When Offensive Fashion and shockvertising goes wrong

Last Updated on 4th January 2023

Offensive fashion’s shock culture has always been a marketing wildcard. The Greatest Showman himself, Phineas T. Barnum said: “There is no such thing as bad publicity”. He meant that any reference in the media will be promotion, even if in the wrong light.

The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde expressed that “the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.”

But the suggestion that any publicity is good is obviously open to debate. In the golden age of social media, cultural and ethical insensitivity can cause a rapid spread of distaste and negativity. Using the recent Balenciaga fashion brand controversy as an example, one simple marketing campaign can turn into a PR nightmare.

In the 1970’s fashion designer Vivienne Westwood drove anti-establishment Punk Era with shock value designed to get attention with her deliberately offensive fashion. Wild and colourful hairstyles, nudity, lewd slogans, ripped jeans, safety pins in leather, tattered t-shirts and distressed styles all were a protest and stuck two fingers up at the establishment.

Back when the Sex Pistols spat out anarchist anthems in studded leather motorcycle jackets and denim, their manager Malcolm McLaren opened a London fashion Boutique with then-girlfriend Westwood. The pair influenced many designers with their offensive fashion style, like Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace.

Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren Punk Fashion

Once it would have shocked old ladies, leaving them to shake their heads and gasp at the youth’s outrageous fashion styles. Maybe leaving them offended or at least resentful, upset, or annoyed. Of course, ripped jeans are no longer offensive and just the regular high street fashion trend.

Shock advertising is attributed to the 1980’s United Colors of Benetton shockvertising campaign when they used images to deliberately create buzz with what was deemed offensive and taboo at the time.

Of course now referencing HIV, gay rights, and cultural diversity would not be considered a shock. And this is the issue, as the sliding scale of acceptable is ever moving and the line to cross to truly offend is finer than ever. To stand out in the saturated marketplace, controversial fashion ideals are needed.

These days fashion line can use featured models in a runway show who do not fit the standard narrative. And this can be intentional to stand out and create buzz under the banner of promoting and increasing diversity.

Offensive Fashion now is more directly linked with PR disasters in the fashion world when shockvertising invariably backfires. A cynic might think some are to increase exposure and attention with a viral marketing strategy. But it’s more likely poor judgement, bad taste or cultural insensitivity.

The younger customer has always been easily influenced by social media personalities and uses social media to validate what is en vogue. Negativity and brand damage spreads fast as Generation Alpha publicly calls out what they see as inappropriate, distasteful or cultural appropriation. Fashion is big business but is constantly battling to positively control media chatter. In an era which it’s easy to offend, social media carries with ease a wave of righteousness and vitriol of mass protest.

Cancel culture is a righteous wave that can engulf companies and hit that bottom line. There are even specialist retail PR companies to handle crisis management when fashion houses get it disastrously wrong.

Social media is a platform for mass protest, and climate change protests have increased the spotlight on the fast fashion industry. Brands are forced to change the way they produce and market themselves, with sustainability, human rights and anti-slavery prominent. And of course while the fashion houses declare themselves fully committed to change, it can be all PR spin and just greenwashing.

Brand boycotting is simple as a hashtag and can impact sales and cause huge brand damage.

Many well-known fashion brands have suffered PR disasters ending with the embarrassing withdrawal of products and heartfelt apologies. These include Prada, Burberry, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and the brands below. It is somewhat surprising that these designs are approved without a high-up executive realising that they might offend the general population but it’s easy to later blame the artistic director.

Indeed the designs of Prada, Katy Perry and Gucci have all had blackface comparisons resulting in a recall. Here are some other designs that have trended for the wrong reasons.

coolest monkey in the jungleH&M

The Swedish retailer released a hoodie design with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle”, and then used images modelled by a black child. Poor judgement perhaps, but seemed to have missed the attention of many a decision-maker.



In February 2019, Burberry faced huge criticism after it presented a hoodie with drawstrings designed into a noose during London Fashion Week. The UK Fashion House had a nautical theme during the London Fashion Week and the brand intended for the knot to be nautical but some members of the public read it as a reference to suicide or lynching. With a high suicide rate in the news, it was ill-timed at least.


A repeat offender at causing offensive with fashion designs. The Spanish fast-fashion chain has released a handbag design with 4 swastikas and a t-shirt design with the slogan that “white is the new black”. Zara claimed that the bag came from an external supplier and that when they selected it, they didn’t see any of the symbols on it.


The fashion house had to apologize and take its $890 (£690) jumper with cut-out red outlined mouth out of stores and online after some people felt it referenced “blackface,” a form of mockery where white people paint their faces black to imitate black individuals. After the company issued an apology and withdrew the item from stores and websites, some still felt Gucci wasn’t doing enough to acknowledge their mistake or show regret.

Katy Perry Collection

Katy Perry Collections removed two styles of shoes from sales following social media users accusing the designer brand of racism. Katy said that the shoes are a nod to subverting modern art and surrealism. However, the Rue Face slip-on loafer and the Ora Face block-heeled sandal featured a face with red lips as their main design feature.


Prada was in the middle of a controversy over their Holiday 2018 collection that had some similarities to H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” jumper design. One keychain, resembling blackface imagery with the use of dark wood and red lips, was quickly called out on social media as being racist.


In 2022 the Spanish brand used images of children in bondage style outfits and references to child abuse, resulting in a huge backlash.