How low can fashion go? Rape row over Forever 21’s T-shirt far from first offence

You have to ask whether the multiple executives who sign off on scandalous clothing or campaigns intend them to be offensive or are guilty only of foolishness. Either way, it doesn’t wash

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 12:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 2:04pm

Another week, another fashion faux pas. Sometimes it seems like the industry is forever wading through a minefield of political correctness, other times you wonder how certain levels of stupidity happen, especially when they’ve been signed off on multiple corporate levels.

The latest case veers towards the latter - mass market, fast fashion retailer Forever 21 has been called out for a slogan T-shirt that seemed to comment on rape culture. A men’s white T-shirt with the words “Don’t say maybe if you want to say no” emblazoned on the front has lit up Twitter and other social media sites for joking about issues of consent and rape.

It’s a risqué joke for the US high street retailer to make in any context. But considering the recent wave of high-profile college campus sexual assault cases that has plagued the United States and that this is brand largely markets to teenagers and college-age consumers , it seems especially dumb.

According to a recent survey conducted throughout US universities by the Association of American Universities, over 20 per cent of female students “experience sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation by the time that they graduate”. So, even if it was meant as a bad joke , let’s have slow, sarcastic claps all round for Forever 21 please, for being so ignorantly inappropriate.

The T-shirt has now been pulled, but this isn’t the first time the retailer has landed itself publicly in hot water. It has been sued over 50 times for copyright infringement (appropriating other people’s designs, then passing them off as their own) as well as racking up a large number of labour complaints in its factories.

I’ll admit that some of the time, offensive slogans aren’t intentional but perhaps more a result of bad judgement or foolishness. And of course, it’s not just Forever 21 that owns embarrassing blunders. Let us recall some other incidents from the annals of fashion faux pas:

1) Remember last year when Zara had to pull a kids’ ‘Sheriff’ shirt with a patchwork yellow star off the shelves? The blue- and white-striped shirts, with what looked like a yellow Star of David sewn on the chest, were lambasted for looking like children’s concentration camp uniforms. Zara quickly apologised, explained the initial Wild West inspiration, but admitted that in retrospect, they realised how the design could cause offence.

2) Japanese denim label Evisu grossed out all the women of Hong Kong by pasting ads around the city featuring their new campaign model: the noted fashion photographer Terry Richardson, hot on the heels of multiple allegations against him of sexual assault and exploitation by models in the US. The ads had him frolicking with a topless young female model, and the brand covered the MTR subway system in the images. Did anyone else just throw up a little in their mouth recalling that?

READ MORE: Style Check – the overexposure of Terry Richardson

3) In 2011, on the Vogue Italia website, the words “Slave earrings” appeared above a picture, captioned “Hoop earrings: a classic always in evolution”, of model Gisele Bundchen wearing a pair of big gold hoops on the catwalk. We wonder who came up with the idea of suggesting the trend was inspired by human chattel? The website quickly replaced the word “slave” with “ethnic” after a flood of complaints.

4) And 13 years ago, there was a big issue with Izzue – a sort-of-edgy, urban, Hong Kong brand under local retailer I.T. As some readers may recall, the label produced a line of Nazi-themed clothing and decked out its stores with Nazi motifs (we’re talking full-blown Nazi flags and military regalia decorating the inside of stores). After outrage (mainly from the international community in Hong Kong) and complaints from the German and Israeli consulates, the chain removed the promotional material in stores, but continued selling the clothing for a further two days, with its marketing manager telling reporters: “This is Hong Kong, and Chinese people are not sensitive about Nazism.” She also said people should not be “too sensitive”, adding that “most of the complaints are from foreigners”. Only when a climbdown became inevitable did Izzue “deeply apologise”. Its statement (disclosure: it took out an advertisement in the South China Morning Post to do so) said that the designers had not meant to cause offence and hadn’t realised the meaning of those symbols.