The Gucci and D&G scandal. Is Italian fashion racist?

gucci italian fashion racist

Just when Dolce & Gabbana looked like they were going down in history as the greatest embarrassment in the Italian fashion world, someone in the Gucci headquarters decided to top their effort. Between the end of 2018 and the early 2019, Italian fashion brands woke up to the uneasy realisation that they have a racism problem. How and when did this start? How did this issue manage to stay under the radar for so long, at a time when identity politics are centre-stage pretty much everywhere else? And, most importantly, what will the fashion industry do about it?

The facts so far

In case you have been lucky enough to live under a rock for the past year or so, here’s a quick recap of the two racism scandals that have inflamed the Italian fashion industry over the past few months. In November 2018, Dolce & Gabbana released a commercial targeted on the Chinese market. The video was so eye-wateringly racist and sexist that we decided not to share it in this post. We are sharing instead the cringe-making apology video that the two Italian designers were forced to make after their sales dropped spectacularly on one of the largest and richest markets of the world.

And while the world was busy considering this train-wreck of a pr stunt and trying to find a silver lining in the thought that surely this level of callousness and racism could never again be reached in the industry, Gucci said “hold my beer”. The brand released a turtleneck that is nothing if not the textile equivalent of blackface, prompting a unanimous reaction, aptly expressed by the Instagram user below:

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Un post condiviso da Ibrahim Muhammad (@silknice1) in data:

As a result, the most predictable wave of outrage in fashion history ensued, the item was taken off the market before it had the time to become a signature garment of the alt-right, and the inevitable official apology followed. Gucci also announced they were going to make amends, by taking action against racism within the company, working with a team of experts on inclusion and diversity and composed by 90% people of color.

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Un post condiviso da Dapper Dan (@dapperdanharlem) in data:

A two-speed debate

There is one aspect of this incredibly thorny and awkward situation that is often left out of the debate: the fundamental difference in the stage of the debate on race issues and identity politics in different Countries. While racism is a global problem, and it is equally devastating in all societies, its specific expressions vary, depending on each Country’s history. The concept of blackface, for instance, is a hot issue in the United States, because of the history of this practice and the relevance it acquired in the current political debate (as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam knows all too well). American audiences, however, would be puzzled and probably horrified to learn that the term is mostly unheard of in Italian mainstream culture. The original practice trickled into the Italian media in the early days of television, as a watered down version of itself, to an audience that had virtually no experience of the kind of multi-ethnic society that had developed in the US. And while to a modern sensibility it is instinctively obvious that blackface is wrong, the more complex, historical details of the problem are lost on most non-American audiences, in the same way as specific national or regional issues with inclusion and diversity might be obscure and unintelligible for American ones.

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Cultural deafness is no excuse (and Gucci knows it)

Are we suggesting that the person who designed the turtleneck did not see it as racist? Absolutely not. Or rather, the process is so complex that we have no proof of the designer’s intentions either way, but that is not the point. The point is that a whole team of executives thought it was a good idea to release that garment on the market. Gucci is not a family-led artisan workshop in a small town in Tuscany, it is a multinational brand with stores and headquarters all-over the world. It has no excuse for racism or cultural deafness. After the design was created, somewhere along the line, from production to marketing, from social media managers to executive assistants that caught a glimpse of it on someone’s desk, someone should have spoken up. They didn’t. Is it because they were all white? Is it because none of them was American and had any idea what blackface was in the first place? Or is it because the company is organised in a way that doesn’t allow this kind of warning to be heard, even if it is issued? Only the Gucci management can answer that. So far, CEO Marco Bizzarri hasn’t gone into the specific of how it happened, but he has committed to do better in the future and started working with designer Dapper Dan to make the brand more inclusive.

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Gucci’s first four initiatives in a long-term plan of actions designed to further embed cultural diversity and awareness in the company.

Un post condiviso da Gucci (@gucci) in data:

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She is a part-time digital nomad. She would go full-time, if only she could stay away from Berlin for long enough without pining for a Pretzel. She was born in Italy and she enjoys life as an expat, but visits home often enough and can still remember how to bake a perfect lasagna. She is passionate about writing, marketing, languages and the systematic demolition of cultural stereotypes.

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