Fashion’s growing problem of cultural insensitivity
Fashion’s growing problem of cultural insensitivity
If we come to the core of fashion, it is about wearing garments in a conscious and expressive way. The entire fashion industry is not based only on making clothes and selling them. Over the years, our minds have evolved with the times to add new meanings and perspectives to clothing. From the restrictive beauty of Victorian corsets to Juicy Couture’s tracksuits, as the years progressed, we have adapted to current norms of current affairs. Fashion has increasingly adapted to cultural shifts and even changed their course in some cases. However, one of the areas where fashion still stammers is the lack of cultural education. When the world is fighting for societal issues, fashion seems to either be giving a side-eye to them or just plain ignoring them.
Fashion has never wanted to give secrets, and designers were no different. When it was time to capitalise on clothing, one can’t hand over their technique of masterstrokes to a competitor on a silver platter. This is why when capitalism grew, so did the walls of the fashion industry as people became more and more secretive about their businesses. Luxury houses started building up walls between the customer and competitors to ensure their longevity. This worked out great, as fashion houses started being recognised by their signature styles and by the end of the 20th century, the walls had become the norms.
The start of the 21st century, however, brought eyes and ears towards various facets of the world. From climate change to equal rights, change was in the air and everything seemed to be put under the spotlight. These movements were crucial in eradicating crippling societal ideals like sexism and racism among many others. The success of these movements broke the rose-coloured glasses and brought an air of responsibility and sensibility to the everyday consumer. Consumers started digging into brands and started appreciating brands’ inclination towards the outcomes of the aforementioned cultural movements. This is why the modern consumer is inclined to buy organic and sustainable products from a transparent brand that boasts certifications from regulatory authorities.
Fashion industry seemed to be comfortable behind the walls but once dozed over, many came under question. For example, as recent as 2019, Dolce and Gabbana caused a lot of stir in the Chinese market when their advertorial for the new collection went terribly wrong. In the ad, a Chinese woman is seemed to be using chopsticks to eat things like pasta and pizza. Chopsticks have been an integral part of the Chinese cuisine, which is designed to use them accurately. Pasta and pizza are often deemed as Italian staples. D&G’s vision to blend the cultures seemed exciting, but the results faced severe backlash. The ad supposedly hurt many Chinese sentiments and people started boycotting the brand. D&G’s campaign seemed to trivialise Chinese culture which belittled them in comparison to the Italian luxury brand.
In another scandal, the Swedish retailer H&M released a kidswear line of hoodies in 2018. One of them raised brows, as the statement ‘COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE’ was printed over the hoodies. While the statement seems harmless, the hoodie was worn by a black child, which drew subtle racist tones, as the skin tone of the child was compared to that of a monkey. Not only that, the portrayal of one appearing superior in their community, which has already been compared to monkeys, by a brand that has Caucasian origins further deepened the racist tones. After facing severe backlash, the retailer took down the hoodie from their shelves immediately.
Gucci also came under fire for being culturally insensitive in their fashion. While the luxury house is known for its incredible diversity on the runway, the brand did make a mistake by putting a controversial sweater in the market. The sweater was a black full-sleeve turtleneck which when rolled up on the face had a cut-out for the wearer’s mouth. The cut-out was rimmed with a red outline that looked like lips. The entire outfit, when carefully glanced, resembled blackface. Blackface is generally referred to as the face paint that a non-black person uses to portray a black character. This face paint is seen to be incredibly racist towards the African community and the sweater unintentionally invited enormous criticism.
While the controversy remains to be Gucci’s most recent tone-deaf mishap, the company also appeared to show apology and a willingness to learn from its mistakes. Gucci is a luxury brand and to maintain quality, the brand has various checkpoints that inspect the product. The fact that the product passed several eyes and inspections after being designed by experts, only to add itself in the market, questioned the entire brand’s merchandising process. This is why Gucci announced the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer and the Diversity programme, which will allow people from various minorities to be a part of the brand by giving scholarships to schools of under-developed countries like Nigeria and Ghana. Gucci’s steps towards building a diverse global team seems to pay off, as the backlash from the sweater seemed to have been effectively solved.
Gucci sets a good example and a legit blueprint for fashion brands that can avoid being culturally insensitive, especially in times when nothing goes under the radar. Gucci’s relationship with New York’s Dapper Dan is also an example of how understanding communities can avoid catastrophic mishaps for a fashion brand. Dapper Dan used to knock-off luxury brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi on his clothing before knock-offs were a thing. Dapper Dan became influential in the hip-hop scene, as many artists began wearing his clothing in the 80s and 90s. Instead of negatively suing Dapper Dan for knocking off products, Gucci went on to include him into the brand while providing original pieces for his boutique. This way Gucci established a strong relationship with the designer, becoming a part of the hip-hop culture.
It is possible for a brand to effectively educate themselves of cultural shifts in the society without coming off as standoffish or tone-deaf. Fashion needs to embrace the changes and that does not necessarily mean compromising on history, but instead, adapting and moulding to the current changes