Want culturally aware fashion? Involve more designers of color.

Why We Wrote This

After coming under fire for selling culturally insensitive products, some fashion labels are adding diversity initiatives and retraining their teams. Can their woes be turned into opportunities for designers of color? 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Brandice Daniel, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, poses for a portrait in her home on May 10 in New York. Harlem’s Fashion Row highlights and promotes multicultural fashion designers.

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When a friend texted Brandice Daniel a photo of a Gucci sweater that evoked the image of blackface, she was deeply disappointed. But as founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, Ms. Daniel, who is African American, saw a chance for progress. Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, she says lessons from the civil rights movement are often on her mind.

“If history teaches us anything, it is that usually things get worse before it gets better,” says Ms. Daniel. Mulling over the sweater, she thought, “There’s a benefit here.”

Her openness to possibilities was validated by an invitation to attend a meeting alongside other industry influencers of color in Harlem with Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s chief executive officer. Soon after, Gucci announced a sweeping new diversity initiative. 

Fashion brands are increasingly calling on the expertise of individuals like Ms. Daniel – a veteran resource for designers of color – to help launch diversity initiatives. As the imperative for inclusivity grows, however, the challenge remains for these campaigns to avoid tokenism.

Headwear resembling a Sikh turban. Slip-on shoes that evoke blackface. A hoodie modeled by a young black child that reads “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” Culturally insensitive – and often racist – missteps by fashion brands seem to pop up every few weeks, prompting outraged tweets and company apologies.  

As recently as February, Gucci was embroiled in a controversy over a black turtleneck with a garish red mouth that reminded many people of blackface.

When a friend texted Brandice Daniel a photo of the sweater, she was deeply disappointed. But as founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, Ms. Daniel, who is African American, saw a chance for progress. Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, she says lessons from the civil rights movement are often on her mind.

“If history teaches us anything, it is that usually things get worse before it gets better,” says Ms. Daniel. Mulling over the sweater, she thought, “There’s a benefit here.”

Her openness to possibilities was validated by an invitation to attend a meeting alongside other industry influencers of color in Harlem with Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s chief executive officer. Soon after, Gucci announced a sweeping new diversity initiative. 

Fashion brands are increasingly calling on the expertise of individuals like Ms. Daniel – a veteran resource for designers of color – to help launch diversity initiatives. As the imperative for inclusivity grows, however, the challenge remains for these campaigns to avoid tokenism.

‘I am a Black man before I am a brand’

Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day was one of the first and fiercest voices to call out Gucci about the sweater.

The luxury streetwear pioneer rose to fame in the 1980s for stitching together the worlds of high fashion and hip-hop through his knockoff designs. Gucci was accused of appropriating one of Mr. Day’s iconic jackets in 2017, but now he and Gucci partner on an appointment-only atelier in Harlem – an homage to his original boutique.

“I am a Black man before I am a brand,” he wrote on Instagram in February, announcing Gucci had agreed to meet. “There cannot be inclusivity without accountability.”

Ms. Daniel says Mr. Day, who declined to be interviewed for this story, invited her to join the meeting with Gucci’s top brass in Harlem. After that meeting, Gucci announced a four-pronged diversity initiative that spans from talent acquisition to scholarships.

Prada also announced a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council in February after retracting a keychain that drew ire for resembling blackface imagery. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay along with artist and activist Theaster Gates, who’s partnered with the brand before, will co-lead. Following backlash in 2018, fast fashion retailer H&M, which was responsible for the “coolest monkey” hoodie, created a diversity campaign that includes training in how to avoid unconscious bias.

Antonio Calanni/AP/File
Models display items – including a turban that some Sikhs found offensive – from Gucci’s women’s fall/winter 2018-2019 collection, presented during the Milan Fashion Week, in Milan, Italy. A similar Gucci turban turned up for sale online at Nordstrom for $800.

But despite what some call progress, slip-ups still occur.  

Last week, social media lit up with protests against Gucci and Nordstrom when news surfaced that the “Indy Full Turban,” for which Gucci had been roundly criticized last year at the Milan spring fashion show, was for sale online. Sikhs accused Gucci of culturally appropriating their commonly worn turban, known as a dastaar.

“The turban is not just an accessory to monetize; it’s a religious article of faith that millions of Sikhs view as sacred,” tweeted advocacy organization Sikh Coalition.

Nordstrom apologized last Wednesday and said it would stop carrying the product, tweeting, “It was never our intent to disrespect this religious and cultural symbol.” (Gucci had not commented as of press time.)

Fashion fails get such viral call-outs because a product’s target audience spans well beyond those who can afford to buy it. (The Gucci sweater cost $890.) Millions of people absorb high fashion through magazines and social media “as a kind of iconography of their daily life,” says Rhonda Garelick, a fashion columnist for New York Magazine’s The Cut.

“We all consume fashion whether we buy it or not,” says Ms. Garelick.

Gucci’s Mr. Bizzarri has claimed the offensive sweater wasn’t intentional, Women’s Wear Daily reported, and said the company actually debuted the red-lipped design at a 2018 runway show without incident before this year’s social media call-out.

“We apologized because of this mistake, because of this ignorance,” Mr. Bizzarri told an audience at Parsons School of Design. “We are coming from a different culture. We are Italian. We don’t know all the cultural differences.”

But in a globalized market, critics say, there’s no excuse for such knowledge gaps. Ludovica Cesareo, assistant professor of marketing at Lehigh University, says companies must conduct extensive market research that takes cultural and other issues into account before selling to a region. European brands’ unawareness of some aspects of American culture could point to poor research, or a dearth of employees who could preempt those missteps.

“The fact that social media amplifies each occurrence tenfold should be an even greater warning sign and deterrent, forcing these companies to better understand the market they’re about to enter,” Dr. Cesareo wrote in an email.

Building bridges

Ms. Daniel moved from Tennessee to New York in 2005. Dissatisfied by the lack of platforms for designers of color, she created her own two years later. As CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row (HFR), Ms. Daniel has supported the careers of more than 75 multicultural designers. She’s also partnered with Google and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a prominent trade association.

A decade into Harlem’s Fashion Row, Ms. Daniel yearned for a brand partnership that would validate underrepresented designers and pair them with a label that consumers already trusted.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Fashion designer Undra Duncan, of Undra Celeste New York, poses for a portrait in her design studio on May 11 in New York.

A call from Nike answered her prayers. Ms. Daniel convened designers Fe Noel, Kimberly Goldson, and Undra Duncan to co-design a women’s athletic shoe with LeBron James.

The sleek white sneaker sold out within minutes.

On Friday, the same team will release another basketball sneaker, this one in yellow.

“All of these projects that I’ve worked on with HFR have just always been a blessing to me,” says Ms. Duncan, the designer behind Undra Celeste New York.

While grateful for the visibility, Ms. Duncan also says she counts on her own hard work to grow her brand. But as industry inequality persists, Ms. Duncan supports the new diversity campaigns as a way to “change the narrative of the black creative.”

“The only thing I am concerned about is if it’s a marketing thing, and then in a year if it blows over, they get their press impressions, and then it’s back to business as usual,” she says.

Skeptics say new hires and trainings are ways for companies to save face without committing to deeper institutional change.

“I think the best way to ensure designers are not tokenized is by hiring designers that are qualified for the role. This is not about hiring designers just because they are black,” but rather because an individual is both qualified and a person of color, says Ms. Daniel.

To find these talents, she says design houses need to look beyond their usual circles. That’s where Harlem’s Fashion Row can help.

“Our goal is to open their pool by providing designers they may have never found using their traditional approach to talent recruitment,” adds Ms. Daniel.

Gatekeepers, meet Gen Z

Some fashion-savvy celebrities aren’t waiting around for the industry to change. Pop star Rihanna is launching her own luxury fashion line, called Fenty, later this week. She told The New York Times Style Magazine that she wants to disrupt the high fashion industry by eliminating runway shows and selling her clothing direct to buyers online. 

Aside from celebrities, most designers must work their way up. Fashion observers say investing in the rising generation is vital for improving diversity in the professional pipeline. Both Prada and Gucci campaigns involve entry-level opportunities like scholarships and internships – industry rites of passage. The companies are planning partnerships with universities and colleges around the world.

Critic Ms. Garelick, who teaches fashion studies at Parsons, says fashion schools need gifted students and faculty from diverse backgrounds. Syllabi should also be reviewed with fresh eyes “to see what biases we’re blind to.”

“We need to be as critically minded as we tell our students they should be,” she says.

Ms. Duncan and Ms. Daniel both squeeze in time to mentor young professionals. And for the more established talents she’s helped cultivate, Ms. Daniel says she receives weekly emails from brands asking for help connecting to multicultural designers. It’s a hopeful sign.

“At the end of the day, everyone just wants to be seen and heard.”

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