"We have ONE month to celebrate the history of African Americans," tweeted Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary. "We are a nation desperately in need of diversity training." ( Pietro D'Aprano/Getty Images)
Luxury brand Gucci has removed a sweater from store shelves and from its web site following complaints about the garment's resemblance to blackface.
The black sweater, featuring a roll-up collar that covers the lower face with a wide red lip outline around the mouth, was part of Gucci's Fall Winter 2018 line.
"Gucci deeply apologizes for the offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper," the company said in a statement late Wednesday. "We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make."
But reaction to the sweater, which had retailed for $890, ranged from deep offense to incredulity that it had been deemed acceptable to begin with, even as some defended it.
"What's going on here @Gucci this is blatant Disrespect #Blackface," posted Twitter user identified as King James shortly before Gucci tweeted its apology.
Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary pointed out the irony of the timing: February is Black History Month. "We have ONE month to celebrate the history of African Americans," she tweeted. "We are a nation desperately in need of diversity training."
The Italian fashion house said going forward it would work to increase diversity and work on "turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond."
The uproar coincides with another controversy threatening Virginia's political leadership. Gov. Ralph Northam has been resisting calls to resign after a racist photograph emerged last week of a person in blackface next to another in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the picture, then denied it was him. In a news conference, he admitted to having darkened his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume in a separate incident around the same time.
Less than a week later, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a fellow Democrat, admitted to having put on "brown makeup" in 1980 in depiction of rapper Kurtis Blow. In a statement Herring wrote that "the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades."
The shame of face darkening in association with the caricature of black people is part of American history going back centuries.
"We first started seeing blackface in the early 1800s," NPR's Gene Demby reported in October. "It becomes central to minstrel shows in which white people would dress up like black people by darkening their skin with polish and with cork. And of course these minstrel shows depicted black people as lazy, as animalistic."
Demby reports that the caricature was part of the "dehumanization that allowed slavery to happen." But despite the long history of blackface Demby reports "so many of us have so much historical illiteracy about its badness."
Some Twitter users defended the Gucci sweater, denying it resembled blackface. "It's a tacky look, but it's NOT blackface," tweeted Julie K. Nix.
Others indicated the backlash was about people being overly sensitive. "The only offensive thing about this is the price ($890)," posted Twitter user Paul Joseph Watson. "I suppose balaclavas are all racist now too. BAN EVERYTHING."
Gucci is far from the first apparel brand to retreat, admitting to missteps following accusations of racist products.
In January of 2018, H&M apologized for featuring a black child on its web site donning a sweatshirt featuring the words, "COOLEST MONKEY IN THE JUNGLE."
And in December, Prada first denied that a line of accessories had "any reference" to blackface, but following increased protests that the Pradamalia products resembled the Little Black Sambo character, the company decided to yank them.
"Step away from blackface," tweeted Nina Turner, a onetime Ohio state senator after the Gucci incident. "It was racist and dehumanizing in the late 19th century and it is still racist today &forever more."