At this point, it would be self-sabotage — if not downright destructive — for any brand to underestimate the power of social media and the collective fury of social justice netizens. To be on the receiving end of that kind of backlash can irreparably tarnish a label’s reputation and, ultimately, hurt sales.
It happened to Dolce & Gabbana after designer Stefano Gabbana allegedly made racist remarks about China and its people following blowback against a series of racially charged videos that the Italian luxury house posted on social media to promote its Shanghai-based #DGLovesChina show. The label was declared “canceled” (the show itself was also shut down), consumers fled, and key retailers dropped the brand from their roster.
And yet, even with these dramatic incidents, there are a handful of brands that seem to be completely immune to any lasting repercussions, despite accusations of racist iconography, non-PC language and more. Scroll down to see which retailers and brands have the cachet to outlive their controversies.
The Italian luxury house has mostly recently come under fire for selling an $800 “Indy Full Turban” that resembles a dastaar, a religious article of clothing for Sikhs, who often face discrimination for wearing such turbans in real life (and in fact, creative director Alessandro Michele says he drew inspiration from “the Sikh turbans of a New York taxi driver”). Consumers were first incensed by the turban when it appeared on the spring ’19 runway on the head of a white male model, and criticism reignited this week when shoppers spotted it on the Nordstrom website.
This isn’t the brand’s first brush with controversy: Three months ago, Gucci issued an apology for selling an $890 wool balaclava sweater with red lips surrounding a cutout that to many conjured blackface iconography. Dapper Dan, a black designer who has previously collaborated with Gucci, said he’d get to the bottom of it. Soon after, the company released a statement that claimed full accountability and announced the initiatives it was implementing to promote diversity and inclusivity in-house, including the creation of a global director for diversity and inclusion, and a multicultural design scholarship program.
Despite the balaclava incident, Naomi Campbell remains a staunch supporter of the brand. “I think it’s ridiculous for people to say they were burning their [Gucci] clothes. Don’t burn your clothes. It wasn’t intentional,” the supermodel said to The Washington Post. “Regardless of what happened, I was always going to Gucci.”
And the rest of fashion seems to be continuing to embrace Gucci, especially when the brand played such a major role at this year’s Camp-themed Met Gala — arguably the most powerful endorsement in fashion. As co-chair and co-sponsor of the event, Michele walked down the pink carpet with Jared Leto and Harry Styles by his side, along with about 20 more celebrities all decked in head-to-toe Gucci, including Karlie Kloss, Ashley Graham and 21 Savage.
After Prada’s Otto character from its Pradamalia collection sparked backlash on social media last December, with many comparing it to blackface, the luxury fashion house immediately pulled the figurines from its stores. “Prada Group abhors racist imagery,” the brand said in a statement. “The Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.”
In response to the misstep, Prada launched the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council with artist Theaster Gates and director Ava Duvernay as co-chairs, aiming to “elevate voices of color within the company and the fashion industry at large.”
— Chinyere Ezie (@lawyergrrl) December 13, 2018
The late and great Karl Lagerfeld was one of the most prolific, most beloved designers in fashion, helming Fendi, Chanel and his namesake label. Despite being a visionary, he was not without controversy. He made problematic body-shaming remarks in defense of thin models, he critiqued Angela Merkel for opening Germany’s borders to refugees, and he would insult people mercilessly (he called Princess Diana stupid in a 2006 interview).
And his designs for Chanel were, at times, also fraught with tension. For instance, a quilted purse that resembled an oil can for the brand’s cruise ’15 show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, alluded to the region’s wealth. But the biggest controversy came when Claudia Schiffer walked down the Chanel Couture spring ’94 runway in a dress that was embroidered with sacred passages from the Koran. It ignited outrage among the Islamic community. Lagerfeld apologized and burned the offending dresses.
Riccardo Tisci’s tenure at Burberry got off to a rocky start. For fall ’19 — his second season for the heritage brand — he sent out model Liz Kennedy in a hoodie with a drawstring that resembled a noose around the neck, which called to mind suicide and lynching. She was the first to call attention to the troubling piece backstage, but her concerns were dismissed.
In response to the outcry, Burberry CEO Marco Gobbetti apologized in a statement. “We are deeply sorry for the distress caused by one of the products,” he said. “Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive, and we made a mistake.” Tisci also issued an apology, saying, “I’m deeply sorry to anyone whose feelings I unintentionally have hurt.”
Following the apologies, the British label also announced new diversity initiatives, including an advisory board, the launch of an in-school arts and cultural scholarship program to diversify talent, and support organizations that promote diversity and inclusivity.
Kanye West was embroiled in controversy for the better part of 2018, from supporting a polarizing president to making outrageous claims about slavery. “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years?” he said in a two-hour interview with Charlamagne Tha God. “That sounds like a choice.”
He apologized for the slavery comment, and he tweeted that he was going to take a break from politics and that he had been “used” by certain figures to promote “messages I don’t believe in.” And while West’s sneakers no longer sell out as fast as they once did, the hype for all things Yeezy is still alive and well.
The fast-fashion retailer found itself in the center of a social media firestorm in 2018 after an image on its website of a black child modeling a hoodie that read “Coolest monkey in the jungle” went viral. Many accused H&M of being racist, insensitive and tone-deaf. Celebrity brand partners immediately severed ties with the brand, including The Weeknd, who wrote: “Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and will not be working with H&M anymore.” Others like Diddy and LeBron James condemned the image, as well.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) January 8, 2018
In response, the retailer said in a statement, “We sincerely apologize for offending people with this image of a printed hooded top. … The image has been removed from all online channels, and the product will not be for sale in the United States. We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do, and will be reviewing all our internal policies accordingly to avoid any future issues.”
Zara’s list of offenses is extensive — but no incident, it seems, has been big enough to affect its standing or deter consumers from shopping the fast-fashion giant. In 2007, a handbag was pulled for featuring four embroidered swastikas. Seven years later, in August 2014, a children’s tee that resembled a Holocaust uniform was removed from its stores. The same month, a graphic tee that read, “White is the new black,” provoked outrage. A few years later, in April 2017, Zara withdrew a denim skirt printed with cartoon frog faces that looked like Pepe the Frog, which has become a racist symbol. And last year, Zara was called out for appropriating a traditional baati-style dress from Somalia.
— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) April 21, 2017
In 2016, Moncler teamed up with FriendsWithYou to create a clothing line inspired by the art collective’s cast of characters, who appeared on T-shirts and puffers. However, the penguin Malfi proved to be incredibly problematic: It drew comparisons to the controversial 19th-century golliwog dolls, a racist children’s character and toy in the U.K.
“We are so sorry for any offence caused,” Moncler said in a statement. “We are deeply troubled if the face, seen out of its context, could be associated with past or present unacceptable, racially offensive characters.”
To many, the Italian lifestyle company more than redeemed itself following the debut of the Moncler Genius collection in February. Done in collaboration with Ethiopian model-slash-designer Liya Kebede, who employs local artisans to craft designs using ethically sourced materials for her brand lemlem, and Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, the resulting lineup was a breathtaking collection of couture-level puffer gowns, all worn by African models.
Last year, the sportswear giant came under scrutiny for the lack of diversity in upper management. While the company stated that it’s “committed to maintaining a respectful and inclusive environment,” it didn’t stop them from making a misstep. In February, Adidas introduced an all-white sneaker named “Celebrating Black Culture,” to honor Black History Month. Backlash was immediate, and it was eventually pulled.
“Toward the latter stages of the design process, we added a running shoe to the collection that we later felt did not reflect the spirit or philosophy of how Adidas believes we should recognize and honor Black History Month,” the company said in a statement. “After careful consideration, we have decided to withdraw the product from the collection.”
Nike was hit with a racial discrimination lawsuit in March in which a senior director claims to have been denied a promotion in favor of a white exec — the latest in a series of complaints that have shed light on the company’s purportedly toxic corporate culture and overarching lack of diversity.
The embattled sportswear giant also made headlines this week when Olympic runner Alysia Montaño called out the sportswear industry for allegedly discriminating against pregnant athletes, which conflicts with the messages that these brands put forth, naming Nike’s “Dream Crazier” slogan as one example.
“Your standard approach is standard for men. I want to see not just Nike — the sports industry — implement practices in place that specifically protect female athletes, and that includes clauses for maternity and pregnancy that explicitly say you are protecting this class,” she said.