Prada's "Little Sambo" Keychain to Burberry's "Noose" Hoodie: Why Offensive Fashion Somehow Keeps Happening

Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP; Chinyere Ezie
Burberry’s “noose” hoodie, Prada's keychain

"A lot has changed because with social media, people can hear one another's outrage and come together," says a culture expert as Gucci, Prada and other luxury designer brands recently found themselves in the spotlight for ill-advised videos and products.

Safe motifs such as polka dots, pinstripes, houndstooth checks and tweed used to dominate runways primarily during financially challenging periods, like recessions. But they prevailed at the fall 2019 Paris shows for another reason.

"Designers are overediting in fear of offending," says Eric Wright, an African-American designer who worked closely with Karl Lagerfeld at Chloé and Fendi for 23 years. The current "heaviness in the fashion air," he adds, is a direct response to the slew of culturally offensive fashion imagery and products that since November have spurred furor.

Flooding the market in rapid succession have been pieces by typically gold-standard luxury names that have taken on tarnish, from Dolce & Gabbana's "Eating With Chopsticks" video for an ultimately canceled Shanghai show (it portrayed Chinese model Zuo Wei struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks); to Prada's $550 monkey key chain, removed from the line after a civil rights lawyer highlighted its likeness to Little Sambo; to Burberry's "noose" hoodie precluded from its fall 2019 collection because it evoked a lynching and not a nautical rope, as intended.

And on Feb. 20, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele was compelled to put a positive spin on his "blackface" sweater with a pull-up balaclava that had been enhanced by stitching suggesting plump red lips, during an otherwise acclaimed show. He explained, "This must be used to create something new; this will help us do things in a different way." Weeks later, the controversy continued to flare up: On Mar. 7, Jeffrey Lamar Williams — the Atlanta-born rapper, musician and producer known as Young Thug — was flaunting the offending pullover all over Instagram.

Milan-based fashion author and journalist Paola Jacobbi chalks up the gaffes, all made by Italian powerhouses, to "ignorance. Italians think political correctness is boring, an obstacle to creativity," she says. "Italian culture is also insular. While Italians travel a lot for business, they don't typically mingle with other cultures. They tend to stay together, because being Italian is such a strong identity, which is touching, given the fact that we are the country of Leonardo and Michelangelo. But it's also limiting."

Wright (who knows Michele and has worked for Miuccia Prada's spouse and Prada Group CEO Patrizio Bertelli) takes into account his time working in European design studios when considering the decision-making behind the recently produced distasteful luxury merchandise: "So many collections are produced every season — the fashion production process goes very fast. Often, in the midst of it, people are not thinking. There are a lot of things that might not get put in front of a creative director's eyes for approval," he says, adding, "Some of this is also naive thinking: 'Oh, this will be cool for a season.' "

Then the ill-considered piece drops with a heavy thud and unanticipated controversy on the market. “Yes, there are American and British designers in studios who should know a lot better,” Wright adds, but at intermediate levels, "there are also a lot of kids from small villages, and they are just not streetwise.”

Fashion has a history of decrying, then rewarding, offense. Jean Paul Gaultier caused an outcry with his Hasidic-inspired fall 1994 collection, although it provoked no ire when the dark, sober tailoring toured the world for five years, from 2011, as part of his monumental museum exhibition. At Christian Dior from 1996 to 2011, Vogue darling John Galliano continually drew backlash with collections inspired by Native American dress, China, Egypt, India and the homeless of Paris, among others. Acclaimed Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo generated shock and outrage from the European Jewish Congress by displaying striped pajamas in her fall 1995 show, staged on the 50th anniversary of Auschwitz. Blackface was a part of Viktor & Rolf’s Black Hole collection in 2001 — long before Megyn Kelly was fired from NBC's Today for defending blackface Halloween costumes.

"A lot has changed because with social media, people can hear one another's outrage and groups can come together," says Susan Scafidi, academic director of Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute and author of 2005's Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. "The internet is their megaphone." Scafidi champions the Instagram account Diet Prada for acting as fashion’s “Jiminy Cricket and calling out behavior that is morally questionable.”

After the uproar, social-change initiatives are taking shape. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay now co-chairs Prada's Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to recruit and provide internships and apprenticeships for students of color within the brand and the fashion industry. "I don't know what the hell happened with that [key chain], but when they called me … for help, I said yes," DuVernay has told THR.

Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung says “the best way I can respect and appreciate another culture” is to work with local craftspeople to elevate their skills and generate economic opportunity for them. “Casting is another way to pay homage to a culture," not offend or appropriate it. "If we're going to show something indigenous, or something that is borrowed from another culture, we like to style the look on a model who shares this background and experience.” 

Despite the current unease around misrepresenting culture,  Gurung says he remains hopeful that designers will continue to explore perspectives outside their bubbles. "There are so many unique cultures out there, that live in a way different from our Western conventions, and exploring this is so invigorating and provoking," he says, adding, "For me, it is important to be able to engage with people from the culture I am inspired by, if it is not my own."

March 15, 3:58 p.m.: Updated with quote from Alessandro Michele.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.