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Recap: the biggest fashion controversies of 2018

By Marjorie van Elven


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Some people say any publicity is good publicity. These fashion companies probably hope that is true, considering they made headlines in 2018 for what many would deem the wrong reasons. Without further ado, here are the biggest controversies to have shaken the fashion world this year.

Size matters

In January, Victoria Beckham’s namesake label was heavily criticized because of an advertising campaign featuring Lithuanian model Giedre Dukauskaite, considered “dangerously thin” by social media users. That was not the first time the brand was accused of promoting an unhealthy body image: back in 2010, the Spice Girl turned fashion designer pledged to only use healthy-looking models on the catwalk after facing similar criticism.

Another British label, New Look, also saw itself in hot water with the plus-size community in 2018. The retailer was accused of applying a “fat tax”, charging up to 15 percent more for identical products in larger sizes. New Look promised to review its pricing structure following the public outcry.

Victoria’s Secret has been criticized for promoting unrealistic beauty standards for a long time, but now it seems to really be affecting the company’s pockets. CEO Jan Singer stepped down from her role in November, amidst mounting criticism about the lack of diversity on the label’s famous fashion show and advertising campaigns. While the show has been featuring a growing number of models of color, little has changed since the 1990s when it comes to body size. To add insult to injury, Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek stated the show should not include transexual models because it is supposed to be “a fantasy”. He later apologized for his remarks, but that didn’t stop the CEO from leaving.

Top fashion companies stained by accusations of sexual harassment

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have made their way to the fashion industry in 2018, with three top businessmen being accused of sexual misconduct. Guess chairman Paul Marciano stepped away from his role after supermodel Kate Upton accused him of groping her when she was 18 years old. He denies any wrongdoing. Later in the year, British newspaper The Telegraph claimed to have been prevented from publishing an eight-month investigation about a powerful businessman who’s accused by several employees of bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment. But the injunction didn’t serve for much, as days later Mr Peter Hain said in the UK parliament that Sir Philip Green, Chairman of the Arcadia Group, was the executive in question. Topshop, one of the company’s brands, fell in consumers’ opinion following the scandal, and popstar Beyoncé decided to buy back Arcadia’s 50 percent stake in her athleisure brand Ivy Park. At the end of the year, similar accusations fell on the lap of Ted Baker CEO and founder Ray Kelvin. Over 200 employees signed a petition calling the Board of Directors to put an end to a culture of “forced hugging”, as the department of Human Resources allegedly “does nothing” about their harassment complaints.

But Guess, Topshop and Ted Baker weren’t the only fashion brands whose image was damaged by accusations of sexual misconduct. In August, Nike was sued for gender discrimination by former female employees, who said that women were “devalued and demeaned” at the company, paid less than their male counterparts, and ignored when they complained about all these issues. The lawsuit followed an investigation by the New York Times, which found a long history of female employees being passed on for promotions and subjected to inappropriate behavior by supervisors. The controversy led several senior managers to leave Nike. Under Armour was also the object of an expose by American newspaper Wall Street Journal, which revealed the company paid for staff’s visits to strip clubs. Top executives, including CEO Kevin Plank, had apparently been partaking in those expenses for many years.


Where does tribute end and plagiarism begin? This is a frequent question in fashion, and 2018 was not short of such controversies. British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood had to publish a public apology to young designers Louise Gray and Rottingdean Bazaar for using their graphics on T-shirts without permission. Months later, Moschino landed in hot water after Instagram watchdog Diet Prada noted the similarity of its Spring/Summer 2019 prints to the ones of Edda Gimnes’ Spring/Summer 2017 collection. Retired fashion designer Thierry Mugler was equally outraged when he saw Balmain’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection. He took to Instagram to compare Olivier Rousteing’s pieces to his own designs. Captions read “probably a tribute?”, “Seriously?”, “Really?” and “No comment”.

But perhaps the biggest controversy of the year was when a returning fashion designer was accused of plagiarizing… himself. Hedi Slimane, former Creative Director at Saint Laurent, returned to the fashion world after years of focusing on his photography work. His debut at the helm of French luxury house Celine was highly anticipated by fashionistas the world over, only to be deemed a repetition of his past work once the collection was unveiled.

Fashion companies shamed for not paying workers a living wage

On the same year that Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos became the richest person in the world, a report by nonprofit organization New Food Economy exposed the e-tailer is one of the American companies with the most employees receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps. In Arizona, for example, nearly one in three Amazon employees were on food stamps or lived with someone who was in 2017. Senator Bernie Sanders was one of the loudest voices shaming Amazon for failing to pay a living wage to all its staff. The mounting criticism led the e-commerce giant to raise its minimum wage to 15 US dollars an hour for all of its 250,000 full time, part time, temporary and seasonal employees. The new policy came into effect in November.

In the UK, fashion retailers Karen Millen and Show Zone faced similar criticism after being named and shamed by the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for underpaying more than 9,000 minimum wage workers by 1.1 million pounds (approximately 1.5 million US dollars). Not only were both companies forced to pay back every penny, but they were also fined up to 200 percent of wages owed.

Most controversial ad campaigns

Young consumers are willing to spend more money on companies that share their values, which is leading many fashion brands to be more vocal about political issues. However, weighing in on politics can also be risky for business, as proved by these two companies in 2018. In June, United Colors of Benetton came under fire for an advertising campaign depicting African migrants being rescued at sea while trying to reach Europe. Not only was the ad considered tasteless by many consumers, but the company was also accused of using the picture without permission by the NGO that took it.

Moschino also tried to take a stance on Trump’s immigration policies -- only to be met with criticism. One of its 2018 campaigns featured models Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber covered in blue and green body paint.. Caption: “the only illegal thing about this alien is how good she looks”, a clear reference to the American president, who often uses the word “alien” to refer to undocumented immigrants. Many consumers called the ads “insensitive and tone deaf”, forcing the label's Creative Director, Jeremy Scott, to explain himself.

But the award for most damaging ad campaign of 2018 definitely goes to Dolce & Gabbana, which had to cancel a big fashion show in China due to a public outcry regarding an advertising campaign featuring a Chinese woman trying to eat Italian foods using chopsticks. At the end, when trying to eat a cannoli, a male voice asks: “is it too big for you?”. Social media users not just from China but all over the world found the ad racist and sexist, and the situation only got worse after a series of alleged screenshots of Stefano Gabbana arguing with Instagram users about the ad were unveiled by Diet Prada. Gabbana supposedly said the ads weren’t racist because “everybody knows the Chinese use chopsticks and eat dogs” and the ad was only taken down from Chinese social media because his team is “as stupid as Chinese superiority”. Last but definitely not least, the fashion designer allegedly called China “a country of [series of poop emojis]”. As a result, Chinese celebrities pledged to never wear Dolce & Gabbana again and e-commerce websites operating in China removed D&G items from their catalog. Ouch.

Photos: courtesy of Moschino; Slaven Vlasic / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP; Moschino SS19, Catwalkpictures.com; courtesy of Sustainable Clothing Production; Benetton Facebook

Dolce & Gabbana
Karen Millen
Paul Marciano
Philip Green
Recap 2018
Victoria Beckham
Victoria's Secret; New Look