Out of Touch, the Great Fashion Reckoning
What’s Wrong with Fashion?
In the spring of 2011, John Galliano, Dior designer and fashion wunderkid, went on a drunken, anti-semitic rant at a trendy bar in the Marais district of Paris. The episode was filmed by the couple he was taunting and shared on social media. The footage was difficult to watch no matter your thoughts about Galliano’s talent. Within three days, he was fired, leading to a long and difficult return to fashion many years later. This event was seemingly a wake up call to fashion designers and executives on a global scale that the era of social media had arrived, and that companies and their employees needed to be much more aware and sensitive to the messages they communicated. And yet, eight years later fashion seems to still be struggling to get its act together.
A Rough Year
The past twelve months have already been rough for mass market and luxury fashion brands when it comes to cultural, ethnic and racial sensitivity. Business analysts and customers alike are left scratching their heads as to how some of these brands have managed to fail so epically. Where are the checks and balances typically in place at a company to ensure a Gucci black face turtleneck sweater or an H&M monkey shirt doesn’t make it to market? The narrative around fashion creation, especially at the luxury houses, is a process that is painstaking, thoughtful, intentional and thoroughly connected to the current zeitgeist. What’s more, it involves layers of product development teams, marketing and public relations teams and executives. So how does a noose hoodie make it on the runway at Burberry? If not purely an issue of poor operational structures, another possibility could be an issue of fashion brand owners. Most global fashion companies are still owned and operated by cisgender, heteronormative white men. Are the black face baubles produced by Prada and shown in their windows, just an outright extension of institutionalized racism and white nationalism? Is white privilege being left unchecked? Or could it be more an issue of globalization gone amok, wherein certain regions where politics are more conservative, and less inclusive, are simply being amplified to a diverse consumer across the world? Is Dolce & Gabbana’s chopstick gaffe, and subsequent “foot in mouth” Tweets, in China laying bare myopic and misguided cultural assumptions? And if so, how do consumers make sense of the recent black face shoe produced by U.S. celebrity Katy Perry for American consumers. What is her excuse, if not lack of cultural awareness?
Instead of getting better at dealing with these issues, fashion companies seem to be further behind the eight ball than ever, forced to eat crow, when these shocking embarrassments go viral. In the case of Dolce & Gabbana, it’s meant an embargo on the brand in China leading to a potential death spiral for the brand. For the likes of Dior, it’s meant constant creative director turnover and brand uncertainty over the past eight years. In fact, Dior suffered a major backlash to a recent campaign, inspired by the escaramuzas, Mexican horsewomen, by casting Jennifer Lawrence in the role, and shooting in California. 2 Dope Queens were quick to lash out, questioning why the brand couldn’t feature a non-white woman and shoot in Mexico. It’s an interesting query, when the current buzzwords du jour are authenticity and transparency. These examples clearly represent the opposite of an authentic and transparent relationship between brand and consumer. And ultimately, they are bad for the future viability of the brand.
These issues are further magnified by luxury brands’ efforts to connect more authentically with younger customers, by collaborating with streetwear brands such as Supreme or hiring streetwear designers like Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton. Supreme exudes “street culture,” connected to living, breathing customers and their day-to-day needs—street cred—rather than the rarified air in which luxury brands have hitherto existed. Luxury brands have realized they need to speak more honestly to customers in the age of social media. As such, these brands have had to embrace a more diverse customer than they have in the past, in particular hip hop and sports culture. The perfect example is the recent collaboration between Dapper Dan and Gucci, the very same brand that sued Dapper Dan in the 1990s for copyright infringement. The question then becomes, if luxury brands are trying to be more inclusive, especially when it comes to consumers of color, why are they also doing such a bad job? How does a white Adidas sneaker end up representing black history month? In short, it seems that brands know they need to be woke to the world around them. They are reaching out. However, it’s going to take more than a collaboration, or slick ad campaign.
Fashion Needs a Makeover
Fashion brands need to look at three core areas of their business if they want to truly engage transparently and authentically with customers:
Many of the fashion companies discussed above have been in existence for fifty or more years. It’s no secret that these brands’ originators lived in a different era, and held on to belief systems that are incongruent with modern times. For example, Chanel was a known anti-semite, who was put on trial for treason after World War II for consorting with the Germans. Most companies have chosen to sweep their “baggage” under the proverbial rug, but with access to information on the web, it’s harder than ever to control this information. In fact, when this information surfaces, it moves at hyper speed across the internet. Companies should take stock of these issues now and deal with them openly, along with real solutions to overcome the past. Customers should then hold these companies accountable to these solutions.
Most of the luxury fashion houses in the world are owned by LVMH, Kering and Richemont and directed by cis-het white men. This is also the case for the two largest mass-market fashion companies, H&M and Zara. There is a surprising lack of gender and racial representation in fashion, particularly at the top. While brands typically communicate inclusivity and social awareness to customers, this is most often not the case internally. What’s more, while fashion is more open than many industries to non-binary genders and non-normative sexualities—many top fashion designers are openly gay—this is not necessarily the case on the executive level. Companies must hire more diverse employees, which in turn will facilitate more checks and balances at all levels. Customers should be able to shop at companies wherein they are truly represented, including at the designer and executive level.
The more fashion brands expand globally, the more aware they will need to be of local customs and social norms. And brands will need to determine more clearly what they will stand for, or not. Ikea recently dealt with this issue when featuring a gay family in their catalog, which led to censorship of Ikea by Russian officials. Companies will be required to research more extensively the areas in which they plan to do business, and use their power to shift laws and regulations towards more socially liberal values, rather than caving to constrictive, harmful norms. What’s more, companies will need to be more thoughtful about cultural inspiration and attendant appropriation, requiring design and marketing teams to vet their research and give credit where credit is due. Hiring diverse employees at a local level, that have more direct lines of communications to executive level directors, will further facilitate transparency.
The reality is that fashion is currently “out of touch.” As corporatization of fashion increases globally, companies are losing the very human connection that gave birth to their brands and products in the first place. Even the meaning of luxury has shifted from something unique, hand crafted and exclusive, to a vapid entity comprised of a well-known logo. However, that is changing again. The shift in millenial and GenZ consumers towards more localized products and services is the perfect example. These consumers are demanding transparency and authenticity across the supply chain, from A to Z. They are not falling prey to slick advertising campaigns and are more than happy to call out a brand in the public forum that is social media. Consumers today are demanding brands to be honest and real--which means they are also willing to give them a second chance.
The great fashion reckoning is upon us!
—Joshua Williams, Chief Branding Officer
“Are Fashion Brands out of Touch?” (Footwear News, Feb 2019)
“Fashion is Dead” (NY Post, Jan 2018)