After Dove’s racially insensitive commercial, and the immediate backlash it received last year, it was assumed that other major brands would take note and enter the New Year with a focus on cultural awareness, some diversity and inclusion initiatives, and perhaps some training courses on unconscious bias. Unfortunately, brands seem to have gone backwards in 2018. Before Big Uncle’s Colonial Deal collection, Italian beauty firm, Wycon Cosmetics, came under fire, in January, for its black nail varnish, titled ‘Thick As A N***a’. Whilst it was the racial slur that created controversy, the decision to name the darkest polish in their collection was what truly sparked criticism.
Despite the backlash the cosmetics company received, Wycon responded:
“We’re sorry that this post has triggered these types of reactions: every color from our Gel On collection is inspired, with a cheerful attitude and a pinch of naivety, by famous song titles, many of which derive from the landscape of hip hop. For example “Drop it like it’s hot” by Snoop Dogg, “Bootilicious” (sic) by Beyoncé (sic), “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent, Lollipop, Lady Marmalade etc… The reference here is “Thick Nigga” (sic) by DBangz. Wycon is the brand for everybody #nobodyexcluded is our motto and we didn’t mean to offend anybody!”
Despite Wycon’s affirmation that their nail varnishes are ‘inspired’ by hip-hop song titles, the company appears to exclude and ignore people of colour, instead cherry-picking cultural references from black culture. Unsurprisingly, when scrolling through Wycon’s Instagram, people of colour are few and far between, and when it comes to catering to people of colour, the darkest shade the brand offers is in the colour ‘Bronze’.
The most recent blunder, this time, comes from another Italian brand, luxury fashion company, Big Uncle. It is not the first time the Italian fashion world has received criticism when it comes to race. In 2013, Dolce and Gabbana were met with reproach after sending white models down the catwalk wearing ‘burlap dresses with black faces with earrings designed as black women’. In 2015, designer Claudio Cutugno made the ill-judged decision of sending models down the catwalk with their faces covered in black glitter. Supermodels Naomi Campbell and Leomie Anderson have both talked about their negative experiences at Milan Fashion Week, highlighting designers’ snubbing of black and Asian models on the catwalk.
However, whilst brands like Dolce and Gabbana and Claudio Cutugno may have showed their ignorance, Big Uncle’s Colonial Deal collection is, in itself, wholly sinister. Founders, Sabino Ledda and Riccardo Moroni describe the collection as:
“A short and intense journey through the ancient western colonies to discover the Colonial style. The SS18 proposal for the Big Uncle man is COLONIAL DEAL. That is, the eyes, the touch and the mind remember those places. Forms and volumes merge like Eastern and Western culture; the colors are as warm as the cities, soft as the sunsets and dusty like the streets. The places are so engaging that the linen is rough, like the facades of the buildings consumed by the sun, the military colors and the leather are in soft suede. The garments of the collection, to the detriment of the different weights and textures, rough or delicate, remind us of our emotions, of our COLONIAL DEAL.”
For a brand whose identity is based on ‘the story of metropolitan lives and travels around the world’, it remains a mystery why the conscious decision was made to replicate the ‘military’ style of colonisers, rather than actually seeking out cosmopolitan fashion styles from different cultures. Furthermore, their understanding on colonialism as a system is skewed. To describe their collection as a ‘merging of Eastern and Western’ culture is frankly incorrect – the purpose of colonialism has always been to exploit to the benefit of the colonising country. This includes the eradication of the culture of the indigenous people, and the introduction of cultural imperialism. It appears that the designers are deeply confused when it comes to summing up why their collection is called Colonial Deal. They settle for summing up the emotions associated with ‘our colonial deal’ as ‘rough and delicate’, a somewhat glossing-over of a system that enforced and promoted forced labour, disease, starvation, torture, rape and murder.
When Big Uncle’s collection was met with disapproval from their online followers, the brand went as far as to mock the critics’ intelligence. They responded,
“If we have decided to write on our sweatshirt “Colonialism” it is not singing hymns to a political horror, but to think about it. Today we live in an age of uncertainty and reversed paradigma, where the words have a signified and a signifier, so if you want people talk about the ugliness of the war, you have to write WAR, no more “PEACE and LOVE”….this is not modern, it is postmodern. We share the opinion of Gillo Dorfles and Zygmunt Bauman, do you know them?”
By refusing to acknowledge that colonialism still carries the legacy of racism, oppression and poverty it created, Big Uncle are blinding in their lack of care or consideration. For those who live with the intergenerational scars of colonialism, the reworking of this concept into a luxury fashion good, created for profit, is a kick in the teeth to those whose who still suffer the trauma left by colonialism.
I set up a campaign against the brand two weeks ago. I’ve lived and studied in Italy at one of the country’s oldest universities, Università di Padova, as well as having Italian family who live there. I felt I had no choice but to react. Whilst in England, we have the Race Relations Act, as well as discrimination rights, under which consumers are entitled to complain, Italy lacks strong laws to combat racism and discrimination. At a time when the country is marred by racist, prejudiced and discriminatory acts, mainly against migrants and other persons of colour, against a backdrop of resurging fascism, this collection does little to aid matters.
In the past two weeks, the campaign has been supported by over 540 people across the UK and Italy. It is thanks to platforms such as Gal-Dem and Guap, as well as support from people with a large social media following, such as American vlogger Tia Taylor, who lives in Milan, that the campaign has gained this traction. However, bar MISHMASH (a fashion magazine who have refused to work with Big Uncle in the future), the Italian fashion industry and press has been silent in the face of this campaign, despite my emails. There is no way of telling whether this is due to lack of interest or purely because to some, it’s not a problem. However this lack of response from Italian fashion websites, magazines, and the Big Uncle brand itself, is a stark portrayal of the state of the industry itself. There’s still a long way to go.
To support the campaign, click here: https://www.change.org/p/mireille-cassandra-harper-request-that-big-uncle-remove-their-colonial-deal-collection
Written by Mireille Harper