Fashion Brands Capitalize on Blackface and Nooses

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.

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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.

Groupon Drops the “N-Word” to Sell Moccasins


Earlier this week Groupon posted an offer in which it described a pair of women’s moccasins as being available in “Nigger-Brown” (see the screenshot above). According to “the slur was used to describe not just one pair of boots, but several sold by ‘Groupon stores’ Kojwa and Margines among others. It featured on listings for ‘Women’s and Men’s Suede Leather Fur Boots’ and ‘Women’s Fringed Suede Moccasin Boots,’ for example — boots both being sold at a 46% discount but, you know, still with 100% racism.” The response on Twitter was swift. One user tweeted, “@Groupon what type of color is ‘nigger-brown?'”

Groupon responded, in part, by asserting that Kojwa and Margines are separate (independent of Groupon) Chinese-based companies and that a translation error may be at fault. “This is a known issue in the e-commerce space,” they continued. “We’re determining why the deal slipped past the controls we have in place (we flag literally hundreds of terms and various permutations) and will make the necessary improvements.” According to fact-checking site,  this is something that has happened with some frequency and may be the result of outdated Chinese-language translation software.

In a statement a Groupon spokesman said “We are appalled that this language was displayed on our site. This product description was provided by a third-party seller via our self-service platform. Regardless, this is completely unacceptable and violates our policies — to say nothing of our values. When made aware of the issue, we immediately removed the deal — as well as the third-party seller — from our marketplace. Language like this has no place on Groupon, and we’re further strengthening our self-service controls to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” If that’s true, and if the term was the product of translation software, then shouldn’t companies that do business with Chinese firms put in place manual or automated controls to prevent such unfortunate incidents? If they “flag literally hundreds of terms and various permutations,” how did this one slip by? What do you think? Many thanks to #jmcawesome alum Maria Watson for the tip.