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Gucci to focus on 'cultural sensitivity' drills for employees after 'blackface' sweater fallout

Gucci to focus on 'cultural sensitivity' drills for employees after 'blackface' sweater fallout
The CEO of Gucci's parent company has said that the Italian luxury brand will up efforts to teach staff about cultural sensitivity in the African-American market, after its reputation was dented by a 'blackface' sweater uproar.

The fashion powerhouse has gone into full damage control mode as it attempts to contain the backlash over its women's woolen jumper. The black jumper, that has been since pulled from shelves, covers the lower part of the face and features a red lips cut-out around the mouth. The design prompted comparisons with 'blackface,' stirring the already heated racial debate in the US.

Facing the risk of losing its appeal with liberal customers, the company promptly apologized for "causing offense" and vowed to boost diversity.

François-Henri Pinault, the French billionaire chairman of Gucci’s parent company Kering better known as the husband of actress Salma Hayek, said on Tuesday that the company neglected the African-American market by not vetting the garments for cultural sensitivity. Pinault said that Gucci has teams in place to do so for the Asian market.

"It's true we don't do that for the African-American community, and that's a mistake," he said, as cited by the Wall Street Journal.

Pinault admitted that the company "didn't understand the sensitivities of the African-American community" which ultimately led to the blunder, adding that it "can't be content with saying we're sorry."

In order to rectify for the past mistakes, the company would educate its employees to be more culturally alert, he said

As part of Gucci's scramble to reestablish its good repute with easily offended young and diverse public, its Chief Executive Marco Bizzarri is flying to New York this week to take the sweater fiasco up with big names on the African-American scene, including designer Dapper Dan, with whom the luxury brand collaborated last year.

The Harlem-based designer has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the fashion brand in the wake of the 'blackface' controversy. In an Instagram post, he hinted that his relationship with the company may be hanging in the balance conditional on the brand's further actions.

"I am a Black man before I am a brand. Another fashion house has gotten it outrageously wrong," he wrote, adding that "there is no excuse, nor apology that can erase this kind of insult."

Also on rt.com Racism or just an ugly shoe? Katy Perry’s new ‘blackface’ footwear sparks outrage

In the days following the item's withdrawal, Gucci's top executives put up an immense effort to placate the target clientele, apologizing profusely.

An internal memorandum, penned by CEO Marco Bizzarri and reported by The Fashionista on Monday evening, called the decision to put the jumper up for sale a "big mistake" made because of "cultural ignorance."

Bizzarri said that he was preparing "a set of immediate, concrete actions" to address the lapse, including a "global cultural awareness program" and a "company-wide system" to allow for more diversity. The latter would see Gucci launching scholarships in New York, Nairobi (Kenya), Tokyo (Japan), Beijing (China), Seoul (Korea) and other major cities to recruit talent with inherent understanding of cultural issues.

Gucci's Creative Director Alessandro Michele struck the same tone in a letter to employees on Tuesday, stating that it is "necessary taking full accountability" for the fact that the jumper "evoked racist imagery." Michele said that its peculiar ornament was envisaged as a tribute to Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery, known for his outlandish outfits and make-up.

Gucci is far from alone in its struggles to adjust the creative freedom of its designers to the racial undertones in US politics. Liberal pop star Katy Perry found herself in the middle of a controversy after her new shoes, designed to resemble a human face, got slammed for being racially insensitive. The shoes were subsequently yanked from stores.

Last week, Nike had to remove its all-white sneakers from a collection designed to be a celebration of Black History Month after they were slammed as being insensitive.

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