When will brands stop apologising (or stop making careless mistakes)?

What We're Thinking is a weekly take on the fashion issues and questions on our minds – from what we adore to what we abhor.

Try this for a sobering exercise. Grab a piece of paper and, off the top of your head, list all the fashion racism/sexism/cultural appropriation scandals you can remember in recent times.

Without so much as a Google search, I came up with 10 in the past year, give or take.

There was the H&M “Monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt, the Gucci “Blackface skivvy”, the Dolce & Gabbana “chopsticks for pizza” campaign, Miu Miu Holocaust star dress and the Prada monkey key rings, to name a few.

This week, we can add a Gucci turban and, now, Calvin Klein's Bella Hadid "lesbian fantasy" campaign to the list.

The latest examples have led me to wonder: When will fashion brands stop apologising for careless mistakes? Or, more to the point, when will they stop making them?

Allow me to quickly recap the latest two controversies. Last week, Gucci landed in hot water after a turban shown at its February show went on sale at US department store Nordstrom. The turban, which was to sell for $US790 ($1141), drew claims of cultural insensitivity from the Sikh community.

Nordstrom responded to the complaint by removing the turban but Gucci has yet to publicly apologise.

Gucci's silence contrasts with its response to February's skivvy controversy, after which creative director Alessandro Michele, who this month co-chaired the Met Gala, issued a mea culpa.

"The fact that, contrarily to my intentions, that turtle-neck jumper evoked a racist imagery causes me the greatest grief," Michele wrote in a staff memo that was first published on Fashionista.com. "But I am aware that sometimes our actions can end up with causing [sic] unintentional effects. It is therefore necessary taking full accountability [sic] for these effects."

So why this time has Gucci not acknowledged its misstep in releasing a garment that is worn by millions of Sikhs worldwide for religious reasons but also makes its wearers the target of racist abuse and discrimination?

This week, Calvin Klein apologised for potential "queerbaiting" over its campaign in which model Bella Hadid and the computer-generated influencer Lil Miquela kiss passionately.

Writers, including those who identify as LGBTIQ, said featuring a heterosexual woman (Hadid) and, essentially, an avatar was an example of "[borrowing] sexuality for clickbait, othering queerness as 'surreal'" and "makes a spectacle of lesbian sexuality, inauthentically using the image of it to appear progressive and sell a product without actually representing the community". New York magazine's The Cut described the ad as an "empty gesture" on the path to greater inclusivity in fashion.

It's a shame, really, that both Gucci and Calvin Klein have become embroiled in these scandals, as both brands have genuinely helped advance conversations around freedom of expression (take Michele and Harry Styles at the Met Gala, while the CK campaign also features openly gay Australian singer Troye Sivan). But some good work doesn't excuse the litany of tone-deaf mistakes that appear to keep happening the world of luxury fashion.

Following its keyring fiasco, Prada established a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council aimed at bringing more voices of colour to its table, while H&M hired a diversity manager in the wake of the hoodie incident.

And yet, despite all of fashion's goodwill in the area of diversity and inclusivity, the continued incidences of offence-causing products and campaigns leaves fashion commentators right to query whether it's mere posturing.

How do these mistakes keep happening? Is it because too many labels are controlled by oligarch-style designers who lower-ranked staff dare not challenge? Or because designs are so closely protected, both for commercial and artistic reasons, that they are not sufficiently sense-tested by a representative group, especially those most likely to be offended?

No-one designs a garment or campaign to be intentionally offensive to minority groups. Even designers who have made a career of being deliberately provocative, such as Moschino's Jeremy Scott or Australia's own Di$count Univer$e, do so with such obvious irony and never set about to incite offence on taboo issues such as gender/race/sexuality/religion/ability.

And yet, despite fashion's overall “wokeness” in 2019, we are still seeing these slips, some of which are getting harder to dismiss as casual accidents. It's time fashion does more than creates committees and makes hollow appointments to cover its tracks. It's time design teams educate themselves, slowing down the fashion cycle every so often to take the temperature of the room. And, in the end, follow the core principle of taste-testing: if in doubt, leave it out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *