Burberry is the latest fashion designer brand to come under fire for using racist and offensive imagery in its new collection. The company ventured away from its quintessential check pattern and debuted a hooded sweatshirt at London Fashion Week on Sunday, in which the drawstrings that typically hang from a hood were swapped out for a rope tied into a noose. Burberry was widely criticized for evoking racial terror via lynching, as well as suicide.
In response to the hoodie, model Liz Kennedy wrote on Instagram, “Suicide is not fashion,” she said. “Riccardo Tisci and everyone at Burberry it is beyond me how you could let a look resembling a noose hanging from a neck out on the runway. How could anyone overlook this and think it would be okay to do this especially in a line dedicated to young girls and youth. The impressionable youth. Not to mention the rising suicide rates world wide. Let’s not forget about the horrifying history of lynching either.”
Burberry released several statements of apology, saying that they had pulled the sweatshirt from the line. “Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake,” CEO Marco Gobbetti said. Chief creative officer Riccardo Tisci issued a similar statement, claiming that the sweatshirt was “inspired by a nautical theme” but that he now sees it was “insensitive.”
But Kennedy added in her Instagram post that with literally hundreds of ways to tie a rope, it should not be “overlooked” that Burberry landed on this particular one. Sharing her personal experience with the designer brand, she continued:
“I left my fitting extremely triggered after seeing this look (even though I did not wear it myself). Feeling as though I was right back where I was when I was going through an experience with suicide in my family. Also to add in they briefly hung one from the ceiling (trying to figure out the knot) and were laughing about it in the dressing room. I had asked to speak to someone about it but the only thing I was told to do was to write a letter. I had a brief conversation with someone but all that it entailed was ‘it’s fashion. Nobody cares about what’s going on in your personal life so just keep it to yourself’ well I’m sorry but this is an issue bigger than myself.”
Gobbetti also said in his statement that “The experience Ms. Kennedy describes does not reflect” Burberry’s values. “We will reflect on this, learn from it and put in place all necessary actions to ensure it does not happen again.”
Yet just a couple of months ago Prada was criticized for window displays touting its Pradamalia line which also evoked racist imagery. Prada’s SoHo Manhattan storefront displayed trinkets that appeared to be monkey-like and colored black, with oversized red lips. After the backlash ensued, Prada apologized and pulled the window displays. “They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface,” the company said in a statement. “Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery.”
The fashion industry struggling with (and faltering on) diversity and inclusion is nothing new. As Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote, “Chanel scrawled a verse from the Koran across the bodice of a dress and appropriated Native American headdresses. Dutch label Viktor & Rolf covered white models in black body and face paint, creating a look that called to mind a high-fashion minstrel show. Even American designer Marc Jacobs caused a stir when he incorporated fake dreadlocks on white models in a New York runway show.”
In response to public outcry, some of the brands have either reinforced their professed commitment to diversity or promised to increase it — suggesting, then, that a lack of corporate diversity is to blame. While diversity continues to be a major problem in fashion, acting as if no one spoke up or expressed concern about the message of the clothes ahead of time is, at least in the case of Burberry, at odds with Kennedy’s description of what transpired.
As she said in her Instagram post, “The issue is not about me being upset, there is a bigger picture here of what fashion turns a blind eye to or does to gain publicity. A look so ignorantly put together and a situation so poorly handled. I am ashamed to have been apart of the show. #burberry.”
Others on social media had a similar reaction. “This shit is for attention,” Dani Kwateng-Clark, senior culture editor at Broadly, tweeted. “There’s no fathomable way that fashion pulls from art and culture, yet is completely oblivious to triggering symbols. When will this mess end?”