The Prada monkeys. The Gucci sweater. These fashion scandals sparked outcry from consumers, who pointed out that the different designs resemble blackface, the racist face-painting practice currently making headlines across the country.
Gucci apologized, saying in a statement that “We are fully committed to increasing diversity throughout our organization and turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond.” Prada removed the monkeys from stores and the keychains and charms are no longer available for purchase.
In the wake of these scandals, Prada announced the creation of a diversity and inclusion advisory council, co-chaired by film director Ava DuVernay.
“In addition to amplifying voices of color within the industry we will help ensure that the fashion world is reflective of the world in which we live, and we are thrilled to be working with long-time collaborators, Ava DuVernay and Theaster Gates, on this important initiative,” CEO Miuccia Prada said in a statement.
A lack of diversity
There’s a simple way fashion companies can avoid scandals like these before they happen: put more people of color at the top.
“The fashion industry is a primarily white industry,” says Thomaï Serdari, a luxury branding strategist who teaches marketing at New York University. “There’s a very small percentage of people of color in the industry, especially as brand owners or as executives of high level within these corporations.”
Even amid greater diversity on the runway, white models continue to outnumber models of color at fashion shows, and at many fashion houses, that lack of diversity continues behind the scenes as well. Among the 495 members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, only 17 identify as black.
But mistakes on this level don’t lie solely with the CEO, the designer or the marketing department, says Tulin Erdem, professor of marketing at New York University.
“Offending somebody in this obvious way shows something fell through the cracks,” says Erdem. “If you have the right culture, these mistakes won’t occur or it will be very, very unlikely. To me, it does reflect that organizationally, it’s not quite right.”
A recent report from the CFDA surveyed fashion industry executives about the diversity within their companies. According to the results, the majority of respondents rated their companies as “average” when asked to assess the diversity and inclusion efforts within their organizations. When asked to grade their company’s commitment to inclusive work environments, 62% gave their companies a 3 out of a possible 5.
These responses show the industry leaders are willing to improve. But as these offensive designs keep slipping through the cracks, many aren’t pushing their companies to correct their blind spots.
A lack of leadership
For a mistake to make it so far up the ladder that it’s greenlit for mass production or store display, Erdem says that means a company has bigger problems than a single bad actor or errant department. She points to a November ad from Dolce & Gabbana, the one that resulted in a canceled fashion show, boycotts of the company’s products and more.
“Where there is such a strong culture, the brand DNA, then everybody in that organization knows what is a ‘no’ and what is a ‘yes,’ — if they had that culture, Dolce & Gabbana would never have run that fashion ad,” Erdem says. “It would have been vetoed by multiple levels. If cultural sensitivity were part of D&G’s culture and brand DNA, that mistake wouldn’t have happened.”
But recruiting more diverse employees isn’t a quick solution to the problem, says Tai Wingfield, senior vice president of the diversity, equity and inclusion specialty practice at Weber Shandwick. Input from those employees needs to eventually seep into the company culture, right up to the highest decision makers.
She points to a report from the Center for Talent Innovation, in which 56% of leaders said they do not value ideas they don’t personally connect with.
“So if you’re sitting at a table and you throw caution to the wind around an idea that is close to making it to market, are the leaders in the room willing to listen if they personally are not resonating with that idea?” Wingfield says.