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Cultural activists attack fashion whenever images, logos or even symbols are considered offensive. Latest in the line of fire is Spanish clothing retailer, Zara.

Zara controversial shirt

 Nothing sells as well as a good old scandal. That is unless you’re talking fashion and the article of clothing is considered offensive enough to rile an entire community and has to be withdrawn from stores. Despite the stakes and losses involved and despite the fact that the United State Patent and Trademark Office clearly states that design patent applications “which disclose subject matter which could be deemed offensive to any race, religion, sex, ethnic group, or nationality, such as those which include caricatures or depictions, should be rejected,” brands (more often than designers) continue to rub people up the wrong way. Offensive and derogatory content is more than prevalent in fashion.

The latest object of outrage is a T-shirt that Spanish clothing retailer Zara put out this week. The problem: it resembled a concentration camp uniform worn by Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust. The shirt, which was reportedly sold online in several European countries and Israel, sports blue and white stripes and a yellow six-pointed star on the chest. The star was originally meant to look like nothing more than a cutout that reads “sheriff.” Zara insisted that classic western films inspired it. However, while gold six-pointed stars are typical of old west sheriff badges, stripes are not usually part of the uniform. This particular design made the star look like the Star of David and the stripes look like prison camp. This really wasn’t the best use of stars and stripes, you might think!

Zara apologized on Twitter after outrage over the resemblance broke out on social media. The company said the shirts were being pulled from stores. Unfortunately, Zara’s Israel Office messed up on the Hebrew apology, which was worded rather poorly (another issue that was brought to light by the Israeli-Palestinian blog +972). “As soon as the issue became clear,” it read, “it was decided the product will be removed from shelves across the world and exterminated.”’ They didn’t add a “pardon the pun” to that.


This isn’t the only time the Jews have taken offence to an article of clothing. Earlier this year, H&M put out a very grungy looking white tank top that boasted an image of a skull inside a Star of David symbol. H&M faced backlash –obviously – and ultimately removed the offensive vest from all stores. According to The Times Of Israel, the shirt was criticized for sending an “anti-Semitic message based on the way the images are presented on the piece of clothing”.

“We are truly sorry for offending anyone with this t-shirt design,” an H&M spokesperson apologized. “We have taken immediate action and removed the t-shirts from all of our stores globally. Our customers come first and their feedback regarding this issue is the number one priority for H&M.”

This wasn’t the first time H&M ruffled feathers, this time pun intended, as the store (last year) tried selling neon headdress headbands, presumably to cutesy club goers. The Native Americans in Canada didn’t think it was cute. Kim Wheeler, an Ojibwa-Mohawk from Winnipeg, said she first saw the $15 fashion accessories while shopping with her daughter at the store in Vancouver’s Pacific Centre mall.

“My first instinct was to buy all of them and throw them in the garbage,” said Wheeler. “It’s not honouring us. It’s not flattering us. It’s making a mockery of our culture. Headdresses are worn by chiefs in some of our communities. It is a symbol of respect and honour and should not be for sale as some sort of cute accessory.” Other activists argued that culturally, eagle plumes were added to headbands as honour and bravery and could not be trivialized this way.




As expected, all headgears were removed from stores. In similar instances, Chanel offered a public apology to the Native American community for sending out headdress-cum-high fashion at the Chanel-Dallas Metiers d’Art show early this year. And last year, Victoria’s Secret included a headdress number in its annual fashion presentation and in response to the outcry that followed, Victoria’s Secret apologized over Twitter and edited the outfit from the TV broadcast of the runway show.

So, fashion research and development departments aren’t as well informed as we’d like them to be. There’s no profit in going through the tedium of designing and manufacturing a garment, only to have it scrapped at the end, so it’s unfair to think these were all attention-grabbing gimmicks or publicity ploys. When a scandal turns into a loss it can only be termed poor judgment and unintentional. However, while brands may jump to please the Jewish communities as well as the Native Americans, they haven’t always been as responsive to Muslim sensibilities.

When a Roberto Cavalli campaign used a symbol that looked like a 150 year old Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism symbol in one of their racy perfume campaigns, a student body of over 500,000 took to the streets in protest. They felt their symbol had been desecrated and their identity compromised as people asked them why they had sold their logo to a fashion brand. Unfortunately, their protests were not as effective as Jewish or Native American tweets.

Just Cavalli and Sufi symbol

A spokesperson for Cavalli told the Daily Mail that they were “deeply saddened by the distress expressed by” the Sufi community but hoped that the EU ruling would “convince the Sufist religion of the complete good faith and the groundlessness of their requests.” EU ruled that there was no similarity between both images. No perfumes were withdrawn from stores, neither was the campaign taken down. So much for balance.

And speaking conclusively about balance, one has to appreciate that Nike not only changed a logo but also withdrew 38,000 pairs of Air Nikes that had a logo meant to be flames, which was perceived as sacrilegious by Muslims. Not only did Nike apologize and call back all the basketball shoes but they also agreed to donate a $50,000 (pounds 31,000) playground to an Islamic elementary school in the United States. The issue was laid to rest.

(Published in Instep on Friday, August 29 2014)


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