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Offensive fashion: when brands get it horribly wrong

Louis vuitton michael jackson

In the age of social media, cultural insensitivity is called out faster than ever before – and fashion brands and retailers must act quickly when they get it wrong.

In January, Louis Vuitton showed a menswear collection at Paris Fashion Week that included an homage to Michael Jackson. Among the autumn 19 product was a jacket based on the red version worn by the singer in the video for Beat It, and a T-shirt printed with an image of his famous feet mid-dance.

The catwalk show’s invitations were printed on a single white glove modelled on that worn by Jackson, and his music played at intervals throughout the show. Louis Vuitton’s creative director, Virgil Abloh, later explained that he wanted to recognise the pop star’s influence over a “whole generation of artists and designers”.

Apparently unbeknownst to the French fashion house at the time, a documentary was about to be released in which two men alleged that Jackson had abused them as children.

Leaving Neverland first aired at the Sundance Film Festival on 25 January – a week after the Louis Vuitton menswear show – and came to the attention of the wider public when it was released on HBO in the US and Channel 4 in the UK in early March. Following a backlash on social media, on 14 March Louis Vuitton issued an apology and said it had removed the items in question from the collection.

In so doing, it became the latest in a string of fashion brands forced to address controversy surrounding their products following an outcry on social media, prompting questions about why this is happening.

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Burberry’s “noose” hoodie

Burberry recently faced criticism after it presented a hoodie with drawstrings tied into a noose during London Fashion Week in February. The brand said the knotted rope was intended to be nautical, but some members of the public perceived it as a reference to suicide, or even lynching.

Others have been called out for implied racism. In early February, Gucci was criticised on social media for selling a $890 (£690) balaclava-style jumper, which featured a cut-out mouth outlined by cartoonish red lips, which some felt referenced “blackface” – a historical practice of white people painting their faces black as a form of mockery. Gucci issued an apology and withdrew the item from its stores and website.

A week later, Katy Perry Collections removed two shoe styles from sale after social media users claimed they were racist. The two styles of shoe, the Rue Face slip-on loafer and the Ora Face block-heeled sandal, featured a face with prominent red lips.

It comes after Prada pulled a series of black monkey key chains with exaggerated red lips in December, while in November Dolce & Gabbana became embroiled in a racism row that led to it cancelling a catwalk show in China. 

Too often, brands are quick to push products to market without taking a step back and considering how they will be perceived 

Alan Hunt, senior associate, Lewis Silkin

Due process

Legal experts and analysts point out that, while it is believable that Louis Vuitton did not know about the Jackson documentary before releasing its collection, the other examples went through the design process, quality control and final sign-off, making it harder to understand such mistakes.

Alan Hunt, senior associate in the retail and fashion group at law firm Lewis Silkin, adds: “Intentional or not, too often brands are quick to push products to market without taking a step back and considering both what needs to be achieved, and how it will be perceived.

Younger consumers especially rely on word of mouth and social shares to decide what they think is desirable or otherwise ‘done’

Kathryn Bishop, The Future Laboratory

“Fashion is, of course, fast moving, and this is an industry where there is pressure to deliver something new, every season, every time. But this should not be at the expense of undermining fundamental values important to us all.”

Kathryn Bishop, deputy foresight editor at LS:N Global, the trends editorial division of consultancy The Future Laboratory, argues that the recent spate of product recalls shows brands are out of touch with their consumers: “It is so important to understand the nuances and expectations of not only particular markets, as shown in China with the recent Dolce & Gabbana campaign, but also a younger, aspirational luxury consumer who is not only more open minded – thanks to the internet – but has no issue with calling out what it sees as inappropriate.”

The impact can be severe: social media has fuelled a mass protest mentality, which encourages consumers to boycott a brand. Stephen Sidkin, fashion law partner at firm Fox Williams, points out that it can “sometimes resemble the rule of the mob”. 

“We’ve seen ‘cancel culture’ become prevalent among young people, who choose to block, banish and no longer buy brands they feel affronted by,” adds Bishop. “Younger consumers especially rely on word of mouth and social shares to decide what they think is desirable or otherwise ‘done’, and opinion and influence can travel fast. This ‘cancel culture’ risks damaging sales and, of course, public sentiment.”

Gucci apology screenshot

Gucci had to act quickly in response to backlash over its “blackface” jumper

“Bad” taste

Following the Louis Vuitton controversy, Savile Row tailor Gieves & Hawkes took down from its archive display the military jacket it made for Michael Jackson to wear on his “Bad” tour in 1988. 

Ray Clacher, executive vice-president of Gieves & Hawkes owner Trinity, tells Drapers: “It’s an important part of our archive, but we’re being cautious because we don’t want any bad feeling. You have to take a view about whether you’re rubbing people’s noses in it by having these things on display. We’re not destroying it – I’m sure it’ll have its place someday – but for now it is too sensitive.”

Brands can and should undertake social awareness clearance searches 

Stephen Sidkin, fashion law partner at firm Fox Williams

Sidkin suggests brands should undertake “social awareness clearance searches” on all product: “When acting for fashion brands we’re asked from time to time do trademark clearance searches, where we check the trademark is not already being used by someone in a new market.

“It seems to me that brands can and should undertake social awareness clearance searches – is there something that could cause such offence that it would cause you to pull the collection? If they don’t and experience this social backlash, they only have themselves to blame.”  

Rapid response

Most experts agree that a swift response is the best way to deal with PR disasters when they do arise. Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Gucci, Prada and Katy Perry Collections quickly removed the products that had caused offence and issued explanations or apologies. Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele wrote an open letter to its 18,000 employees, saying the fact the jumper had evoked racist imagery gave him the “greatest grief”.

Some have gone further, and are seeking to address an underlying lack of cultural diversity in their organisations. In February, Burberry announced new diversity and inclusivity initiatives, among them increasing its awareness of sensitive topics and social issues through training for all employees, including those in senior roles. It will also establish “employee councils focused on diversity and inclusion”, as well as create an advisory board of external experts.

We will see more brands take the reactive step of openly integrating initiatives into their businesses focused on diversity and social agenda 

Kathryn Bishop, The Future Laboratory

Prada, meanwhile, announced the formation of a diversity and inclusion advisory council to inform its internal processes, and spearhead internship and apprenticeship initiatives. It also plans to host a conference to discuss improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

The Future Laboratory’s Bishop says: “I anticipate we will see more brands take the reactive step of openly integrating initiatives into their businesses focused on diversity and social agenda.

“Not only will this ensure such missteps are a thing of the past, but it will also serve to make their companies more grounded, diverse and worldly from the inside out.”

The Drapers Verdict

Fashion necessitates some testing of the boundaries, and designers often look to the more controversial aspects of history, culture and art for inspiration. Taken at face value, brands are not setting out to offend. However, in the age of social media, there is no room for avoidable mistakes.

Such a spate of PR disasters points to a lack of cultural sensitivity within some of fashion’s biggest businesses, which could stem from a lack of diversity. Brands must take more time to consider the potential reaction to products they release and take this opportunity to look at how to improve cultural understanding within their organisations.

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