Blackface shoes and Holocaust T-shirts: Fashion brands’ most controversial designs
Fashion has had a rough few months of controversial designs, beginning in December, when Prada pulled its Otto animal charm from stores after customers claimed its design resembled blackface.
In the short time since, Gucci landed in hot water for a wool jumper that was also seen as racially insensitive, with Burberry just this week apologizing for sending a model down the runway at London Fashion Week wearing a hoodie with a noose around the neck.
High-end houses and fast-fashion brands alike have fallen victim to misguided design choices that have incensed social media and raised questions about how such offensive imagery was approved in the first place. Read on for more examples of retailers that were forced to apologize for racially insensitive or otherwise problematic clothing.
The fast-fashion chain is the biggest offender when it comes to releasing clothes that go viral for offensive imagery. Two recent examples invoked the Holocaust – a $78 handbag that Zara withdrew from stores when shoppers pointed out the embroidery featured four swastikas, and a striped children’s shirt with a yellow star that was also pulled for its resemblance to a prisoner’s uniform.
“We honestly apologize. The T-shirt was inspired by the sheriff’s stars from the Classic Western films and is no longer in our stores,” Zara tweeted about the controversial shirt.
The same month that the striped shirt went viral, Zara also apologized for another T-shirt design featuring the text “White is the new black,” with black letters on white fabric.
In 2016, the Spanish retailer pulled a shirt reading “Are You Gluten Free?” following customers’ outcry, with an online petition circulating that claimed it was insensitive to people with Celiac disease.
The company attracted controversy again in 2017, when customers noticed an online listing for a denim shirt printed with several frogs, featuring imagery similar to Pepe the Frog, an online meme that had been adopted by white supremacists as a hate symbol.
The international retail giant ignited a firestorm with an ad in the U.K. that featured a black child modeling a hoodie printed with the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
Social media blew up over the photo, and several celebrities who had partnered with the brand, including The Weeknd and G-Eazy, severed ties. VIPs including Diddy and LeBron James condemned the ad as racist.
“We sincerely apologize for offending people with this image of a printed hooded top,” H&M said in a statement. “The image has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States. We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do and will be reviewing all our internal policies accordingly to avoid any future issues.”
The Italian luxury fashion house pulled its Otto character from the Pradamalia collection after images of the black animal with oversize red lips exploded on social media, sparking comparisons to blackface.
In a viral Facebook post, Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, condemned the design.
“Today after returning to NYC after a very emotional visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture including an exhibit on blackface, I walked past Prada’s Soho storefront only to be confronted with the very same racist and denigrating #blackface imagery,” she wrote.
“#Prada Group abhors racist imagery,” the luxury brand tweeted in response. “The 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.”
The Italian brand led by designer Alessandro Michele included a black turtleneck in its fall/winter 2018 runway show with a red-lined cutout for customers’ mouths. While Gucci said the $890 item was inspired by “vintage ski masks,” buyers thought otherwise, pointing out that it was reminiscent of blackface.
Gucci apologized on Twitter, with the brand’s official account writing that “we consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make.”
The outcry around the Gucci design, coupled with the Prada controversy, prompted names like Spike Lee and T.I. to announce they were boycotting both brands.
After removing the item from its stores, Gucci later announced that the company would be increasing its diversity hiring, and would add a new global director for diversity and inclusion, as well as five new designers for its Rome office.
The British fashion house drew criticism for featuring a hoodie with a noose around the neck during its autumn/winter 2019 presentation at London Fashion Week.
Model Liz Kennedy, who walked the Burberry runway that day, wrote on Instagram that she was “ashamed to have been apart of the show.”
“Suicide is not fashion,” she captioned her post. “It is not glamorous nor edgy and since this show is dedicated to the youth expressing their voice, here I go.”
In response to the social media outcry following the show, Burberry CEO Marco Gobbetti apologized in a statement, writing that the brand is “deeply sorry for the distress caused by one of the products” and attributing the noose to the show’s nautical theme.
“Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake,” the statement read.
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