What happens when our thirst for clout takes over common sense? We end up cancelling the wrong people.
An incident occurred during the first week of New York Fashion Week Autumn Winter 2020. The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) held its MFA fashion graduate show on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week and ended up making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
On that day, recent FIT graduate Junkai Huang showcased his own collection which featured models wearing plastic enlarged ears, bushy eyebrows, and giant red lips. These facial accessories were said to celebrate what society considered as “ugly features” but were seen as racially charged. The fact that this happened in the US accelerated the uproar as blackface has been historically performed there for too long. Many students protested against having those accessories in the collection while the African American model Amy Lefevre refused point-blank to wear them after being pressured to.
The story broke out via Diet Prada, the Instagram page popular for calling out designers and fashion brands on various matters, ranging from plagiarism to social injustices. As soon as the page posted pictures of Huang’s collection, people started defaming the designer for his ignorance. According to Diet Prada, observers stated that Huang didn’t seem to understand the historical significance of his accessories’ features, and didn’t decide to use these himself, instead he was pushed by the chair of the MFA fashion design department, Jonathan Kyle Farmer.
Screen Shot spoke to Ryerson professor and former educator for Gucci, Parsons and Pratt, Kimberly Jenkins who further explained this story in its full context. As the founder of the Fashion and Race Database, Jenkins aims to expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge misrepresentation within the fashion system. Here’s why she decided to have a closer look at the FIT incident and what she found.
What made you want to be involved in this incident with FIT and Junkai Huang?
I hadn’t really planned to be involved initially and figured it was another case of cultural and historical ignorance. The twist was that there was indeed ignorance involved, and when I heard about what really happened, I wanted to speak out.
What was going through your mind when deciding to speak publicly about it?
I was just concerned about seeking and speaking the truth and supporting students and the model involved.
After this happened, what were your thoughts about call-out culture, social media and how it affects an individual?
I hadn’t fully formed my opinion or ‘final verdict’ on call-out and cancel culture just yet, but once this issue was exposed—and hit quite close to home—I wanted to be part of advocating for critical thinking and what I consider ‘slow information’. Slow information meaning, if we were to adopt the paradigm of ‘slow food’ and ‘slow fashion’, we care about the information we take in, we want the information to be nourishing, and, when possible, build a connection with it. That means we try to read stories in full, consume stories or engage in discussions that are generative and positive, and we try to understand both sides of the story.
FIT published an open letter stating its accountability for what happened. Do you think these steps would have taken place had it not been for social media, as well as your involvement, showcasing the fuller context of the situation?
I don’t think so. I think the new letter of accountability was influenced by social media posts (perhaps including mine) and the urgent, vocal statements put forth by the students at FIT.
Although Diet Prada was one of the first to break this story, what are your thoughts on media platforms telling ‘incomplete’ stories without full context?
Diet Prada has, in my eyes, become another news or media platform. The more powerful and visible they became in terms of followers, the more they have a persistent motivation to live up to their mission to call people out. This has led to fast and loose information—the very information style I do not advocate for—as it’s nearly impossible at this stage for an Instagram account with over a million followers to carefully follow-up on and revise past stories, even if it means damaging reputations and careers along the way.
What’s worse is that with a following that large, it’s nearly impossible to facilitate a productive discourse in the comment threads, you wind up with reactionary comments that respond to the latest thing Diet Prada saw or heard and questions left unanswered. The result is possible misinterpretation and misinformation that can run rampant, possibly inspiring real life aggressions that spread beyond the context. Meanwhile, Diet Prada moves on to the next story for you to worry about and you’ve already forgotten about the last one.
After this incident, what do you think is the future for higher education in fashion?
Radical change in terms of curricula and to re-examine what the educators and leaders know. As with any business or organization, we, unfortunately, cannot rely on leaders under fire to embrace a moral imperative (‘doing the right thing’) on their own. Oftentimes there needs to be a push for systemic change by the people impacted by a business or institution’s egregious oversights and complicity with the status quo.
Most people have focused on the obvious outrage caused by the accessories depicting blackface as well as on the model Amy Lefevre. Not many talked about Huang’s lack of awareness or the rest of his collection. This story was centred on him, yet the most important thing, which was the collection, did not get the recognition it deserves.
As a society it seems we value cancel culture more than fact-checked information. We’ve somehow started believing that we can act as social media vigilantes, and we’ve forgotten along the way the power that our words can have. As stories get churned out faster and faster, we don’t take the time needed to think and absorb the information being presented to us. We are so focused on releasing and consuming stories that we’re forgetting about slow information. We’re starting to forget, and probably have already forgotten, that there are people behind these clickbait headlines.
We have to remember that our words really do impact others and learn again that every story has two sides—the ones being highlighted may not always be the entire truth. Media sets the tone of who the public rally for and who they crucify. Next time one of these stories comes out we should all think twice before dragging someone’s name across the internet.
Last month, Miuccia Prada, the head designer and founder of the multi-million dollar fashion house Prada, received the Outstanding Achievement Award for her contribution to the international fashion industry. The Award, presented by the British Fashion Council, celebrated the Italian billionaire’s decades of ‘creativity and innovation’ in the fashion world. Prada’s parade was swiftly interrupted, however, when her company became engulfed in controversy after products perpetuating blackface imagery were spotted at their Soho store in New York.
The products, which were part of Prada’s Pradamalia line, exhibited features that resemble racist and degrading caricatures of black people that were rife in American theatres and literature during the 19th century, such as dark faces, wide eyes, and over-sized lips. Although the merchandise was removed from the shelves and an investigation was launched in the company to examine the case, questions still remain, including why such products were created in the first place.
The scandal erupted on December 14, when civil rights lawyer and social justice activist Chinyere Ezie spotted the “shocking” figurines while strolling through Soho with her friend. As the two walked into the store to inquire about the offensive merchandise, the only response they received was that ‘A black employee had previously complained about blackface at Prada,’ and that he doesn’t work there anymore. In an interview for ABC News, Ezie drew correlations between the blackface imagery used by Prada and dehumanising illustrations of African Americans in the children’s book “Little Black Sambo”.
Distraught, Ezie launched an online campaign calling upon Prada to eliminate such products from their store, using the hashtags #StopBlackface #BoycottPrada and #EndRacismNow.
Ezie’s uproar went viral, and following a couple of days of criticism by the public and media, the fashion giant announced the elimination of the controversial products from their stock, claiming that the items were „fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre.“ The Company then announced that it intends to set up an advisory council to address issues of „diversity, inclusion and culture”, improve diversity training, as well as donate the profits from the Pradamalia line to a New York-based racial justice organisation.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Prada will follow up on its vows once the storm surrounding the ‘blackface’ products subsides, for this incident is indicative of a systemic and overwhelming lack of diversity in the company, particularly in its top tears. „The fact that this was green-lit at headquarters tells me, indisputably, there are no black faces, no one who looks like me, in the company’s decision making tree,“ Ezie told the Gothamist in an interview.
The Prada scandal must be a wake-up call to consumers across the globe. It is time that trend-setting institutions be scrutinized for their failure to embrace diversity and be demanded to utilise their power and influence to combat racist, xenophobic, and dehumanising sentiments plaguing human society.
“For all of us who work in fashion, I think we have to feel the responsibility of defending human rights and freedom that in this moment are in danger,” said an ecstatic Miuccia Prada upon receiving her award.
Great. Now let’s make sure these words are translated into action.
This article was published in partnership with FAIRPLANET as an ongoing content partnership.