For many, the sight of a model wearing a noose at Burberry’s London Fashion Week show was disgusting, tasteless, and distressing. Unfortunately, it was not all that surprising.
Frustratingly, it felt like a fashion controversy du jour, a story that would dominate the day’s headlines until a new offensive look started trending on Twitter.
After all, before the noose it was Katy Perry’s blackface shoes. Before Katy Perry’s blackface shoes it was Gucci’s blackface turtleneck. Before Gucci’s blackface turtleneck it was Prada’s blackface keychain. Before Prada’s blackface keychain it was Dolce & Gabbana’s bizarre, anti-Chinese ad campaign.
The look was part of Burberry’s fall “Tempest” collection, created by Italian designer Riccardo Tisci, who has been with the heritage brand for less than a year. Though a slew of editors and influencers attended the runway show, the noose was called out by a Burberry model, Liz Kennedy.
Though Kennedy was not the model in the noose, she described being “extremely triggered” by the styling. “Suicide is not fashion,” Kennedy wrote on Instagram. “Riccardo Tisci and everyone at Burberry, it is beyond me how you could let a look resembling a noose hanging from a neck out on the runway.”
Kennedy went on to describe how she tried to communicate that the look made her feel uncomfortable, and was flippantly told to “write a letter” if she was so upset. “I had a brief conversation with someone, but all that it entailed was ‘It’s fashion. Nobody cares about what’s going on in your personal life, so just keep it to yourself.’”
Though the noose hit close to home for the model because she had “an experience with suicide” in her family, Kennedy also wrote that the rope was a reminder of “the horrifying history of lynching.”
After Kennedy’s post went viral, Burberry executives were quick to apologize. In a statement first sent to CNN, the brand’s Chief Executive Officer Marco Gobbetti said, “We are deeply sorry for the distress caused by one of the products that featured in our A/W 2019 runway collection Tempest. I called Ms. Kennedy to apologize as soon as I became aware of this on Monday and we immediately removed the product and all images that featured it.”
The inspiration, according to Gobetti, was not suicide, but rather sailing. “Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake. The experience Ms. Kennedy describes does not reflect who we are and our values. We will reflect on this, learn from it and put in place all necessary actions to ensure it does not happen again,” Gobetti wrote.
Tisci also apologized, and echoed Gobetti’s statement. “I am so deeply sorry for the distress that has been caused as a result of one of the pieces in my show on Sunday. While the design was inspired by a nautical theme, I realize that it was insensitive. It was never my intention to upset anyone. It does not reflect my values nor Burberry’s and we have removed it from the collection. I will make sure that this does not happen again.”
When reached for comment, a Burberry representative referred The Daily Beast to Gobetti and Tisci's statements.
Many social media critics were dubious of the brand’s “nautical” defense (what sailing school did Tisci go to?). As cultural historian and co-host of the Dress: Fancy podcast Dr. Benjamin Wild told The Daily Beast, “While Burberry said they were working a nautical theme, the presentation of the cord around the model’s neck was suggestive of violence.”
Fashion designers are artists, yes, but they also work for businesses—in Tisci’s case, very big businesses. (Burberry reported its 2019 operating profit as £410 million.) The company employs 10,000 people globally; surely a few of them could have flagged the hoodie as offensive.
“This makes the case for the need for greater accountability amongst the creative and artistic areas of fashion companies,” Elizabeth Shobert, director of marketing and digital strategy for retail analytics company StyleSage, told The Daily Beast. “Put a team in place, whether that's PR, customer insight or legal, that will keep these creatives in check, and penalize these kinds of gross missteps.”
Laurence Newell, managing director at consultancy firm Brand Finance, suggested that Burberry could donate to suicide prevention charities in an effort to rehab their image. “That initiative would send the messaging away from this [controversy], and it could try to make up for what they’ve done.”
After Gucci’s blackface sweater debacle, designer and brand collaborator Dapper Dan invited corporate executives to his studio in Harlem to discuss diversity initiatives.
WWD reported that the meeting ended with four large goals that included “hiring global and regional directors for diversity and inclusion, setting up a multicultural design scholarship program, launching a diversity and inclusivity awareness program, and launching a global exchange program.”
That would certainly be a start; many critics have questioned how many people of color have input at a senior level in the design process within fashion houses, as well as—more generally—how offending items have come to be greenlit when it seems so obvious that they would cause offense or upset, or have the potential to do so.
Controversy is not unknown in fashion; indeed it is how labels like Rick Owens (of the infamous penis-revealing tunics of 2015) come to global attention. The key for designers today, especially in a ravenous and critical online world, is attracting the right kind of notoriety.
According to Dr. Wild, the Burberry and Gucci scandals are so similar because both offerings “played down the politics, and lacked an overarching message, which means that some of the garments—like the hoodie—appear randomly and thoughtlessly chosen.”
Indeed, when asked for his position on Brexit backstage, Tisci told Vogue, “Everyone has a different opinion.” That answer is just as lazy as the idea of putting a model in a noose and calling it “edgy.”
Tisci insisted that “this [will] not happen again,” and maybe it won't—at Burberry. Unfortunately, his promise to do better is undermined by the near-certainty that this will happen again, at another brand, and probably fairly soon.