In the aftermath of brand blunders, the path forward is often obscured by a haze of negativity fueled by the viral force of social media. Following last year’s tumultuous series of brand gaffes highlighted by Dolce & Gabbana’s ad in China and Prada’s figurines evoking racist imagery, we have now seen several luxury labels add insult to injury with new blunders like the noose hoodie incident from Burberry and the blackface sweater controversy from Gucci.
Sensitivity training and diversity hires are reasonable and judicious responses to faux pas in the fashion world, but what preemptive measures can brands build into their creative processes to help them avoid cultural pitfalls as well as evolve beyond previous missteps — all while staying true to their brand messages?
Collaboration over competition: Rethinking the role of the designer and their teams
In a hyper-secretive industry marked by tough competition and singular creative directors that get elevated to demi-god status, it’s no wonder that potentially tactless lapses go unchecked until it’s too late. Therefore, a lot can be gained (or saved) when luxury brands collaborate and build transparency into their creative process.
Moncler CEO Remo Ruffini recognized the power of collaborative processes when he assembled the Moncler Genius Project with the intent to “acknowledge the singularity of the customers and the variety of their tastes [while] exploring fragmentation as an asset.” Convening eight designers representing a multitude of different backgrounds and perspectives across the industry, Moncler radically restructured the business model and supply chain to re-imagine a future of luxury fashion rooted in a kaleidoscopic and collaborative creative process.
Extraordinary companies build these types of internal structures not just for ethical reasons, but because it’s good business. Appointing artist Theaster Gates and filmmaker Ava DuVernay as co-chairs, Prada recently assembled a Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Council to “examine processes and advise on tactical and strategic approaches to inclusion.” Prada’s perspective posits that inclusive processes must be integrated across all departments and hierarchies in order to unleash the collective power of the brand across all markets, and that brand accountability rests not with one new diversity hire or one creative director, but rather with a whole ecosystem that builds inclusion and collaboration into a new fashion paradigm.
Built-in reality check: Enlisting influencers as a sounding board
Every brand needs a check-in moment to ensure that they’re on-pitch, and influencers are the perfect proxy for gauging pitch because they both shape our culture and act as cultural envoys. Consumers look to influencers for first impressions on nearly everything: what they eat, who they follow, and how to dress. By engaging influencers during the creative process, luxury brands can ensure they are in tune with their customers’ ethos.
Brooks Brothers invited a change in approach when they sought the help of fashion influencer Scarlett Hao to launch a campaign specifically made for the China market. Bringing what was perceived as a “very American brand” to Chinese consumers, Scarlett helped the brand re-contextualize the classic LBD (little black dress) to appeal to a broader Asian woman clientele spanning the ages of 20-60 and in all different sizes. Reflecting on the collaboration with Brooks Brothers, Scarlett recommended to not “limit the influencer’s creativity — you’ll be surprised with the insights they can bring.” As evidenced by the partnership between Hao and Brooks Brothers, letting influencers reinterpret the brand can lead to meaningful points of cultural relevance that would have otherwise been missed — or even botched — without their deep insight into cultural codes.
As both Burberry & D&G pay the price of culturally remiss indiscretions, the untapped value of the influencer role as a preemptive sounding board becomes ever more important. But for brands, this will take an amount of trust, as engaging influencers will require a shift from transactional relationships to co-creative partnerships. To avoid cultural pitfalls, luxury labels can benefit from co-creation with influencers as an entry point to deepen cultural understanding of the markets in which they wish to grow.
Championing the new wave: Redefining the bounds of elegance
Redefining the boundaries of elegance requires an infusion of fresh perspectives. In an industry that fears its own stagnancy, being the first to create new access points for voices that have been absent from a historically Eurocentric tradition may be the boldest path forward.
Fortunately, we’re getting a glimpse of what could be possible through some of today’s boldest brands that have chosen to disrupt the status quo via a more equitable and democratic creative process. Co-creative directors Laura Kim & Frederico Garcia are more than two years into the process of shepherding Oscar de la Renta into the 21st century, and though they were underestimated at first, the match between the Korea-born Kim and Dominican Frederico has taken Oscar de la Renta to the next level, as they now have dressed the likes of Regina King and Lupita Nyong’o for the 2019 Oscars. The design duo blends their collective youthful spirit into the legacy of its namesake founder, saying, “We’ve kept some Oscarisms, but we’re making it all lighter and more relaxed. Ultimately, we’re after a joie de vivre that came through in Oscar’s clothes. We want to make him proud.”
Among other creative visionaries at the helm of carrying on a legacy brand, Virgil Abloh was appointed by Louis Vuitton to take up the mantle of artistic director for menswear. Abloh is equally interested in honoring the heritage of the brand as much as its future potential. “I’m coming in at a time to reinterpret or channel this brand into the modern era,” he said. “And I’m very much following in the steps of someone who I admire and put a great deal of belief into. I was carrying on a tradition that I believed in.” As the first black man to assume the position, Abloh leads Louis Vuitton into the new wave of fashion where subcultures rule, while elevating the legacy that the brand originates from.
LVMH is broadening the boundaries of luxury once more with the highly anticipated launch of Rihanna’s new luxury label. This will be the first new brand to be launched under the French fashion house since 1987. Just as we’ve seen the music & fashion icon lead the next generation of beauty and intimates with the promise of inclusion for all women across Fenty Beauty and Savage X, we can easily place our bets that Queen RiRi will help redefine the rules of luxury fashion.
In our modern age, the next wave of visionary designers could appear in any part of the world. Rather than passively waiting for external forces to impact the industry, brands that preemptively championing emerging creatives that represent diverse perspectives — not only to expand their reach to untapped audiences but also to future-proof their legacy in a dynamic global market.
Moving beyond a checkered past to push culture forward
The fashion industry is having a moment that calls for a more courageous future — one that pays homage to history while renewing those legacies through unexplored expressions. Rather than going it alone, brands will need to tap into the power of their networks, including collaborative partners, influencers, and emerging creative talents, to deliver on a brand promise that moves past thorny cultural tensions and forward into energizing and effective creative alliances.
Susan Moon is a Senior Brand Strategist at Labbrand, a global brand consultancy specializing in creating meaningful brand experiences by bringing together excellence in research, strategy, design and verbal identity. Susan is based in New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.