off-White and current artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, has gained a lot of traction in the past year since joining the brand in March of 2018. It’s more than wonderful when seeing Black designers take over labels that are nearly two centuries old, but even better when we see his influence obviously appear in LV’s newest collections. And best of all, Timothée Chalamet, aka the best-dressed at the Golden Globe’s this year, donned his sparkly, harness-clad suit earlier this year.
Carly Cushnie, the Black womxn and face behind Cushnie, started her label in 2008 with the mission of empowering other womxn, both in the industry and beyond. Not only are her sleek, diverse designs often modeled by other womxn of color, she is also a favorite of influential womxn like Lupita Nyong’o.
Rihanna, an iconic Black queen that had to make our list although she’s more known for her music, has been pushing boundaries in the past few years with her collaboration with Puma and her inclusive beauty line. Most impressively, she designed a lingerie collection for all shapes, shades, and gender expressions, taking down the transphobic and white-washed empire of Victoria’s Secret. She is now working with LVMH on her new fashion line.
Public School NYC, a longtime favorite of mine, is also co-run by Maxwell Osbourne, a Black man who also grew up in NYC and wanted to manifest these experiences into a fashion line. The duo, including him and Dao-Yi Chow, aim to make both inclusivity and politics a priority in their widely successful brand.
The Nigerian-American sister duo Darlene and Lizzy Okpo created the fashion label William Okpo, giving a shoutout to their father with its name. Their inspiration focuses on the mixture of their parents influence, both Nigerian immigrants, with contemporary American culture, making them and their brand more unique than most.
About the Author
Natalie Geisel is in her third year at The George Washington University studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies with a minor in communication. Her love of writing sprouted from starting her fashion blog in high school, and her current written work spans from topics such as style, LGBTQ+ content, and music. She is interested in intersecting gender and sexuality into the world of wellness, hoping to add a queer voice to its editorial side. When she’s not writing, she spends her spare time at dance rehearsal, attending local indie shows in the DC area, or finding the best cafes that serve oat milk. She’s passionate about inclusive sex education and sustainable fashion and thinks everyone should be, too.