One of the world’s biggest luxury brands is paying for its cultural insensitivity — and trying to change.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he began designing clothes for his store on 125th Street in New York City’s Harlem, Daniel Day — known to the world as Dapper Dan — developed a practical interest in Gucci, then a family-run accessories business. At the time, European leather goods brands were becoming international status symbols: aspirational consumption was growing fast. But back then, Gucci and Louis Vuitton didn’t sell clothes. What they did sell, however, was logo-printed garment bags, which Day cut up and fashioned into sleeves or panels for designs he sold to a local clientele that included hip-hop stars like Eric B & Rakim and LL Cool J, as well as local gangsters.
At first, Day used Louis Vuitton. But because the French luggage brand’s bags were made of far less-pliable vinyl, he began to favour Gucci’s canvas version, which was sturdy but thinner, and therefore easier to manipulate. In the coming years, Day became known for his bootleg Gucci pieces, and the Italian brand’s New York shop girls would often refer clients uptown when they came in asking for one of his pieces. But by 1992, the Gucci family was about to lose control of the company, Tom Ford was designing ready-to-wear and Day was forced to close his store and go underground as luxury labels including Fendi, MCM and Louis Vuitton cracked down on his use of their logos with legal action.
At the same time, luxury brands increasingly referenced Day’s work.
“I took real notice in 2000, when I saw a Tom Ford coat on a magazine cover that looked exactly like one of the coats I had made,” Day said during a recent interview, dressed in head-to-toe Gucci, down to his custom wingtips, at a Harlem atelier funded by the brand in a generous — yet undeniably self-serving — attempt to right the fallout after it was accused of stealing Day’s ideas.
“I was voiceless then,” he said, thinking back to the turn of the millennium. Day was painted as a criminal, rarely credited by the brands who were swiping his designs. Even fashion journalists, from
American Vogue to Essence, failed to recognise his influence. (The first and one of the only magazines to profile him prior to his Gucci-backed second coming was London-based The Face in 1989, just a couple of years before he closed his store.)
By the time Creative Director Alessandro Michele sent out a blatant copy of Day’s 1989 Vuitton-balloon-sleeved fur jacket (remade with Gucci logos, of course) on his Resort 2018 runway, things had changed. Despite the rise of streetwear and sampling, fashion brands flagrantly filching from marginalised cultures and classes was no longer considered acceptable by key organs of society, from media to universities, which had become increasingly attuned to the intersection of identity and power.
This is the story of how one of the world’s most successful luxury brands is paying for its sins, and why its leaders are attempting to secure its future by acknowledging the errors of its past.
Where does cultural ignorance end and outright racism begin? It’s a question Gucci found itself confronting on February 6, 2019, when consumers took to Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to express outrage over an $890 sweater resembling blackface that many deemed racist. But first, there was a full-blown PR crisis to contain, as hashtags like #BoycottGucci, #BanGucci and #FuckGucci filled the internet.
The offending knit featured a balaclava turtleneck, which could be pulled up to the eyes to cover everything but the wearer’s lips. (The accessory’s peculiar name comes from the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, when British soldiers wore face-protecting masks to shield themselves from the cold.) Modelled on Gucci’s e-commerce site by a long-haired white woman, the black sweater — with giant intarsia-ed red lips framing the hole for the wearer’s actual mouth — looked like blackface: the theatrical skin-darkening makeup that was historically worn by white actors in 19th century American minstrel shows to mock black people. Today, it is widely viewed as cruel and, yes, racist.
No matter that Michele said the balaclava was inspired by the late Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery, who often inflated his lips with thick red clown paint, and that a similar piece had been shown on a Milan runway almost a year earlier without incident. Charges of racism soon filled news stories and social posts across the world, but especially in the United States, where a rise in white nationalism and accounts of police brutality against black people had landed the country’s sordid race relations back on the front pages of newspapers. To worsen matters, the crisis erupted during Black History Month, which not only celebrates the achievements of African Americans but also memorialises those who suffered from hundreds of years of atrocities and social injustice, including slavery.
As it turns out, Gucci, which had been dogged by charges of cultural insensitivity even before its blackface sweater crisis, had been working behind the scenes to prevent such an incident. Only a week earlier, on January 29, the Italian luxury megabrand, owned by the French conglomerate Kering, invited 300 of its employees to a brightly lit theatre in its glossy Milan headquarters for “culture gathering” to consider what Gucci, one of fashion’s greatest success stories, with €8 billion in sales in 2018, could do to make the company — and the world? — a better place.
The occasion, which was also live streamed via Gucci’s Facebook Workplace page, had nothing to do with financial results, business strategy or traditional team building. Instead, “Gucci 25.0,” playfully named after creative director Alessandro Michele’s lucky number — nothing more, nothing less — was the company’s broad attempt to modernise its corporate culture, a task made more urgent after a series of cultural-appropriation scandals, the biggest of which involved Michele’s liberal sampling from the work of Day.
Sitting in the front row was Michele — baseball-capped, sunglasses shielding his eyes, vintage-wash jeans rolled up just so — alongside Gucci Chief Executive Marco Bizzarri. Also present was Kering Group Chairman and Chief Executive François-Henri Pinault, dressed casually in a turtleneck and blazer. His participation underscored the importance of the event, which was comprised of a series of talks hosted by American activist and Instagram poet Cleo Wade.
“It’s about keeping watch of the possible dangers and difficulties in front of you,” Pinault said during a conversation with Wade. “Vigilance is about being aware of the changes in your environment, but also being aware of yourself and challenging yourself. It’s also being aware that satisfaction can lead to [complacency]. Then you can make mistakes and miss opportunities.”
It was a sensitive time for Gucci. Buoyed by a radical reinvention put in place by Bizzarri and Michele, the company had grown by 128 percent over the previous four years — an astonishing figure given the scale of the business. But fashion’s hype cycle was moving faster than ever and by the fourth quarter of 2018, management had already begun preparing staff for a slowdown. Now, Gucci was about to learn that, in the era of call-out culture, even the exalted can be taken down.
The rise of social media has provided platforms for popular outrage that brands couldn’t ignore. Especially a fashion label like Gucci, where Michele has built a new creative and communications vision rooted in fluidity, love and inclusivity at a time when wider society was shifting. (In June 2015, just six months after Michele showed his first collection, the same-sex marriage ban was lifted by the US Supreme Court. In April 2015, just a few months before that, Olympic athlete and reality television star Caitlyn Jenner came out as a transgender woman.)
Michele’s brand revamp was mirrored on the operations side of the business. Bizzarri posited that establishing a more open and collaborative corporate culture would drive better results. “When you have a culture of respect and joy, I truly believe that people feel more comfortable proposing new ideas,” he said.
It was similar for parent company Kering (formerly known as PPR), which recast itself in 2013 with a name meant to signify its “caring” approach and progressive culture. “Diversity and inclusion are at the centre of our culture and our values as a group and for our individual brands and [are] very closely connected with the long-term performance of our companies,” Pinault confirmed via email.
Despite all this, Gucci experienced a fair share of missteps prior to the balaclava incident, the most notable being the moment Olympic gold medallist Diane Dixon posted a diptych — a 30-year-old photo of herself wearing Day’s original piece, next to Michele’s copy — with the following caption: “‘Bish’ stole my look! Give credit to @dapperdanharlem He did it FIRST in 1989! #gucci #GucciRipOff.”
Michele said it was an homage, but by then it was too late. The media swiftly picked up on the incident. "Did Gucci Copy "Dapper Dan'? Or Was It ‘Homage’?" asked The New York Times. Teen Vogue got straight to the point, exploring the issue in an op-ed by Faith Cummings under the headline, "Gucci, Dapper Dan, and How the Fashion Industry Fails Black People."
Ultimately, the brand found a clever way to turn the public relations crisis into a win, collaborating on a capsule collection with Day and funding the re-opening of his Harlem store just a few blocks away from its original location (now part museum, part lushly furnished atelier). Gucci pays for the rent on the 4,700-square-foot space, which is leased out until 2020, and provides Day with raw materials for creating custom pieces at a wholesale prices.
“I’m selling luxury goods to people who come into the neighbourhood as opposed to those who live in the neighbourhood,” said Day of his new atelier. When asked in a follow-up email how he felt about that, Day explained it like this: “As you know, when I started my business my clients in Harlem were part of a sub-culture that was associated with criminal elements; they could afford to buy the items I created and they valued those designs. The upper-class Harlem residents that could afford my designs did not support my business at that time. Today, we have customers from Harlem and from around the world, so of course, I am happy about that.”
Neither Day nor Gucci would disclose the specific financial terms of their arrangement. But Day, who does not receive a salary from the brand, has attended the Met Gala alongside Bizzarri and Michele and made appearances on national television shows dressed head-to-toe in Gucci.
Day does say that he has received “way more than I would have ever expected,” and is supportive of Bizzarri in particular. “Marco Bizzarri is to fashion as Martin Luther is to religion,” he said. “Both men are part of a huge change in the narrative.”
His admiration has not gone untested. Only 13 months after the re-opening of Dapper Dan’s Harlem store, the blackface balaclava hit Gucci.com. The blowback was swift and widespread. Film director Spike Lee declared on Instagram that he would no longer wear Gucci or Prada — which had been accused of racism for selling blackface keychains only weeks before — until both companies started hiring designers with black faces. The rapper 50 Cent posted a video of himself burning a Gucci T-shirt.
T.I., who at one time spent more than a million dollars a year with the brand, also called for a boycott. “Our culture RUNS THIS SHIT!!!” he wrote on his personal Instagram. “We (People of color) spend $1.25 TRILLION/year (but are the least respected and the least included) and if we stop buying ANYTHING they MUST correct any and ALL of our concerns.”
“I was completely devastated... it’s been one of the most difficult moments in my career,” wrote Michele in an email. “I would lie if I [said] that nothing changed in the way I am working. I still feel free to express my creativity in all the ways possible. However, I am thinking more about what I am doing and how it could be perceived in different communities.”
Day, now a representative for Gucci, was criticised for supporting the brand and engaging with Bizzarri, who visited him in Harlem soon after the incident. “Gucci got @dapperdanharlem looking like a big C**n,” 50 Cent said on an Instagram post that has since been deleted. “You are a black man first dap come on.”
The designer immediately expressed his disappointment in Gucci. “I am a Black man before I am a brand,” he wrote on Instagram. “Another fashion house has gotten it outrageously wrong. There is no excuse nor apology that can erase this kind of insult. The CEO of Gucci has agreed to come from Italy to Harlem this week to meet with me, along with members of the community and other industry leaders. There cannot be inclusivity without accountability. I will hold everyone accountable.”
Yet he did not walk away from the company. “Most of that conversation is generated by what I call present-day advocates,” he said. “What that means is that they didn’t grow up during the time I grew up, right?”
For Day, this is not a dismissal of the new generation, which he deems invaluable to progression. But it is the view of a person who was born in 1944 and became an adult in the midst of the civil rights movement. While some fans may advocate for him to go out on his own and rebuild his label sans corporate support, he sees his partnership with Gucci as a way to move things forward more quickly. It allows him to help make change from the inside, which he believes is more valuable than if he were on the outside pushing in.
“It has everything to do with the social structure. You know, when we get into doors and we can work together, the social structure begins to shift,” Day said. “You can create a narrative. On TV now, you see gay couples holding hands, black and white couples. It’s the same thing here. This isn’t just something to promote a brand. It’s inclusivity and multiculturalism playing out in the corporate world.”
For Bizzarri, the blackface scandal meant Gucci needed to accelerate the cultural transformation he was already trying to engineer.
“I’m not going to blame social media,” he said. “We enjoy the power of social media, so we must also accept that it’s a threat. The reason this happened is because nobody making a decision had a clue.”
Perhaps Gucci’s most publicly visible response to its blackface scandal has been the establishment of its Changemakers Council, a group of community leaders backed by $5 million in charitable funding — an evolution of its long-running Chime for Change programme — meant to be used to support causes that help African American communities and other marginalised groups. (A parallel fund was also created in the Asia-Pacific region.)
The group, which meets four times a year, consists of many African American leaders — including Wade, Day, model Bethann Hardison and Black Lives Matter activists DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett — and represents other communities, including Yasmeen Hassan, global executive director of Equality Now and Eric R. Avila, PhD, chair and professor of the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA.
“Gucci is interested in this not being a PR moment to improve their brand, but rather an opportunity to learn in public, and to help set a different pace for luxury brands and the industry broadly,” Packnett said. “We’ve come to this moment — not just with Gucci but with the entire industry — because of the work of people of colour, especially people inside the industry, who have refused to let the issues go… These are the gains that we’re seeing now.”
Some members of the council view Gucci’s mistakes as a result of the provincial nature of some Italians. “Italy’s a tiny country with a lack of knowledge of American history,” Hardison said. “They don’t know anything about it. They’d never even heard about blackface.”
It’s true that Italians have a different frame of reference than Americans. But blackface has a long history in Europe. Even today, at major Italian football matches, fans have been known to show up in blackface, making monkey noises and throwing bananas at black players. Just this year, Italy’s national flag carrier Alitalia was forced to pull a television commercial starring a white actor dressed in blackface to resemble former US President Barack Obama. When asked about this, Hardison acknowledges that it exists, but is adamant that it’s different than what is experienced in the United States.
“I know what happens in Holland,” Hardison said, referring to Zwarte Piet — or Black Pete — a Dutch Christmastime character. “It has nothing to do with the onslaught of Black America.”
In addition to spearheading the Changemakers Council, Bizzarri also initiated a search for a global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, responsible for implementing changes across the group. (Both Chanel and Burberry have made similar hires within the past six months.) In late July, Renée E. Tirado took up the role, joining the company from Major League Baseball, where she held a similar position.
“One of the greatest strengths of the fashion industry is also its Achilles’ heel,” Tirado said, just a week after starting. “It’s a very creative environment that’s very open-minded, which doesn’t allow for blind spots. They don’t necessarily have enough self-awareness to see how they affect things. With that comes a lot of opportunities to shift the marketplace.”
Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan attended one of the Gucci’s closed-door meetings — the first of its kind, in May. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who has documented several incidents of cultural insensitivity in the fashion industry, pointed to the differences in responses from the different houses. (Prada issued an apology and established its own Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, co-chaired by artist Theaster Gates and filmmaker Ava DuVernay, after selling keychains resembling blackface. Dolce & Gabbana cancelled a show in China after accusations that the advertisement it ran in the country was racist.)
“It felt like Gucci had the most wide-ranging game plan,” Givhan said. “That they were looking at things that were not going to bear fruit for some time, and that this is not something that was going to be fixed quickly. I don’t think you can make substantive change without feeling a little bit uncomfortable.”
But has getting out of the comfort zone driven genuine change at Gucci? Bizzarri has also established a fellowship aimed at recruiting underrepresented talent from fashion schools in 10 global cities — from Lagos to Mexico City — for full-time positions. The company has also created more opportunities for existing employees from other regions of the world to work at its Italian headquarters in Florence, Rome or Milan for three-month or permanent placements. Thus far, Gucci has hired a handful of new designers with diverse backgrounds — Russian/Colombian, French/Afghan and French/African — to work in the company’s creative studio under Michele and partnered with Harlem’s Fashion Row to create a capsule with two young talents. It has also placed three people in its rotation programme.
The company declined to reveal a breakdown of its current employees by nationality or race, citing regional laws restricting ID information. However, it did say that in employs about 18,500 people in 45 different countries, 63 percent of whom are female. (At the managerial level and above, 57 percent are female. In terms of age, 66 percent of employees are of the Millenial generation, while 26 percent represent Generation X. Baby Boomers make up just 2 percent of the staff; even less than the still-young Generation Z, which make up 6 percent.)
Gucci employees are now required to complete training to “increase awareness of unconscious cultural bias.” One of Tirado’s challenges is to not simply hire for greater diversity, but to get those already in embedded in the fabric of the company to learn and apply lessons from their diversity training.
“Inclusive leadership is really about what leaders to do leverage diversity via inclusion to get measurable results,” explained Mark Kaplan, principal of the Dagoba Group consulting firm and co-author of The Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity and Inclusion Pays Off.
For now, the worst of the PR crisis has passed, and consumer sentiment towards Gucci in the US, where the scandal was most severe, has rebounded. In March 2019 in the weeks after the blackface sweater first landed on Gucci’s website, the brand’s “buzz” score among a sampling of American consumers with income over $100,000 per year sat just below zero, according to data firm YouGov. In April 2019 it sunk lower to -0.06 points. But in May 2019, just in time for Dapper Dan’s appearance at the Met Gala, it started steadily rising, staying consistent until August, when it bobbed up and down.
North American sales fell two percent on a comparable basis in the second quarter of the fiscal year, but Bizzarri insists the sales dip was unrelated to the balaclava incident. (Analysts pointed to US-China trade tensions, the tourism slowdown and a strong dollar.)
“The US market at the moment is quite weak,” Bizzarri offered. However, on an August 2019 call with investors, Kering chief financial officer Jean-Marc Duplaix did acknowledge that the company pulled back on marketing in order to assess the reaction of consumers after February 6. “We were fearing that the return on these additional investments would be very poor considering the context, and that’s the reason why we have decided to be less active,” he said. “Is it an explanation for the performance? We don’t know.”
What’s clearer is that the journey to create a genuinely inclusive culture is going to be slow and painstaking.
“It’s all of the little behaviours,” Kaplan said. “Who do you make visible, who do you grab a coffee with? Who do you give feedback to? If you’re going to ultimately have a diverse leadership team, you’re not going to get there by poaching talent from somewhere else. You really have to do the day-to-day work of developing people. That’s where the challenges of unconscious bias are really substantial.”