In December, Chinyere Ezie, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, was on her way back to her office in New York after attending a civil rights conference in Washington DC. While there, she’d visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where she saw examples of goading visual stereotypes and caricatures. On exiting the subway, her eyes fell on key rings in a Prada store window. Made from dark brown wood, they were shaped like monkeys with a cap of black hair and protruding red lips. They cost $550. “I was speechless,” she says. “It bore an unmistakable resemblance to blackface. I thought back to the images I’d seen, which looked at racism over history, and there’d been so many that were nearly identical to the Prada keychain in that window.”

Ezie took photographs and posted the images on Facebook and Twitter. “Thanks to #blackface @Prada, now you can take #sambo home with you for the holidays #StopRacism #StopBlackface #StopPrada,” she wrote.

“I was disturbed to the point of distraction,” she says, over the phone. “I was so shocked by the fact that we live in a society where racism — images that have been used to denigrate black Americans for centuries — would just be repackaged or recommodified, and a consumer public were just expected to accept it, digest it and walk away. It was my sense of powerlessness that motivated me to take to the internet.”

Ezie is not powerless. Her post went viral. Prada pulled the product and issued a sheepish statement: “Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.” Prada promised to donate proceeds from Pradamalia already sold to an organisation committed to fighting for racial justice.

But the episode is alarming. Prada employs more than 12,000 people. Those key rings made their way from the studio, as a sketch on a designer’s table, to production at a factory, to a distribution office, to store window, seemingly without anyone from Prada raising a red flag. How could such a clanging error take place? What a staggering moment of ignorance, a unique failure.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 21: Singer Rihanna and rapper ASAP Rocky attend the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on June 21, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)
Rihanna and A$AP Rocky at the Louis Vuitton menswear show during Paris Fashion Week, June 2018 © Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

But just weeks later, Gucci was called out over a blackface jumper. Marketed as a “balaclava” knit, it covers part of the face and has a cut-out at the mouth surrounded by large red details suggesting lips. “When Prada had just been all over the news, how could Gucci make the same mistake and still be able to actually call it a mistake? Haute-racist-couture seems to be the fashion trend of 2019,” says Ezie.

A few weeks later at London Fashion Week, Burberry showed a hoodie that featured a noose around the neck. Critics argued it glamorised suicide, pointing out the loaded nature of both the hoodie and the noose in the history of violent persecution.

This has all happened at a time when black is in fashion — as ugly as that sentence sounds. Fashion fetishises black cultural icons. Hip-hop style is tapped into like it’s a utility. Brands are happy to acknowledge black talent and hire black faces to front their campaigns, relying on their huge reach for kudos and attention. “Rappers Are Fashion’s New Royalty”, wrote the Business of Fashion in 2018.

The musician A$AP Rocky has appeared in adverts for Dior and Calvin Klein. In 2016, Kanye West, husband of Kim Kardashian, appeared in an ad for Balmain, while Travis Scott, partner of Kardashian’s younger sister Kylie Jenner, fronted a campaign for Alexander Wang. A year ago, in a much Instagrammed moment, rapper Cardi B — the first solo female artist to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album — was front row at the Wang show alongside Anna Wintour, fashion’s most influential editor. And in September, at the SS19 shows, B’s rival Nicki Minaj sat front row at Fendi and Versace, dressed on both occasions in head-to-toe looks by the brands.

These figures shape culture and style — they are some of the most widely followed Instagrammers, the most streamed musicians. Both by wearing product and name-checking brands in their songs, they do much to define who is in and who is out. Yet while most fashion brands readily disclose the efforts they go to to specifically target an Asian audience, they are less comfortable in discussing the way in which their designs are informed by the “hip-hop economy”, or indeed the existence of the market at all.

With those offensive products, brands seemingly mocked the very communities they rely on to purchase and, indeed, shift their wares. The ignorance highlighted a distinct lack of meaningful dialogue between brands and the cultures they enthusiastically mine for inspiration. It suggested a failure to understand that diversity extends beyond promotion of the black body, spotlighting the problem of surface-level representation, where black models are used to sell a product, but not given any authority or power in the boardroom or in the creation process. An all-too-similar example occurred recently with Dolce & Gabbana, who cancelled a much-hyped 2018 show in China following backlash against an advert showing a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks.

“Of course, people ask the question about intent. Were they being malicious? Were they intending to commodify black pain?” Ezie says of the Prada scandal. “To me, the answer is almost besides the point. Instead, we must ask how did a company such as Prada, with such a sprawling supply chain, so many points where interventions could have happened, let this happen? They could have avoided humiliation, had they embraced diversity as a core value. Clearly, if nothing else, this scandal shows you that no one who looks like me is in a position of authority — a position where they can be listened to without retribution — within that company.”

The same can be said of Gucci. When asked by email if the company currently employs any black designers, a representative was open about the fact that it doesn’t, but plans to rectify that as soon as possible. Before the show where that jumper first appeared, creative director Alessandro Michele made clear that the collection reference was performance artist Leigh Bowery; Gucci has since acknowledged ignorance around the triggering effect it could have had. The brand was, the representative said, using the jumper outrage as a huge lesson, referring to it as a “watershed moment” for the company. Gucci’s new approach has been informed by a community meeting in Harlem spearheaded by black designer Dapper Dan, who last year released a capsule with the brand.

Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s chief executive, has been refreshingly candid in acknowledging failings. On advice from those in Harlem, he announced plans to hire employees who focus on diversity, including a global director for diversity and inclusion. Gucci is also partnering with fashion schools around the world on a multicultural design scholarship programme to diversify its hiring and rectify the imbalance of its design studio. And by June, all existing 18,000 employees will be put through a diversity and inclusivity awareness programme.

Kimberly Jenkins set up a course titled “Fashion and Race” at New York’s Parsons School of Design. Young and smart, she is just back from Milan, where, as part of Gucci’s new plan, she gave a workshop to more than 400 employees on race and systemic oppression as part of their global branding meeting, attended by senior company figures from all over the world. She was a last-minute addition — a whole set of talks about diversity and representation were hurriedly scheduled in response to the scandal. Other speakers covered queer identity and disabled bodies.

Jenkins explained to Gucci that if you don’t have historical or cultural context at hand, you can easily offend mass groups of people. She showed them “degrading and dehumanising images. Things that can be triggering.” Her presentation included blackface posters, golliwog images, minstrel figurines and a photo of the ex-American Vogue fashion editor Grace Coddington sitting in her kitchen in front of a range of mammy jars, taken during a photo shoot and uploaded to Instagram by the photographer Brian Ferry, who was seemingly unconcerned by the ornaments lined up directly behind his subject’s head. “There were a lot of surprised faces in the room,” Jenkins says.

MILAN, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 23: Cardi B attends the Dolce & Gabbana show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2019 on September 23, 2018 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Daniele Venturelli/Daniele Venturelli/WireImage)
Cardi B at the Dolce & Gabbana show during SS19 Milan Fashion Week © Daniele Venturelli/WireImage

In Jenkins’ Parsons course, students learn about the history of aesthetics and the construction of the Western beauty canon. They study Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall and the concept of representation. She presents students with magazine covers and editorials, and they work their way through the tropes and the visible power dynamics. They notice the obsession with light skin. They see how the slave bracelet came to be a trend, worn by models and film stars, with little knowledge of the iron collars and cuffs used to bond black bodies. They notice the fascination with “black coolness”, which can be dated to the 1920s. They see numerous occasions where elements of black culture are appropriated as a trend, and styled on white models — cornrows, textured hair, even types of jewellery and nail art. They notice the way art directors centre white models with people of colour flanking them “as if they are accessories”. Sometimes they appear in subservient roles — “the white model will be sitting in a leisurely relaxed position, and then there is a person of colour in the background catering to them”.

Described in writing, these tropes sound laughable, but they crop up again and again. “At first these images can appear harmless, but what they are doing is reasserting white supremacy and ‘the order of things’ — who is important, who is beautiful.”

If Gucci’s response has been solution-based and specific, Prada’s seems to have focused on trying to gloss over the troubles. An email asking if it employs any black designers was met with silence. When the blackface keychain scandal broke, spokespeople for Prada initially suggested that a meeting with Ezie was planned. That has not happened, she says. Instead, Prada has turned to high-profile black figures from other fields. It announced plans for a diversity council, the aims of which are vague, led by artist Theaster Gates and film director Ava DuVernay — neither of whom has a background in fashion.

There is an expression within the black community — “twice as good.” Parents say it to their children to explain that you’ll have to be twice as hardworking, twice as talented, twice as ambitious to get what white people have. We see it across fashion. In Prada’s response, and the decision to look to black figures who are already celebrated, busy and removed from the hierarchies of fashion, we are reminded that the bar is held higher for black creatives.

Ezie’s anger has only increased. “I was dismayed to read Miuccia Prada’s response,” she says. “She basically threw her hands up and said, I can’t accommodate diverse cultures within my work — I can’t cater to multiple markets. But I don’t see any statement that Prada is going to shutter any businesses in countries that they sell their wares to.” Prada’s exact comment was: “How can we know all cultures? The Chinese protest, then the Sikh, then Mexicans, then Afro-Americans. But how can you know the details of each single culture so well when there can be 100 different cultures in every country?”

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Recording artist ASAP Rocky, wearing Gucci, attends 2018 LACMA Art + Film Gala honoring Catherine Opie and Guillermo del Toro presented by Gucci at LACMA on November 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
A$AP Rocky, wearing Gucci, at the 2018 LACMA Art+Film Gala © David Livingston/Getty Images

A problem is certainly the speed with which many European houses have become global companies, relying on emerging markets without recruiting staff with broad cultural backgrounds. The lack of knowledge and nuance is fuelled by the wider industry make-up; a fashion press and buying staff that remains overwhelmingly white., which sells to nearly 200 countries, says it does not keep the data needed to disclose if it has any black buyers, though noted that it “strives for diversity across the business”. Net-a-Porter offered no reply.

Anger and resentment is understandable. “You see people on social media saying, ‘Let’s just burn the whole system down’, and ‘Let’s just stop buying — we don’t need to educate them, to hell with them, let’s just create our own thing’,” says Jenkins. “When I went to Milan for Gucci, I had a couple of nasty comments telling me I was selling out: ‘Why are you helping them? They do this on purpose. They don’t care about us.’”

She is trying to listen to all sides, and mediate, “because it is a valid argument, that maybe they are just using us for a look or a style right now, and maybe we’re not really power brokers in this, maybe we don’t really get a seat at the table. And why should we . . . help them, and their bottom line?” She pauses. “Does the fashion industry really want to change, or are they just trying to make this go away?” Time, and the distance between now and the next racist blunder, will tell.

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