In recent years, some of the world’s biggest brands—from fast fashion retailers and sporting good brands, to high-end fashion houses—have found themselves with public relations nightmares thanks to incredibly tone deaf products or ads.
Fuelled by relentless—and often well-deserved—social media backlash, the issuing of apologies and the pulling of products has become curiously commonplace. Whether or not they intentionally meant to provoke a response or simply made a (really stupid) mistake, their oversights left the world raising eyebrows and in some cases actually perpetuated online hate.
If anything, the hope is that others learn from their lack of judgment and employ people and processes to ensure that such things don’t happen in our supposedly progressive society.
With that being said, here are 10 times fashion brands have crossed the line.
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In February of this year, Katy Perry made headlines with the release of two new shoe models from her namesake footwear line—and not because people couldn’t get enough of them. The black Nappa leather shoes depict a face, with blue eyes, a triangular nose, and large, exaggerated red lips. Rage surrounding the shoes quickly grew, with many people stating the shoes depicted “blackface”—a reference to racist imagery that dates back to 19th century minstrel shows—and calling her a racist. Perry said she was saddened by the “blackface” comparisons and had envisioned the designs as a nod to “modern art and surrealism.”
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Shockingly, Katy Perry isn’t the only one being called out as of late for designs that resemble “blackface.” In February, it didn’t take long for people to angrily point fingers at Gucci when it debuted a pricey wool balaclava sweater with a turtleneck that pulls up over the bottom half of the face with, a cut out over the mouth that featured oversized red lips. In the wake of a torrent of social media backlash, the company apologized and pulled the sweater.
— Nathalie Rothschild (@n_rothschild) August 27, 2014
Fast fashion giant Zara is no stranger to controversy—so much so that it’s almost expected from the brand by now. One of the brand’s more shocking moves came back in 2014, when the company was slammed for creating shirts that resembled concentration camp uniforms that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. Zara’s ‘Striped Sheriff” t-shirt—which the company said was inspired by classic western films—was quickly pulled from stores and the brand issued an apology.
— Justin Hustle (@justinhustle) April 22, 2013
Back in 2013, Nike shocked with its bloody “Boston Massacre” t-shirts when people called them an offensive reminder to the bombings that took place earlier that year at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The t-shirts featured white and grey lettering across the chest that was splashed with “blood” and read “Boston Massacre.” In response, Nike claimed that the t-shirts were designed on celebration of the New York Yankees’ double series sweep against the Boston Red Sox. The shirts were quickly pulled from shelves.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) January 8, 2018
Zara isn’t the only fast fashion brand to make some seriously questionable decisions. Last year, competitor H&M came under fire for an advertising campaign that featured a black child model wearing a hoodie with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle” written across the front. The campaign was met with backlash from celebrities—including the Weeknd—and people all over the world, who vowed to boycott the company. H&M issued an apology.
— Meaghan (@mmcgurgan) May 21, 2018
In May 2018, Hong Kong retailer Giordano proved that sexism does not sell when it released a shockingly backward “Team Family Series” clothing line. Complete with an advertisement of a smiling heterosexual nuclear family wearing the clothes, the line included men’s t-shirts that featured the word “work” along with a dollar sign and a women’s t-shirt that featured the word “cook” that was accompanied by images of sandwiches. Yes, this really happened. Faced with a barrage of social media backlash, the company issued an apology.
At the end of last year, Dolce&Gabbana’s branding hit an all-time low with a racist ad. The ad features a Chinese woman dressed in a Western-style dress who struggles to eat a bowl of spaghetti. Using chopsticks to attempt to twirl the noodles, the woman appears confused as to what to do with the dish. It didn’t take long for people to claim that the ad insinuated that the woman lacked an understanding of western culture and that it made fun of chopsticks. Most shockingly, is a male narrator’s voice that asks, “is it too huge for you?”
— WISH-TV (@WISH_TV) May 16, 2015
Casual clothing brand Under Armour found itself in hot water in 2015 after it released a t-shirt called “Band of Ballers.” The shirts feature an image across the chest of the silhouettes of men in the process of raising a basketball net. It didn’t take long for social media users to interpret the design as similar to the famous image of military men raising the American flag after the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.
— ? (@CamDeezi) December 12, 2017
In 2017, longtime mall staple American Eagle Outfitters came under fire when people took to social media to compare its men’s “metal cuff” bracelet to shackles once worn by slaves. The day after the social media backlash surfaced, American Eagle released an apology and pulled the product from stores and its online shop. Although the product was promptly removed from the website, some people reported still spotting it in certain retail stores.
— Chasity Cooper ???? (@chasityscooper) October 7, 2017
In 2017 Dove—a brand usually known for its progressive marketing campaigns—found itself on the receiving end of backlash for an ad that featured a black woman removing a shirt to reveal a white woman. The three-second clip for Dove body wash was posted on Dove’s U.S. Facebook page and was immediately criticized by social media users, who drew comparisons to soap ads from the 19th century and early 20th century that showed black people scrubbing their skin to become white. Dove was quick to apologize and remove the clip, taking to Twitter to say that the post had “missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully.”
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