Fashion is suffering from ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ syndrome

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If hysteria is a measure of importance, then a photo of two children in linen shirts was the most significant thing that happened in Australian fashion in the past month.

Donetella Versace has apologised over her brand’s T-shirt that caused offence in China for suggesting Hong Kong and Macau are countries.Credit:AP

The photo, posted on Country Road's social media accounts two weeks ago, prompted a "backlash" for allegedly showing children in "provocative" poses and wearing "too much make-up", according to at least one report on the issue.

Before anyone even tested whether either of these claims are true, thanks to social media the outrage train had already left the station.

"These children are gorgeous but provocative adult posing is totally unnecessary and disappointing," on Instagram user wrote in reply to the photo, which has had nearly 2500 likes.

Chinese actress Yang Mi has quit her role as Versace’s China ambassador in the wake of the scandal.Credit:AP

The company stood its ground, leaving the photo up and responding – but, tellingly, not apologising – to commenters' viewpoints.

"As an iconic Australian family brand it’s important to us to promote positive, age-appropriate imagery that reflects our values. This image is in no way intended to be provocative," a brand representative wrote on the post.

Contrast this episode, which seems to have now dissipated, with the controversy surrounding luxury brand Versace, which, catastrophically it seems, produced a T-shirt listing its store locations that implied Chinese territories Hong Kong and Macau are sovereign entities.

Since last week's "incident", Versace has publicly apologised, destroyed the T-shirts, lost its Chinese ambassador and other brands, including Coach and Givenchy, have apologised for their own T-shirts that made similar faux pas.

Offensive … customers in China and other Asian countries turned against Dolce & Gabbana after a series of videos showing models eating western foods with chopsticks.Credit:Instagram

China's sovereignty is, of course, a sensitive topic for Beijing as protests rage in Hong Kong. And for fashion retailers, the power of the Chinese consumer, who is responsible for a third of the world's spending on luxury retail goods, is too big to risk over something as trivial as a T-shirt.

And yet, both the Country Road and Versace examples highlight the broader issue of fashion's "outrage culture", especially the swiftness with which seemingly innocuous matters becomes global incidents. When did we all become so bloody sensitive?

Sometimes, anger is warranted, and the power of the consumer, often through social media, can be wielded for good. Take the racism controversies surrounding Dolce & Gabbana, which featured a Chinese model struggling to eat a cannoli with chopsticks, or Miu Miu making garments with patches that had a resemblance to the gold Stars of David Jews were made to wear during the Holocaust.

Still, for all the good that can come from calling out fashion's malfeasance, I can't help feeling that the rush to outrage, the so-called "Diet Prada effect" (a reference to the Instagram account that focuses on calling out fashion copycats) is resulting in a Boy Who Cried Wolf effect.

Connie Wang, of digital fashion publication Refinery29, recently penned a deep-dive into 2018's H&M "Monkey in the Jungle" controversy, which concerned a photograph on the Swedish brand's website of a child model, who is black, in a windcheater with the slogan, "Coolest monkey in the jungle".

The incident, which Wang forensically unpicks by speaking to tens of people involved, resulted in calls from Helsinki to Hobart to boycott the brand. And yet, even Terry Mango, the mother of five-year-old model Liam, took to social media to "stop crying Wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here … get over it".

But the world didn't get over it. Even the so-called "victims" of the controversy couldn't quell the fire that was already raging out of control. Without her choosing, Mango and her son became part of a global storm, with consequences including Liam not getting any more modelling work apart from H&M, which continues to feature him for its website.

On the plus side, the racism incidents at some of the luxury houses have resulted in those brands employing diversity officers, and others implementing more stringent product-approval processes. And Diet Prada, for its critics, helped elevate the sexual harassment allegations against celebrity photographer Marcus Hyde to front-page news. So outrage certainly has its place, when it meets certain public interest tests.

But, still, we should all lament the ease with which outrage can be expressed by keyboard warriors, often without consideration of context or intention. It has set the bar so low that we (and even brands, especially when the stakes are high) often jump at shadows. And, in some cases, if the victims or targets of the initial scourge themselves aren't even outraged, then what right do we have to be?

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