Racial insensitivity in Fashion: Lessons for communicators

Racial insensitivity in Fashion: Lessons for communicators
14. March 2019 Falk Rehkopf

Racial insensitivity in Fashion: Lessons for communicators

You’d think that by now, people of all races and body types would be equally represented in fashion. But as it turns out, the fashion industry is still lagging behind when it comes to diversity. The numbers don’t lie: in the spring 2019 runway castings, only 36% of all castings across New York, London, Milan and Paris went to non-white models. Out of the four main fashion weeks, New York was the most racially diverse, with 45% of the models cast in New York Fashion Week being women of colour. In comparison, 36% of the models cast in London’s spring 2019 shows were women of colour, and finally, Paris and Milan saw only about 30% each of models cast being women of colour. 

While these statistics help us contextualise and understand the lack of diversity in fashion, this lack doesn’t only manifest on the runways — it’s also evident in the fashion workforce and in many gaffes, blunders and mistakes that designers and fashion brands have made and continue to make.

In this blog post, we explore how fashion brands keep launching racially insensitive products (regardless of the backlash that typically follows) and discuss how this circumstance affects fashion companies’ brand reputation and financial performance.

The lack of diversity in fashion? It’s everywhere.

There are plenty of examples of the lack of diversity — which can lead to perceived racism — in fashion. From haute couture labels to fast fashion brands, it seems as though no one can get it right, as the many examples in recent months alone show:

Gucci’s “Blackface” jumper

In 2018, Gucci launched a black wool balaclava jumper that featured a cut-out mouth and exaggerated red lips. When pulled up over the wearer’s face, the jumper looked uncannily like blackface; it ended up sparking a furore on social media inciting a great deal of anger and disgust.

Following this incident, several celebrities — including Spike Lee and Rapper T.I. — took to social media to rant about how Gucci was being racist and denounced the brand. Spike Lee announced that he would no longer wear Gucci until the brand “hired some black designers” and Rapper T.I. called for a full boycott of the brand.

Prada’s Pradamalia collection

In October 2018, Prada launched a new collection of charms resembling robots. Pictures of these characters had been posted on Instagram for weeks until in December a raging Facebook post came up, accusing the brand of racism, as one of the characters of the collection resembled Sambo – a racist imagery. This triggered an enormous backlash on social media with many calling for a boycott of the brand.

Prada promptly withdrew the products and declared to launch a “Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council”. The brand’s creative chief Miuccia Prada also said that “in addition to amplifying voices of colour within the industry we will help ensure that the fashion world is reflective of the world in which we live.”

Dolce&Gabbana’s racist video clips

Another luxury brand that was recently on the chopping block was Dolce&Gabbana. In November 2018, the fashion powerhouse released video clips that featured a Chinese model being taught to eat Italian food with chopsticks; consumers from around the globe were quick to point out that the brand was perpetuating stereotypes and encouraging racism. The impact that this had on the company was immense. The brand was forced to cancel their upcoming show in Shanghai, got lambasted in the media and was dropped from Net-a-Porter, Lane Crawford, jd.com, secoo.com, and Alibaba’s TMall. Dolce&Gabbana released three official statements before finally making a formal apology, but it was too little, too late.

Adidas’s culturally insensitive sneakers

Another incident comes from Adidas. The company committed a faux pas just recently, during Black History Month. In order to commemorate this annual observance, the brand launched a line of sneakers inspired by the Harlem Renaissance movement; they thoughtlessly included an all-white pair of shoes made of cotton as part of the new line.

After consumers expressed their outrage on social media, Adidas pulled the design off the shelves and admitted in a statement that the all-white design “did not reflect the spirit or philosophy” of the Black History Month celebrations.

H&M’s advertisement depicting a black child as a monkey


And then there is H&M, which famously put up a product listing on its site that featured a black child wearing a hoodie titled “coolest monkey in the jungle”. Consumers chastised the ad, calling it “inappropriate” and “disgusting” and celebrities — such as Canadian singer The Weeknd — immediately cut ties with the brand.

What’s the business impact?

Lack of diversity can impact a fashion brand in several ways. More specifically, fashion brands which are perceived to be racially insensitive or indeed racist, will definitely see that their reputation is being compromised. Moreover, this may also impact the bottom and top line directly.

Impact on reputation

First and foremost, it’s clear that being called out for racism is highly damaging for a brand’s reputation. The effect of this is further exacerbated when we consider that Gen Z – which will become the largest group of consumers over the next few years – is known to be a socially conscious group. In other words: consumers are increasingly making a stand with their purchasing decisions and favour brands which demonstrate social awareness, ethical standards and responsibility. If you want to find out more, read our earlier post on ‘Why Brand Activism wins over Brand Neutrality‘.

Consider the impact the recent incidents had on Gucci’s and Prada’s reputation as shown below. Once the crises hit, quantities of media coverage and social media mentions went up – considerably in Gucci’s case – and both brands took a very negative hit in terms of their reputation (credit: Adwired’s BrandTicker).

Impact on financial performance

The impact on financial performance, unfortunately, isn’t that clear-cut. On the one hand, brands who are racially insensitive often experience consumers boycotting their products and this can lead to disaster in terms of sales and, therefore, revenues. Dolce&Gabbana’s products, for example, were pulled from China’s biggest shopping websites and, as Chinese consumers account for a third of all luxury spending, this had a significant financial impact on the company’s top line. In addition, according to London-based consultancy Brand Finance, the scandal could wipe up to 20% off the Dolce&Gabbana brand’s value of USD 937 million.

As for H&M, the day that followed the release of the offensive new collection, the price of H&M stock hit an 8-year low.

On the other hand, industry experts also point out that committing such errors and insensitivities results in free publicity for fashion brands and puts the respective brand’s products in front of more eyeballs. As such, these incidents and the resulting public backlash might actually work in favour of fashion brands and hence may have a positive impact on their financial performance. So, could it be that companies plan to create these incidents?

Are the “scandals” fabricated for marketing purposes?

Here’s the question: do fashion brands purposely get themselves embroiled in controversial situations and scandals, simply for publicity? Experts are divided on this.

Among those who believe that this isn’t the case is PR consultant Jack Dent who says that it’s likely that these brands are simply ignorant to how their messages might be perceived.

But, how is it possible that fashion brands are blind to the fact that their products are so obviously wrong? According to fashion journalist Joe Zee, fashion companies live in “bubbles and often forget there is a world outside of them: “If you have people there in high positions that are just not educated about what’s happening socially and culturally, it’s just never going to change”. 

On top of this, there’s also the fact that fashion companies are under immense pressure to push products out more quickly than ever. As Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing firm Metaforce puts it: “When you are moving this fast, there is no time for perspective.” 

Others believe that fashion brands are indeed fabricating scandals simply to attract visibility. Amanda Marcotte, author of “Troll Nation” is firmly in this camp, saying that fashion brands might get blowback and criticism when they do something perceived as racist, but they also get their name into the news cycle and remind consumers that they exist.

How fashion brands respond to accusations of racism

When fashion brands come under siege for being racist or racially insensitive, they typically utilise a two-pronged approach to handle the situation. In the short term, the brand has to conduct crisis management. Here, it apologises to the public, pulls the offending product, design or content off its shelves or website and comes up with an action plan to prevent similar situations from happening. 

In the longer term, it’s up to the brand to follow through with their promises and take concrete steps to make their company a more inclusive and diverse one. There are several things that fashion brands can do here, such as hire global or regional directors for diversity, launch diversity awareness programs and many other things.

Best practices to avoid problems surrounding the lack of diversity

For fashion companies who want to avoid being racially insensitive (and other problems that stem from the lack of diversity), the solution is simple: commit to making your brand more inclusive for all.

Best practices that can be adopted here include:

  • Hiring a more diverse group of employees
  • Making sure that the management team is similarly diverse
  • Ensuring that new products and campaigns are well-vetted before launching these
  • Making it mandatory for employees to undergo racial sensitivity training
  • Appointing diversity leaders

At the end of the day, it’s crucial for all organisations – not only fashion brands – to have diverse, well-represented teams. Interestingly enough, according to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group, companies that have more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to higher levels of innovation.  Also, if you’re working with a less diverse team, this increases the chances of the company unintentionally putting out racist products or messages — simply because the company’s employees might be less clued in about said topics.

A final word on the lack of diversity in fashion

Paola Cillo, a marketing professor at Milan’s Bocconi University says: “I wouldn’t stigmatise fashion. There are artists in the world that did more outrageous things and no one ever said a thing. There is the perception of fashion as ephemeral, or commercial. But from my point of view, it is not. It reflects the times, like all other artistic forms.” We agree that it is not just fashion that needs to catch up with the times, but every public and private universe. The lack of diversity in fashion is only a consequence of the lack of diversity in our global culture.

The way we see it, until companies commit to making their workplaces more inclusive and diverse, it’s likely that fashion will continue to present racist campaigns, products and marketing messages — which is something that has no place in society today.

Chief Marketing Officer