First it was Gucci who, amidst outrage over public officials who admitted to wearing blackface as part of costumes, chose to bring to market blackface decorator items (which Prada decided to sell) and blackface women’s sweaters. Now it’s Burberry using a noose as a fashion accessory on a “nautical-themed” hoodie. These are among the fashion brands that have decided to seize upon the newsworthiness of racial insensitivity, while demonstrating that they’re insensitive, too.
Capitalizing on hot button social issues is something that the fashion industry has done with astonishing regularity: There has been a ”black woman chair” that appeared on Martin Luther King Day, and moccasins being sold in “nigger-brown.” It was philosopher George Santayana who famously said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Given previous missteps, some by well-known brands, why are companies seemingly determined to repeat history?
One obvious answer is to get attention. Pushing moral norms will certainly get you noticed. Irish writer Brendan Behan once observed “There is no such thing as bad publicity except if it’s your own obituary.” Perhaps companies such as Gucci and Burberry are abiding by that observation. Nevertheless, one must ask: Why do they seem to employ touchstones of distaste all in the name of publicity? And why do they continue to do it when others before them made the same mistakes? Perhaps all is fair in love and branding. And perhaps those responsible are insensitive to the point of being morally blind.
According to NBC News Riccardo Tisci, Burberry’s chief creative officer, apologized saying in part “While the design was inspired by a nautical theme, I realize that it was insensitive. It was never my intention to upset anyone […] I will make sure that this does not happen again.” A model who was in the show said that beyond the choice to use the noose in the first place, she was further disturbed when staff at the fashion show in which the hoodie appeared “briefly hung one from the ceiling (trying to figure out the knot) and were laughing about it in the dressing room.” The company has since pulled the hoodie from its line.