You would think that by now, the fashion industry would know better than to incorporate racist imagery in its designs and accessories. In recent years, we’ve seen Dolce & Gabbana’s racially insensitive ad campaign in China; Prada’s monkey keychains; and Gucci’s “blackface” sweater. In each instance, the backlash had serious public relations and financial consequences for the brands: D&G had to shut down its China show, while the latter two brands pulled the offending products and apologized. In the cases of Prada and Gucci, the legal consequences are still ongoing.
And yet, another Fashion Week has passed and with it another scandal, this time at a fashion school. On February 7, the Fashion Institute of Technology, a New York state university, held a runway show that showcased the designs of recent graduates from its MFA program. It included a collection by Junkai Huang, a student from China, which sought to explore aesthetics of the human body and included accessories such as gigantic prosthetic lips, ears, and bushy eyebrows. Critics found the accessories racially offensive, and Amy Lefevre, a black model, refused to wear the items and ultimately walked the show without them.
This weekend, the New York Times reported that Huang purchased the accessories at the prompting of a school administrator after the original accessories he’d made were too small to be seen on the runway. Huang explained that he’d received an email from Jonathan Kyle Farmer, chair of FIT’s MFA fashion design department, copying Richard Thornn, a creative director of NAMESldn, a London-based fashion agency, who was the FIT show’s producer. In the email, Farmer asked Huang purchase the items — a “Silicone Face Slimmer” and “Giant EVA Foam Ears Headband” — from Amazon, which he did.
Lefevre told the New York Post that she objected to wearing the accessories, but in the days leading up to the event, Thornn had tried to pressure her into wearing them.
“I stood there almost ready to break down, telling the staff that I felt incredibly uncomfortable with having to wear these pieces and that they were clearly racist,” Lefevre told the paper. “I was told that it was fine to feel uncomfortable for only 45 seconds.”
A student who was backstage at the show and spoke to the Post echoed Lefevre’s account: “We brought it up to [Thornn] multiple times. We said, ‘She cannot wear this. This is wrong.’ He screamed in my face, ‘You need to back down and get away.’ It was such a grave lack of judgment.” Another anonymous designer who was part of the show told the Times that he had approached Farmer and Thornn the day of the show after seeing the accessories. He said his concerns were “laughed off.” “They said that in the right context it won’t read as racially ignorant,” he told the Times.
FIT president Dr. Joyce F. Brown, who is African-American, issued a statement on the incident on February 18, writing that the show “failed to recognize or anticipate the racist references and cultural insensitivities that were obvious to almost everybody else.”
“As we understand it, some of the students and models involved in the show were offended by the accessories — large prosthetic ears and lips and bushy eyebrows — used to style one particular collection. Calling them racist, one model refused to wear these items and indeed walked down the runway without them.
Currently it does not appear that the original intent of the design, the use of accessories or the creative direction of the show was to make a statement about race; however, it is now glaringly obvious that has been the outcome. For that, we apologize — to those who participated in the show, to students, and to anybody who has been offended by what they saw.”
Brown added that FIT would be “engaging with our Diversity Council, our Faculty Senate, the UCE and the Student Government Association to continue this important conversation; we will put in place safeguards to ensure that a situation like this will not happen again; and finally, there will be an ongoing investigation about the event itself — how it occurred, who was involved, and why there was no immediate follow-up.”
Brown updated the statement on February 21, noting that Farmer and Mary Davis, dean of the School of Graduate Studies, have been placed on administrative leave “pending the conclusion and outcome of the investigation.” In statement sent to the Cut on February 26, Davis said that she was unaware “of the existence of the accessories until [she] saw them presented at the show.”
Huang, who is 27, told the Times: “I have only lived in the United States briefly. My understanding of American cultural references is still developing. In the future, I’ll be more aware about political correctness, cultural differences and history.”
This post has been updated.