World News

Blackface is not a good look, and other important lessons that fashion brands learned this month

Posted February 24, 2019 9:55 a.m. EST

— It's been a month of fashion faux pas.

The offenders? Luxury labels and major retailers.

From high-end brands to fast fashion stores, fashion companies are no stranger to controversies over their inventories. But this month, in particular, seemed to highlight a need for diversity and sensitivity at the top levels of major brands.

Here are some products that created a backlash and put brands on the defensive in February.

Burberry's 'noose hoodie'

Burberry was the latest to earn a flood of online backlash after it debuted a hoodie with cords resembling a noose around the neck during its show at London Fashion Week last Sunday.

It was offensive in more ways than one, with critics saying it was insensitive to the issue of suicide and the history of racist lynchings. Liz Kennedy, one of the models featured in the Burberry show, also criticized the hoodie and detailed her thoughts about it in an Instagram post.

"Suicide is not fashion," Kennedy wrote.

"There are hundreds of ways to tie a rope and they chose to tie it like a noose completely ignoring the fact that it was hanging around a neck," Kennedy added. "A massive brand like Burberry who is typically considered commercial and classy should not have overlooked such an obvious resemblance."

Kennedy said she had asked to speak with someone about the hoodie but was told to write a letter instead. In another conversation about the garment, she said she was dismissed.

After the backlash, Burberry apologized and said it had removed the item from its collection.

"We are deeply sorry for the distress caused by one of the products that featured in our A/W 2019 runway collection," Burberry CEO Marco Gobbetti said in a statement to CNN.

"Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake," he added.

Palestinian keffiyeh pants

Fashion blogger Bellqees Amer was shopping at a New York & Company store in New Jersey on February 13 when she came across a pair of pants in the new arrivals section. She immediately texted her sister a photo.

"What does this look like to you?" Amer asked.

The print was unmistakable, Amer said. The pants were part of the Eva Mendes collection and the design resembled the Palestinian keffiyeh, a checkered black and white scarf that has come to symbolize Palestinian identity. Amer and other Palestinians took offense to the design being marketed as a hot fashion trend without any reference to its history or cultural significance.

Amer said she called New York & Company's customer service line and submitted a complaint on its website. She posted about the pants on her Instagram story and encouraged her followers to submit complaints, too. A few days later, Amer and her sister, Rawan Eewshah, received responses from New York & Company apologizing and saying that the pants had been removed from shelves across stores.

"Thank you for reaching out to share your concerns with us. As with all of our merchandise, our intention is never to offend as we truly value inclusivity and diversity. We apologize for any offense this pant may have caused and we have removed it from all stores," the company's response read.

The pants appear to have been removed from the company's website.

CNN contacted the six New York & Company stores that feature specialty Eva Mendes boutiques and each store said it was not carrying pants that matched the description of Amer's photo. An employee at the Westfield Plaza Bonita location in California said that the store had been ordered to remove the pants matching that description from the floor and ship them to a DC location a few days earlier, but that they were unaware of the reason for the request.

CNN also contacted the public relations agency that works with New York & Company but as of this publication had not received a response.

Katy Perry's blackface shoes

Next up, Katy Perry's blackface shoes.

The pop star's namesake fashion line took heat for two pairs of shoes that many people felt evoked images of blackface.

The Ora Face Block Heel and the Rue Face Slip-On Loafers, which debuted in 2017 in a partnership with Global Brands Group, both featured black designs with protruding eyes, noses and large red lips.

The styles had been available on the Katy Perry Collections website, as well as through major retailers such as Dillard's and Walmart. The shoes started attracting attention on social media as other controversies about blackface were dominating the national discourse.

According to a joint statement from Perry and Global Brands Group, the shoes were "envisioned as a nod to modern art and surrealism."

"I was saddened when it was brought to my attention that it was being compared to painful images reminiscent of blackface. Our intention was never to inflict any pain," the joint statement continued.

After the backlash, Perry and Global Brands Group said the shoes had been removed from Katy Perry Collections.

Gucci's blackface sweater

Then there was that Gucci sweater.

The Italian luxury brand faced intense criticism this month after several social media users pointed out that a sweater available for sale on its website bore a peculiarly close resemblance to blackface.

When the sweater's turtleneck is pulled up over the bottom half of the face, it reveals a cutout with oversized red lips around the mouth. The design was similar to the Prada monkey figures, which had landed that Italian fashion house in hot water in December.

Gucci's sweater was part of the fall/winter 2018 collection, but garnered widespread attention during Black History Month.

To make things worse, the discovery of the offending garment also came on the heels of another major blackface controversy. Days earlier, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam had found himself facing calls to resign over a yearbook photo showing people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan garb.

As outrage continued to bubble up, Gucci apologized and said it was discontinuing the sweater.

"Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper," the brand said in a statement posted on Twitter. "We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make."