“Founders of Big Uncle, Sabino Lebba and Riccardo Moroni both have failed to understand how important the concept of identity is, judging by their latest collection, which depicts male models wearing items of clothing emblazoned with ‘colonialism’, amongst other items in the ‘Colonial Deal’ collection. Both fashion designers seem blatantly unaware of the continuing legacy of racism, oppression and poverty which ‘colonialism’ has created.”
The fashion and beauty industry have taken a beating over the past few months. From Dove’s 2017 faux pas, to H&M’s most latest controversy, brands repeatedly seem to have ‘missed the mark’ when it comes to representing people of colour in a racially sensitive manner.
However, despite the countless ‘We deeply regret the offense it caused’ half-hearted apologies, there appears to be no accountability, nor any penalties to companies who have made such gross errors and in doing so, have forced communities to relive painful traumas, such as Zara who designed a striped ‘sheriff’ t-shirt, mimicking the style of the yellow star-adorned, striped uniform that Jewish prisoners were forced to wear in the Holocaust.
Most recently, I was alerted to Big Uncle, an Italian luxury clothing brand on The Fashion & Beauty Network – For Women of Colour who launched their SS18 collection under the title, Colonial Deal. Big Uncle have described the collection as:
‘A short and an intense journey in the West former colonies in order to understand the Colonialism style. The Big Uncle man of SS18 proposes the COLONIAL DEAL, what the eyes, the sense of touch and mind recall of those places. Forms and volumes intertwine like the East’s and the West cultures; the colors are warm like the cities, soft like the sunsets, dusty like the dirt roads. As persuasive are those places the linen is rough like the faces consumed by the sun, the military colors and the leather are a soft suede. The garments, whether they have different weights and consistencies, whether they are rough or delicate, remind us of our emotion, of our COLONIAL DEAL.’
Unsurprisingly, when the brand revealed the collection on Instagram, they were met with both contempt and disgust from shoppers, who quite rightly called them out about their insensitive collection. In response to criticism, Big Uncle responded with:
‘BU perfectly knows the difference between what is colonial and what is colonialism, what is a source of inspiration and which is a horrible political misdoing. If we have decided to write on our sweatshirt “Colonialism” it is not singing hymns to a political horror, but to think about it. Today we live in an age of uncertainty and reversed paradigma, where the words have a signified and a signifier, so if you want people talk about the ugliness of the war, you have to write WAR, no more “PEACE and LOVE”….this is not modern, it is postmodern. We share the opinion of Gillo Dorfles and Zygmunt Bauman, do you know them?.’
To use Saussure’s notion of signifier and signified quite simply shows they have little to no understanding of racial politics. Rather than offering any apology, Big Uncle appear to have shown nothing but derision and arrogance, particularly the accusation to critics, ‘We share the opinion of Gillo Dorfles and Zygmunt Bauman’, both post-modernist thinkers of sociology. Let us not forget that both these thinkers have Italian origins, and have not lived the first-hand, nor the intergenerational trauma of those affected by colonialism. In Bauman’s own words:
‘The Holocaust was born and executed in our modern society, at the high stage of our civilisation and at the peak of human cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilisation and culture’.
A sociological thinker who thought of the Holocaust as ‘an integral feature of modernity, rather than an aberration’ (Back and Solomos, 2000) quite frankly shows how separated from the trauma of colonialism and its lasting effects on members of society and culture. Perhaps these designers would benefit from learning more about the Italian colonialism of Abyssinia (the former name for Ethiopia).
Fortunately, this campaign has had support and names such as Tia Taylor, Yomi Adegoke, Nikesh Shukla, and publishers Knights Of have backed this campaign. However, it leads me to question, what is this doing for the reputation of the brand? Although this may bring some negative press, the result is undoubtedly that these companies will continue to thrive. Although brands like H&M may have lost campaign collaborators such as The Weeknd and G-Eazy, it’s important to note that despite the bad press, brand attention and social media trending increases both traffic and visibility. As a result, some companies can profit from this negative press.
While companies continue to play around with their customers, minority communities are forced to take the brunt – not only having to justify what and why something is offensive, but also having to revisit stark issues which continue to affect their community daily. As much as campaigning and boycotting is relevant and provokes change, there now needs to be legislative changes to ensure that companies are no longer allowed to get away scot-free with these blunders – no matter whether they’re misguided and misjudged, or maliciously concocted by PR firms.
These are the words of Mireille Harper.