Fashion houses Prada and Gucci and superstar Katy Perry have all been called out for harking back to dated, offensive blackface in their designs.
It’s a line that’s almost difficult to write. How is this still a thing? Blackface is inherently offensive. Its origins are in minstrel shows in the late nineteenth century where white actors would use grease paint on their faces as a way to depict black people. Vox.com’s Jeneé Desmond-Harris notes these weren't flattering representations. Instead they were mocking portrayals, reinforcing an idea that African-Americans were in every way inferior.
Using these depictions AT ALL EVER is, at best, thoughtless. At worst, deeply offensive. For Gucci, controversy has raged over a “balaclava knit” which covers the wearers face in black and creates broad red lips. For, Katy Perry, a pair of shoes with big lips and a broad nose. Prada had figurines at their New York store which were clearly inappropriate.
There are many layers to this story but essentially, it’s about participation.
How to make a victory out of a disaster
How did these designs get through development and manufacture in these huge and PR-hungry companies without someone spotting the huge, obvious, error? The makeup and cartoonish use of dark skin, wide noses, and full lips are things that the black American community struggles with. They still cause pain to this day.
From a PR perspective, these stories are disastrous. From a human perspective, even worse. Who was at the table planning these collections? We know that better cultural representation is essential to successful teams. And clearly, good decision-making.
The importance of participation
The answer to how this happened is equal parts simple and sad: there are just not enough people who might be offended by these products employed by these brands. Chimmy Lawson reminds us that it’s easy to see a big-lipped shoe as a nod to modern art when you’re not black. It seems simple. Experiences shape perceptions. Diversity brings important insight to the table.
Now, it’s easy to look over the headline and wonder how companies could have overlooked the issues here. “Wouldn’t happen on my watch,” you can say as you smugly finish your half-cold coffee. But if the decision was made in the UK, in your own office, would our teams fare better?
In 2015, one in eight of the working age population in the UK came from a black, minority or ethnic (BME) background. Yet BME individuals make up only 10% of the workforce and held only 6% of top management positions. We already know that top-performing companies in racial and ethnic diversity are over a third more likely to have financial returns above their industry average. If BME talent is fully utilised in the UK alone, the economy could receive a £24 billion boost.
Gucci has responded to the wave of distaste in their sweater by announcing scholarships to help increase different communities within the creative office. Prada has created a diversity council to elevate voices of colour within the company, and fashion more widely. These are all important steps. And we support them on that. Seriously though, how on earth could that possibly have happened? Do better.
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