Still, Ms. Gustafson stands by the decision to give the garment a politically charged name. “When you create something, you have to give it a name,” she told me on Thursday. “Most of fashion has the most boring names ever because people don’t want to have serious conversations in that realm, but it’s important that we talk about these issues in fashion.”
She’s right about that last point: Fashion can and should engage with political and humanitarian issues. But Uzi went about it the wrong way. It’s just the latest case in the fashion world’s long tradition of tone-deaf branding and promotion.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen Dolce & Gabbana’s $2,300 “slave sandals,” Zara’s striped “sheriff” children’s T-shirt with a yellow six-pointed star on the chest that looked a lot like a recycled Auschwitz uniform and Urban Outfitters’ $129 blood-spattered “vintage Kent State sweatshirt,” inspired by the 1970 campus shootings that left antiwar protesters dead on the university campus.
Just this summer, the artist and designer Katya Dobryakova debuted a “Jungle” line. Some of the T-shirts and sweats included images of animals like panthers and hippos, while other items featured images of Africans and Mexicans and had names like “Ethnic Woman.” In addition to being pricey (a shirt goes for $185), Ms. Dobryakova’s line was crude at best and racist at worst. The items were renamed on the site, avoiding much of the social media attention others have received.
Last year the actress Priyanka Chopra appeared on the cover of the Indian edition of Condé Nast Traveler in a white T-shirt with the words “refugee,” “immigrant” and “outsider” crossed out, leaving the word “traveler” at the bottom of the list.
Critics were quick to point out that being a refugee isn’t a choice. Ms. Chopra apologized. But this type of glamorization of displacement and the inaccurate depictions of immigration didn’t go unnoticed by the Connor Brothers, two British artists. They visited the notorious refugee camp known as the “Jungle” in Calais, France, and were struck by just how inaccurate media depictions of the refugee crisis had been.
“The disparity between the media representation and the reality was astounding,” said Mike Snelle, one of the artists. “These were people, many of them children, escaping untold horrors of war and persecution, living in desperate squalor, abandoned by everyone and vilified in the media.”
In addition to returning to the Jungle several times and raising money to build shelters, mostly for unaccompanied children, the Connor Brothers responded the best way they know how: by creating edited versions of magazine covers and posting them around Britain.
As the Connor Brothers’ work underlines, refugees are neither “travelers” off to visit a beautiful new city nor adventure-seeking teenagers at the start of a “gap yah.” They certainly aren’t willful nomads asking to be used as part of an advertising pitch to sell magazines or clothes.
“Migrant chic,” as Anna Wintour called it (and apologized for), doesn’t and shouldn’t exist. The lesson in these faux pas isn’t that clothing companies should avoid current events or political causes. It’s to do it sensitively and smartly.
Slow Factory, in Brooklyn, was founded in 2012 by Céline Semaan, who was once a refugee, to create and sell products that raise awareness about the struggles faced by refugees and expose shoppers to issues like climate change. In the spring, the company manufactured scarves with digital images of cities in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — the seven countries included in President Trump’s first travel ban.
Angela Luna’s Adiff designs for refugees include items like waterproof jackets that turn into tents. Even Prada’s fall 2016 line subtly addressed the crisis with a heavily nautical men’s line featuring sailor hats, hanging shirt and coat collars, faded and distressed patchy fabrics, and cuffs appearing as though they were about to fall off. The message of a difficult journey taken on the sea was hard to miss.
As consumers, we should support the brands that are not just talking about the important humanitarian issues of our day but are also contributing to bettering the lives of those affected.
“Fashion carries meaning, and meaning carries action,” Ms. Semaan said.