By now most of you have probably heard about H&M's latest scandal. The fallout for H&M seems to have been quick and has resulted in the termination of at least two celebrity partnerships. A commensurate apology and deletion of the offending image by the Swedish retailer followed soon after.
The level of outcry or outrage following a moment like this is oftentimes examined more thoroughly than the systems and environments that result in what can very easily and justifiably be seen as a racist image used to sell children’s clothing. How often are moments like these described as "gaffes" and the subsequent excoriations on various social media platforms of the offenders simply repeated as coverage?
This “gaffe” illustrates that despite a recent focus by the fashion industry on increased diversity and sensitivity, there are lightyears to go before these incidents seem like isolated occurrences and not the direct result of a glaring lack of diversity.
Moments like these serve as an important contextual background for the rise of black and non-black designers, editors, writers, and models currently being lauded by members of the fashion literati. The recent focus and success of people of color in the industry is significant, but in order to fully appreciate the gulf between where the industry is at and where it needs to be when it comes to issues of race and diversity, one must see these repeated racial insensitivities as part and parcel of a culture that up until very recently, publicly eschewed notions of diversity or even a base level of sensitivity to these issues.
Figuring out how this happened at H&M probably wouldn’t require too much forensic work. The image, which appeared on H&M's UK online store, was shot in Stockholm, Sweden — the city in which the company was founded and the location of its current headquarters. The mistake most likely can be attributed to the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of black people in Sweden. Maybe this particular racist association isn’t that prevalent in Sweden. But here’s the thing: H&M might be incorporated in Sweden, but it is a global brand with expansionist goals. Also, just because you can explain how something happened doesn’t necessarily mean you can excuse the people responsible.
The problem isn’t just that, for whatever reason, apparently no one at H&M was able to parse the difference between selling a sweatshirt that says “coolest monkey in the jungle” and placing a black child in the aforementioned sweatshirt. The problem is that this isn’t an isolated incident. We can focus on H&M and the almost laughable lack of thought given to that image or we can start to examine the systems and gatekeeping that allows for these types of things to happen over and over again in the first place.
“How did this happen?” is a common refrain. But “how is anyone surprised that this keeps happening?” is the better question. This will continue to happen in a predictable and regular manner only because fashion has created an industry that chooses to not see color.
How do you create an industry with a huge blind spot when it comes to issues of race? You exclude people of color from positions of power and agency. In this way, H&M (and the fashion industry as a whole) can’t see these things coming because they don’t know what to look for. Focusing on H&M in particular may be illustrative, but addressing the issue of race ad hoc is not a sustainable reaction or a cogent response to a systemic problem.
There is no one solution to a problem as complicated and nuanced as diversity in any workplace, let alone an entire industry. But one of the simplest solutions for any company is to diversify, to simply hire more people of color. It perhaps should be noted that people of color are not responsible for saving corporations from themselves. It shouldn’t be the role of employees of color to serve as the moral compasses of their employers. And no one should ever be presumed to speak for an entire community. No group or community is a monolith. The more representative an industry becomes, the more robust and productive the conversations can become.
To examine this in a vacuum, to treat it as unrelated to similar incidents that are too numerous to name, is just not realistic. The fashion industry has a diversity problem. What the appropriate response to H&M should be is certainly open for debate. But there can be no debate that a lack of representation of communities of color inevitably leads to situations like this.
There is a general lack of accountability when it comes to racism, both casual and overt, across the fashion industry. Racist remarks have been described as “offensive” or even “provocative,” giving space and coverage for individuals and companies alike. Take for example, the lede to this 2011 interview with A.P.C. head Jean Touitou, lionizing his forthcomingness and labeling the racist diatribe to come as "controversial quips." Here's what Touitou said in full.
"The Chinese can manufacture well, but I think they are the new fascists. I have to face it everyday. Since they have all this cash, they buy up raw materials, all the commodities, so if you want to buy cotton it's already been bought. If I want 10 tons of cotton from Egypt, the guy will say, "I'm sorry, it's all sold. You have to talk to Mr. Chong." And of course Mr. Chong has raised the price. It's very bad. It's like a war. It's like we've entered an economic war. I'm not kidding. It's not a conspiracy theory."
It gets worse.
"I don't know why designers want to show big spectacles in China. You go there and you get so depressed. There's no culture, nothing. The streets are ugly and people do not know how to dress themselves. You go to India and you find all these inspiring people to look at. You go to China and want to kill yourself. That's not very nice to say but those people are taking over the resources of the planet and we cannot do or say anything because they have all the cash. I'm a bit hysterical over China, but I'm sure I'm right. I'm committed now to wearing Scottish knitwear. I consider it a political statement. It's not even that much more expensive than Chinese knits and it lasts a lot longer."
Jean Touitou literally said that being in China made him want to kill himself. He seemed almost gleeful in perpetuating the stereotype that China is only good at copying, at rote production. And yet he is portrayed as a curmudgeonly genius, his outbursts more of an affectation than a true reflection of him or his company. He said these things in 2011. And in 2015, he entitled his APC FW collection using the "N" word — "Last Ni**as in Paris ". In response to the shock and fallout of his second openly racist move, Touitou seemed to double down in a now deleted (though you can see the quotes here) GQ interview. Here's the extract:
"'My fault is my ignorance. Period. And this is why I apologize after, because I think I'm ignorant of a certain code'—he couldn't help but mention other instances of other people doing the same thing and getting away with it. 'By the way, John Lennon, in '72, he was ignorant, too—' He continued to say, 'I'm a freedom fighter. I think nothing else. And I understand that today's word is caught into some contradictions that I should have been more aware of. I'm surprising myself, because I've been around. But not enough, maybe.'"
Evidently Touitou seemed to believe his ignorance was thinking his audience was as forward-thinking as he and John Lennon in 1972. Touitou’s blatant and open racism is at best ignored and at worst, praised as some brave act of defiance in the face of "politically correct" designers. As if he is the only one brave enough to speak the truth. The conflation of offensive and racist remarks and imagery and some bizarre form of libertine freedom has plagued fashion forever.
Two other examples, taken from Jason Dike’s excellent piece "Classism & Appropriation in Fashion," are Yves Saint Laurent’s famous muse, Lou Lou De La Falaise, referring to Andre Leon Talley with the "N" word; and Olympia Le-Tan proclaiming that a quality she looks for in a man is the inner fortitude to tell racist jokes. In his piece, Dike points out fashion’s reluctance to actually engage in discussions of race and racism:
"Our main issue with these statements is twofold: the statements themselves and the sheer lack of response to them. In the Leon Talley article, the writer noted that everyone in the room laughed at Falaise’s “nigger dandy” statement. In Olympia Le-Tan’s interview, Zahm [the interviewer] didn’t even question why she found telling racist jokes such a desirable quality."
Cultural appropriation on the runway is directly proportional to the lack of models of color that walk it. Designers from Junya Watanabe to Thom Browne have cited communities of color as sources of inspiration while failing to cast those same runway shows with people who actually belong to those communities. A lack of diversity amongst positions of power within an industry leads to an industry that lacks empathy for communities of color.
There is no simple answer or solution to the question, “How do we respond when a fast-fashion retailer that has several human rights issues surrounding its production chain and also, seemingly unwittingly, creates an image that harkens back to vestigial racist imagery?” But what the fashion industry can do is stop treating these moments as isolated. As asymptomatic.
The realization isn’t simply that H&M fucked up. It’s that in order to at least make an attempt to stop subjecting black people and other communities of color to triggering imagery and excruciatingly repetitive and overwrought conversations, more black people and people of color must be in positions of power in the fashion industry as a whole.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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