I’ve watched in horror over the last few months as some the world’s most prestigious fashion brands, such as Gucci and Prada, and as of Monday, the very basic Katy Perry, repeatedly put their foot in it by putting blackface on it.
I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s not crystal clear that blackface, golliwogs, nanny archetypes, graphics of nooses, the exaggerated backside of a Venus Hottentot, and suggestions that black people are equal to monkeys aren’t considered off-limits.
Yet these insensitive at best and racist at worst images continue to be the stars of Halloween parties, politics and fashion.
I’ve had enough.
I’ve covered fashion for well over a decade and, in that time, I haven’t seen so many powerful brands that, quite frankly, should know better commit slight after slight in the name of ignorance. Examples range from Dior’s Cruise 2019 campaign that featured Jennifer Lawrence as an “escaramuzas,” or a highly skilled Mexican horsewoman, to Prada’s take on the golliwog, a 19th-century blackface character with large red lips that the Italian company had to pull from a New York City store window display back in December.
We can’t regulate tacky Halloween parties, nor are we in an election cycle. But we can control what we buy. So it’s time, good people who have been dissed by fashion for being too black, too pale, too fat, too skinny, too this, and too that, to stop investing our hard-earned cash in brands that have made clear they don’t really care about us.
I know, I know, I’m doing this right in the middle of New York Fashion Week. Some nerve.
“There has to come a time when we say enough is enough and show our power as consumers and community members,” said Constance C.R. White, a storied fashion industry insider and author of How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style. White candidly added that the industry’s problems are about so much more than racism, yet racism seems to be among the most constant offenses. “They don’t want to make clothes for plus-size women, they don’t want us [black people] in their ads. They don’t want us in their stores. … How do these brands really treat their black consumers who are [in many ways] creating the brand’s value in the community?”
The latest offense is the release of a black Gucci sweater, called the balaclava jumper; when its turtleneck is unfurled, the bottom of the wearer’s face looks to be covered in blackface. Spike Lee and rapper/actor T.I. called for a boycott. Gucci pulled the $890 sweater and apologized. But I knew it was only a matter of time until another company would offend again. I just didn’t think it would happen so fast. On Monday, singer Katy Perry pulled her slides and chunky heeled sandals that made manicured toes appear as if they were covered in blackface. When does this ever end?
“You have this long-standing obsession with exaggerating or caricaturing black identity as kitschy and now you have it as an avant garde aesthetic,” said Salamishah Tillet, professor of African American studies and creative writing at Rutgers University. “But the problem isn’t really about black people. Why do white people gain so much desire from exaggerating blackness to the point of absurdity? It’s not our problem, but we end up having to hold it because we are the victims of the venom.”
That is why you shouldn’t throw away your hard-earned Prada blouses and Gucci scarves. You’ve worked too hard. Instead, shift your thinking. And before you purchase that next pair of shoes that pinches your feet from a company that doesn’t care about your feelings, think twice. We — especially black people — don’t need high fashion to validate us anymore.
Fashion has always been the most immediate visual cue to our social status. Modest fashion, once an indicator of the faithful, became a mark of high society. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, with the emergence of European fashion houses, that it even began to matter who you were wearing. With fashion magazines — especially Vogue, founded in 1892 — who you wore became just as important as your house and your profession.
Black people, White said, had an extra burden because we needed to be dressed up not just to be considered worthy, but also human.
“How we dressed was a part of our history of oppression and exclusion,” White said. “The neater and the cleaner we were seen to be, the more we thought we would be accepted. It’s all a part of trying to fit in.”
This is why dressing the part has become so important to people of color.
It wasn’t, however, until Eunice Johnson, wife of Ebony and Jet magazine founder John Johnson, introduced the Ebony Fashion Fair in 1958 that black people even have access to designer clothing. The traveling fashion show introduced women, who were unable to shop in high-end stores because they couldn’t try the clothes on, to the biggest names in fashion from Dior to Oscar de la Renta. Imagine the pride these women had when they got their hands on just-off-the-runway clothes. They had made it.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the hip hop generation was now introducing these labels to kids whose idea of high fashion was their pressed church clothes. In 1985, Slick Rick told the world how he slid into his brand new Gucci underwear in “La Di Da Di.” That same year, Dapper Dan expanded his underground business from his car to a Harlem storefront and began screen printing Gucci’s interlocking G’s and Louis Vuitton’s LV’s onto jackets and sweatsuits. (Eventually these labels blackballed him, but in recent years, Dan has been doing collaborations with Gucci. About the controversy, he said he was a black man first and invited Gucci’s president Marco Bizzarri to come to Harlem to talk about the drama.)
These days, black pop culture and labels go hand in hand, whether it’s one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta stunting in Christian Louboutins or Migos extolling the fabulousness of Versace or Gucci Mane rocking, well, Gucci.
“You get co-opted,” White said. “You buy into it. You are feeding the beast. The brand becomes a part of your brand and you can’t separate it anymore. You are in their thrall and their power. But it’s never on your terms.”
That’s why it’s time to bump this, and I get that this is crazy coming from someone who has written about fashion for so long. But times have changed and status no longer outweighs what a brand stands for. And there are too many talented designers ― black and white, local and national ― who make great pieces and wouldn’t even think of cashing in on a historical canker for sales.
Let’s just talk about Philadelphia: Just last week I wrote about a designer from the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, Madelange LaRoche, who designed the clearest of crimson gowns for former Good Day Philadelphia anchor Sheinelle Jones to wear on the annual Red Dress fashion show. Nancy Volpe-Beringer dressed Philadelphia native and Grammy nominee Tierra Whack for the award show Sunday night. And former Philadelphia Fashion Incubator designer in residence Jill Marple McCabe designs wrap dresses to kill.
In fact, McCabe recently designed the blue wrap dress that U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Delaware County wore to D.C. in January when she was sworn in.