The Cost of Cultural Ignorance
Inflammatory and ignorant behavior, alongside cultural insensitivity, will capsize success. In the fashion industry, we've seen the same story play out—Dolce & Gabbana's tone-deaf promotional video for their Shanghai show, Gucci's blackface balaclava, Burberry's hoodie with a noose for a drawstring—but in a time when technology is connecting cultures on a global scale, social media has created a sense of responsibility and accountability amongst consumers. Brands must reconsider now, more than ever, the implications of their advertising, the origins of inspiration, and the potential outcomes of their collections, in order to remain relevance and to avoid making the same mistakes of designers in the past.
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For Dolce & Gabbana, their future success remains uncertain following their most recent fumble this past November that capitalized on the marginalized. “The Great Show,” a five-hundred-look runway spectacular, was set to debut in Shanghai at the end of November. After releasing a promotional video featuring a Chinese model attempting to eat a cannoli with chopsticks—an off-screen male voice asking, “It’s still way too big for you, isn’t it?”—social media sounded-off. The Italian fashion house was met with backlash across social media platforms on a global scale, and, almost as a sign of defeat, the brand took the video down after a mere twenty-four hours. By then, the video had been reposted on various media platforms, customers called for a universal boycott of Dolce & Gabbana products, and “The Great Show” was canceled. Today, months after the unforgivable actions of Stefano Gabbana and Dolce & Gabbana’s public relations team, the luxury brand remains frozen out of the Chinese markets.
According to Doctor Mikaila Brown, an anthropologist, fashion designer, and founder of the Common Thread Project, cultural appropriation is “the dominant members of a culture mimicking aspects of a historically oppressed or minority culture for their own benefit and entertainment, without considering the impact of their actions on the oppressed.” She argues that cultural appropriation intends to maintain the integrity of the culture associated with the designs. Alternatively, Doctor Brown defines cultural misappropriation as “the superficial adaption of language, cultural expressions, lifestyles, rituals, practices and other manifestations of culture without an understanding of the deeper meaning of cultural context.” Cultural misappropriation occurs when high fashion brands and designers look to other cultures and designers for “inspiration” without actually taking the time to invest in the cultural, political, and historical connotations of those they are inspired by. There is a line within cultural misappropriation that must be defined and no longer crossed.
Gucci, one of the top five most popular luxury brands of 2018, is all too familiar with crossing this line. During their 2017 Gucci Cruise Collection runway show, Alessandro Michele sent a balloon-sleeved bomber jacket down the runway, sparking immediate social media protest: the jacket looked just like a jacket from 1989 created by Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan. Although this jacket isn't as blatantly offensive as some other wrongdoings of the fashion world, what makes it misappropriation is the fact that Dapper Dan represented a cultural bridge between black fashion and luxury fashion, at a time when the market was predominantly targeted towards the white and affluent. Gucci took Dapper Dan's iconic jacket—a piece of clothing created as a result of the very exclusivity of high-fashion brands like Gucci—and put it right back into the privileged environment that led Dapper Dan to exist. Rather than owning up to this mistake, Michele claimed this piece was an “homage” to Daniel Day, rather than misappropriation, and that the entire collection was intended to “celebrate” Mr. Day.
Almost as if their last round of cultural misappropriation wasn’t obvious enough, less than two years later, Gucci released of a black balaclava with red lips, resembling blackface imagery, as well as a brown monkey keychain. Following the subsequent public relations storm across social media and international publications, Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s CEO, along with “members of the community and other industry leaders” met for a closed-door discussion over diversity, inclusion, and the accountability of Gucci’s drastic mistake. Bizzarri stated “we will continue to make mistakes, no doubt. [However, the latest misstep] was a drastic wake-up call.” Biazzarri is calling on Gucci to hire a wider breadth of diverse candidates in their upcoming rounds of recruiting to prevent this lack of foresight.
Business of Fashion touched upon the same subject, emploring fashion players to educate their employees at all levels. By raising awareness of the necessary sensitivity across the global marketplace, employees throughout the supply chains can constantly question the design process, intercepting the launch of inappropriate garments. However, brands must shift from preventative measures of diversity and inclusivity to a more foundational basis of their business strategy in order to remain profitable and maintain brand loyalty.
Then, just days after Gucci released their apology, Scandinavdian “it brand”, Ganni, debuted its highly anticipated F19 collection dubbed “Life on Earth”. Ditte Reffstrup and Nicolaj Reffstrup, Ganni’s executives and husband and wife duo, partnered with highly coveted, award winning National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale for the imagery behind their collection. While the clothing was full of bright colorways, soft knits, supple leather and animal prints, the backdrop featured Vitale’s imagery from developing countries and the women who reside there. It was a visible juxtaposition on the runway that left many attendees uncomfortable and questioning the placement and appropriateness of the photography.
Anna Nadim Saber, the blogger behind @oursecondskin, shared an instagram post calling out the brand on this misstep: “The brand fetishized these women and used them as props and marketing tools. This was not a platform for these marginalized women to get representation; they were not treated as humans with agency and with stories of their own to tell. Instead, they are shown through the 'white' gaze, reduced only to their aesthetic value. It looked 'cool' in the background, right? It 'gelled well' with the aesthetic of depicting the 'human spirit,' right? Wrong. My people are not your aesthetic.” Ganni reached out to Saber, stating “We sourced hundred[s] of Ami's acclaimed photographs to be a part of the show set design. The images were chosen were to reflect Ami's body of work and how she is always living the stories she tells with her images and conveying with a positive message. The images showcase all elements of nature from surreal beauty to the enduring power of the human spirit — capturing the energy of life in all forms."
Publically, Ganni released a statement within the press, stating “At Ganni it is always our mission to celebrate women around the world. For the Ganni FW19 show, we drew inspiration from the beauty of life on earth and wanted to portray the diversity and connectivity we share on this planet. To illustrate this, we collaborated with photographer Ami Vitale on our set design. Ami has dedicated her life to documenting and amplifying stories of all forms of life. While well intentioned, we now understand the sensitivities we've broached by showing our collection within the context of these images.”
While it is clear their vision was not ill-intended, we can only wonder if Ganni’s misstep will have lasting effects when it comes to their sales numbers. The commodification and marginalization of women within a space that is supposedly celebrating women has lead to more than just Saber to wondering about the thought process of the “it” brand.
By calling on the complicit consumer to reject fashion that claims ownership of the stolen or culturally ignorant, such as the Dolce & Gabbana advertisement, we as a whole can begin to approach cultural looting with consciousness, sensitivity and with the mission of fostering appreciation, rather than fetishization of cultural exchanges. Social media serves as the primary venue for socially conscious consumers to voice their concerns and exercise their power to end questionable business practices. Consumers can now influence business attitudes and force companies to act more responsibly on a global scale. While the fashion houses and brands are often at fault, consumers are far from blameless.
Although the ideal consumer is a grandiose fallacy, education remains the root of the misappropriation ignorance plaguing consumerism. As discussed, most consumers, are or have been complicit, guilty in one way or another. By engaging in programs such as the Common Thread Project, or by following fashion watchdogs such as @diet_prada, the average consumer can begin to educate themselves on the historical, political, and socio-economic significance of fashion apparel and accessories. Through respect and knowledge, the complicit consumer can transform into an active participant in dismantling the exploitative power dynamics of the capitalist society. The ideal consumer is relational to the ever-evolving landscape of cultural misappropriation.
In a hyper-connected world, everything is visible, and anyone may seek to reclaim their property. Gucci capitalized on their privilege and assumed those will less privileged or access to a platform, such as Dapper Dan, would not police their decisions. The same brand then produced a garment that represented a major portion of our history that we, as a culture, are ashamed of. Ganni used their platform of supporting women by blindly capitalizing on them. Dolce & Gabbana chose to ignorantly ignore foreshadowed firestorms surrounding a sexist and racist advertisement that would shatter brand-consumer relationships on a global scale. While these are just a few examples of insensitivity, it is unfortunate to say these are not unfathomable mistakes. In the culture we navigate today, this ignorance is far from bliss.