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Fashion industry continues to struggle with issues of racial and cultural insensitivity

The world's biggest companies need to understand that consumers seek out brands that reflect their identity and attitudes

A new ad for a Dior men's fragrance called Sauvage, in which Depp appears, sparked outrage for its use of Native American culture and symbols. AP Photo
A new ad for a Dior men's fragrance called Sauvage, in which Depp appears, sparked outrage for its use of Native American culture and symbols. AP Photo

Too often in recent years, the fashion industry has come in for criticism for cultural appropriation and racism while it struggles to engage with under-represented and stereotyped groups. It has defended itself either by claiming ignorance and promising to do better next time, or that it had good intentions. But the truth is, good intentions are not enough and ignorance is no excuse.

The latest global brand to fail on this front is Dior, which released an advertisement for a perfume last week featuring Johnny Depp. The video, showing the Hollywood actor walking in Utah while a Native American dances on a cliff, claims to embody the latter's culture. In fact, the video is rife with stereotypes about these indigenous people. It shows nothing of the reality of modern Native American life; more than half the population, for example, live in urban areas. It characterises Depp, a non-native American, as the hero. And here is the kicker: the ad is for a perfume called Sauvage, which is French for savage – a word used to describe Native Americans as they were being massacred by settlers centuries ago.

Dior, which has pulled the ad following intense criticism, is one of a long line of companies to have made similar marketing faux pas through their campaigns in recent years. Remember H&M featuring a young black boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt with the strapline “coolest monkey in the jungle"? Or for that matter, the wildly misjudged Pepsi ad featuring model Kendall Jenner solving the problem of racism with a can of fizzy soda?

Campaigns such as Dior's might claim their intentions are good but the final outcomes of such promotions rarely are. And in a world where information is at everyone's fingertips, it is impossible to cry ignorance about what constitutes a racial slur, and what certain words and images imply.

Steps have been taken in the right direction by some companies, such as the appointment of public figures from under-represented groups to important positions within their decision-making structures. Prada, for instance, hired award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay to be the co-chair of its newly-formed diversity and inclusion advisory council after the luxury fashion house was roundly criticised for selling figurines described as perpetuating "blackface".

We should have members of civil society included in the creative process as well though. After all, high-profile figures are not enough to fix deep-rooted problems. Dior claimed it consulted Indian Opportunity, a Native American consultancy, for the Sauvage ad but the non-profit organisation subsequently put out a statement regretting its participation. That said, fashion houses and retailers should not be deterred from trying to reach out.

It can be argued, of course, that it is not the job of companies to rectify social and historic injustices, such as in the case of Native American tribes. But whether they like it or not, these firms play a significant role in shaping culture. Commercial spaces can help to dismantle toxic attitudes such as racism. The problem is that when they get it wrong, messaging has the potential to reinforce stereotypes or create falsehoods.

Banana Republic, the clothing and accessories retailer, fell foul of such a problem. Just last month, it launched a range of headscarves for Muslim women but the styling featured a minidress with a high slit and a flash of bare leg, in contrast to traditionally modest Muslim attire.

There is much for the fashion industry to consider as it operates in an increasingly inter-connected world, where it is absolutely vital to get it right. But it would do well to understand that consumers seek out brands that reflect their identity as well as their attitudes. Otherwise, everyone stands to lose out.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: September 5, 2019 04:25 PM

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