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 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.
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 publically calls out what they see as inappropriate or distasteful. Cancel culture is a righteous wave that can engulf companies and hit that bottom line. There are even specialist crisis management PR companies to call upon when fashion brands 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 and anti-slavery prominent.
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. 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.
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.