01:31 - Source: HLN
Brand sparks outrage over school shooting-themed hoodies

Editor’s Note: Hilary George-Parkin is a freelance journalist who writes about fashion, culture and technology. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The best fashion is meant to provoke – and that’s undoubtedly what the designers behind the streetwear brand Bstroy meant to do when they sent bullet hole-ridden sweatshirts reading “Sandy Hook,” “Columbine,” and “Stoneman Douglas” down a New York runway this week. But there’s a fine line between thoughtful provocation and gratuitous shock tactics, and school shooting-themed hoodies fall on the wrong side of it.

In show notes handed out to attendees and posted on Twitter, designers Brick Owens and Duey Catorze wrote that “Sometimes life can be painfully ironic. Like the irony of dying violently in a place you considered to be a safe, controlled environment, like a school.”

Hilary George-Parkin

“We are reminded all the time of life’s fragility, shortness, and unpredictability yet we are also reminded of its infinite potential,” they continued. It’s hard to imagine, though, that this is what the average onlooker will be reminded of when they see a Stoneman Douglas High School sweatshirt with ragged holes torn through the shoulder and chest. More likely they’ll think of the brutal way in which 17 students and staff were killed in their classrooms and hallways on Valentine’s Day last year – and, perhaps, why anyone would choose to wear something that pays such graphic homage to the tragedy.

In an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, Catorze acknowledged that he and Owens intentionally make statements to get audiences talking about the brand. “That’s for you to know who we are, so we can have a voice in the market,” he said.

They may have achieved that, but what conversation have they started around gun violence that their audience wasn’t already having? What message does a tattered Columbine sweatshirt convey that most Americans aren’t, by now, all too familiar with, as parents send their kids back to school with bulletproof backpacks for another round of active shooter drills?

This isn’t to say fashion can’t or shouldn’t reckon with the devastating reality of gun violence, or collective trauma more generally, but it has to do so with the utmost care and respect for those whose lives have been personally torn apart.

Designers have successfully walked this delicate line before: In 2014, a then-upstart designer named Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss designed a T-shirt emblazoned with the names of unarmed black men killed by police under the words “They Have Names.” The shirt wasn’t originally meant for production, but it made headlines at New York Fashion Week when the stylist Shiona Turini wore it to a day of shows, and eventually Jean-Raymond agreed to sell it with all profits going to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The following season, he confronted the issues of police brutality and racism even more unflinchingly with a runway show that began with a 15-minute video featuring interviews with the family members of victims Eric Garner and Sean Bell. Models wore “blood”-spattered boots inscribed with victims’ names and Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” The show was, as several outlets pointed out at the time, an incredibly risky move from a young black designer in an industry that was – and remainsoverwhelmingly white, but its careful execution made it one of the most memorable shows in recent history.

Bstroy’s designers may have aimed to achieve a similar effect with their hoodies, but they seemed to ignore the group most affected by the issues they ostensibly wanted to shed light on. Worse still, their response to critics since the show has ranged from defensiveness to mockery, with Owens retweeting a joke that said that reading the comments on the show was “almost better” than the clothes themselves.

Apart from the show notes, Bstroy’s runway show was posted on the brand’s Instagram without any further context beyond the season and collection name, “Samsara,” a Sanskrit word referring to the cycle of death and rebirth. Either they didn’t give much thought to how the collection would be received online, or they wanted to offend for the sake of offending.

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    Their intention, they told the Cut, was “to make a comment on gun violence and the type of gun violence that needs preventative attention and what its origins are, while also empowering the survivors of tragedy through storytelling in the clothes.” (They also said that while they originally didn’t plan to sell the hoodies, they’re now considering doing so. No nonprofit was mentioned. )

    On social media, the images quickly reached the families and friends of victims, some of whom accused the brand of “mak[ing] light of our pain” and “profit[ing] off the deaths of our family members,” as well as inciting comments from Sandy Hook denialists.

    Bullet holes, after all, may help memorialize the ugliness of the attacks, but they do little to commemorate the lives of victims.