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Gucci pulls 'blackface sweater' from stores after complaints

It was the latest case of an Italian fashion house having to apologize for cultural or racial insensitivity.

A screenshot taken Thursday from an online fashion

A screenshot taken Thursday from an online fashion outlet shows a Gucci balaclava sweater that sparked charges of racism.  Photo Credit: AP

Luxury fashion is all about creating a new, irresistible message that captivates consumers. But some of the globe's top brands have raised eyebrows with designs that have seemingly racist undertones.

The latest instance came from Italian fashion designer Gucci, which produced a black wool balaclava sweater with an oversized collar that pulls over the chin and nose. It includes a slit where the mouth is, ringed with what looks like giant red lips. Its similarity to blackface prompted an instant backlash and forced the company to apologize publicly Wednesday.

Gucci also withdrew the offending garment from sale online and in stores. It said the incident would be "a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond."

Prada similarly withdrew a monkey bag charm that recalled blackface in December, saying it "abhors racist imagery." And Dolce & Gabbana issued a video apology after one of the designers made insulting remarks about Chinese people in a private chat discussing the questionable depiction of a Chinese model in a campaign.

"Luxury brands used to be able to get away with provocative and eccentric ads that push the boundaries of our society and culture in the name of being creative and cutting edge," said Qing Wang, a professor of marketing at Warwick Business School. He cited other fashion fails that evoked racist stereotypes, including Dolce & Gabbana's "slave sandal" in its spring/summer 2016 collection and a recent Burberry campaign for the Chinese New Year that was compared to Asian horror films.

Dolce & Gabbana was forced to cancel its Shanghai runway show after the insulting remarks were publicized, top Asian influencers backed out of its campaigns and Chinese websites dropped the line — a warning sign from a region responsible for 30 percent of all global luxury sales.

The blackface images have particular resonance in the United States, where the governor of Virginia and his attorney general have recently been caught up in a scandal over blackface incidents from their college days in the 1980s. 

Italian sociologist Michele Sorice at Rome's Luiss university said that the evocation of blackface by Italian fashion houses signals "a mixture of good faith and ignorance." He noted that Italian society still wasn't fully aware of the racial charge in some words and images.

Paolo Cillo, a marketing professor at Milan's Bocconi University, said the designer's intent may have been taken out of context and amplified, and she credited Gucci with acting swiftly to quell the controversy.

While the fashion world has been at the forefront of addressing sexual norms it has lagged behind other industries in taking on social issues such as racial tolerance, climate change or women's empowerment, according to Larry Chiagouris, a marketing professor at Pace University.

"It is not clear why this is," Chiagouris said, "but the evidence clearly points to the fashion industry's need ... to catch up with the rest of the world."

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