Milan fashion houses are finding that their dramatic styles and remarkable statements are looking threadbare. A recent Gucci advertisement for a blackface tunic is only the latest entry in the insensitivity sweepstakes that designers are increasingly winning.
The result is boycotts and an assault on their bottom-lines as they try to navigate the world of fashion-forward styles in a rapidly evolving and immediately reacting globalized marketplace.
At home and abroad, fashion forward can be backward policy.
Gucci’s racial gaff was not an isolated incident for first-tier fashionistas. Dolce & Gabbana made itself toxic in China when it produced an Italian voiced-over advertisement with a good-looking, ditzy Chinese model incapable of eating pizza with chopsticks. The offense continued with an Instagram anti-China rant that resulted in a widespread D&G boycott in China.
The backlash to recent clothing designs and designer lines is creating a new and challenging environment for global industries. New and rapidly developing fashion markets in countries far from New York, Paris, London, and Milan are very attractive. Fashion’s new global marketing rules, however, increasingly include international political sensitivity.
That means products and public relations need to find a balance between edgy and offensive. And it’s not just the traditional shock-style, guerrilla marketing of fashion that is susceptible to blowback. Products as innocuous as Mercedes cars, Delta Air Lines, and Marriott hotels have crossed the line and threatened their Chinese market share by inadvertently challenging China state policy by citing the Dalai Lama or recognizing Taiwan’s independence.
D&G remains in the penalty box, but Gucci has turned its early mea culpa into action by starting a Fashion Changemakers Fund “to foster unity through community action.” Design houses are rapidly finding they first need to apologize, then kiss and make-up with nations and communities they offend.
Beyond the Western fashion industry’s often panicked reaction or search for symbolic apologia, the American fashion industry made a strategically smart move this week by electing international fashion designer icon Tom Ford as the new chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. While his fashion line is out of reach for most and his own marketing approach has sometimes smacked of sexism in this over-sexualized industry, his global market awareness is keen and success proven with changing consumer tastes.
China’s contemporary consumers are a far cry from the day of ubiquitous Mao jackets and sensible flat shoes in pre-normalization China. Beijing and Shanghai’s monied residents are now as fashionable as Europeans. Perhaps more so. Their expendable income, foreign luxury goods preference, and sense of style – from handbags to headgear - drives the global industry’s growth outlook.
U.S. vacation hubs in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Miami have designer boutiques where increasingly foreign clientele show a growing demand for bold, logo-heavy designs that reflect status and conspicuous consumption. For now, the subtle is out and the brand statement is in.
It’s not just fashion houses that must adjust to accommodate globally shifting power and evolving tastes. Western political leaders also pay their vestiary respects to foreign leaders. Global garb for summit meetings in far-flung places, for example, forced George W. Bush and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to cover their business attire under blue-and-gold flowing “ao dai” silk tunics during an APEC summit in Vietnam.
Jimmy Carter did it, Bill Clinton did it, so did Barack Obama. Even the straight-laced Donald Trump followed suit. At ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in Manila, his ample torso was draped in an intricately embroidered white Barong Tagalog shirt. Presidents become commanders-in-costume to show their respect for a host nation’s culture and to participate in the “family photos” that symbolize multilateral harmony. But this is all mostly for show.
Last weekend, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took the extraordinary step of wearing a hijab both to show respect and solidarity for a mourning nation and its Muslim community’s terrorized victims. The vile, racially-motivated Christchurch mosque massacres have left Ardern’s country in shock. But what stands out is both her definitive assault weapon policy changes and her personal empathy expressed by donning what some see as charged clothing that rile racists and fan nativist flames.
Throughout Europe, prime ministers, presidents and opposition politicians are warning that their white, Christian populations face imminent cultural replacement by hordes of immigrants. These fear-stoking politicos argue against multicultural, global, assimilating nations, warning that their societies are under siege, victims of an accelerated “invasion” of foreign people and ideas often symbolized by hijab-wearing women.
Cultural appropriation is a concern that requires sartorial sensitivity. One mistake, a little bit of insensitivity, or a lack of awareness can lead to gross charges of racism or cultural imperialism.
The opposite, however, is also true. Ardern publicly covering her head in Muslim fashion was more than just show, it was an act of political transcendence, showing how to “Be Best” in both fashion and politics.. It says so much more than when First Lady Melania Trump visited immigrant children wearing a jacket emblazoned with the coldly indifferent phrase,
“I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”