Indeed, it has been a banner year for the three-step dance of fashion fails—a brand courts attention with a controversial decision; the public reacts to the embarrassing misstep with outrage and boycotts; and the brand answers with a red-faced apology and a reversal of course, often accompanied by executive resignations and plummeting share price.
“Being talked about and going viral has superseded morality as brands and, in some cases, talent, clamor for attention in an increasingly fragmented landscape,” explains Holly Brunskill, managing partner of London PR agency B. The Communications Agency.
“Fashion brands have long courted controversy,” she adds. “But today, it underestimates the consumer, who has a voice and is knowledge-rich.”
Here is a round-up of the most notable failures and their brand responses.
#BoycottUniqlo for not boycotting Russia
At the start of the Ukraine war when many brands hastily pulled their operations out of Russia, Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo waited a bit too long to take action.
While fast-fashion rivals Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and Zara Inditex both paused sales in the country after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the chief executive of Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing, Tadashi Yanai, told local media Nikkei that clothing was a necessity and that “the people of Russia have the same right to live as we do.”
Outrage quickly spread across social media under the hashtag #BoycottUNIQLO, pushing Fast Retailing to walk back its decision days later and temporarily suspend its operations in Russia. SHARE PRICE DROP??
Balenciaga’s very expensive and very trashed sneakers
Never one to shy away from controversy, Balenciaga this year released a limited edition shoe that artist Léopold Duchemin had shredded, stained, and graffitied to look “full destroyed.” The 100 unique high-top sneaker pairs were punctured using a “multitude of knives, scissors, punch paper for the texture,” and stained with a number of different polishes and tea.
If selling a pair of torn-up, destroyed shoes didn’t attract enough controversy, to add insult to injury, Balenciaga was selling each pair at a whopping $1,850.
At a time when rising inflation was putting luxuries like new sneakers out of the reach of many—let alone at the astronomical price Balenciaga was asking—the shoe outraged swathes of consumers and activists.
“Part of me is totally offended,” Green Carpet Challenge founder and sustainability activist Livia Firth wrote on Instagram alongside a photo of the shoes. “To buy something so destroyed is beyond offensive towards people I actually met who wore shoes like this because they couldn’t afford even basic meals.”
The press release from Balenciaga suggested the bashed-up shoes were meant to last a lifetime.
The shoes sold out after their release.
Brandy Melville’s tiny Paris door
A smaller controversy for a brand that has courted many involves a tiny Parisian door that went viral on TikTok in 2022.
Brandy Melville, a brand popular among young people, has often garnered criticism for its one size fits all policy, which does not inclusively fit all sizes of teens. But at one store location in Paris, Brandy Melville took it further, actually implementing the policy in its architecture with a door that measured less than a meter wide. TikTokers traveled to the door to prove they needed to turn sideways to be able to enter.
TikToks of the door garnered millions of views with people commenting on the shameless filtering of people able to enter the store. “They don’t even hide it,” one user commented.
Brandy Melville did not respond to the online controversy.
The downfall of Kanye West began as a controversial Oct. 3 Paris fashion show, where Kanye sent models down the runway wearing White Lives Matter shirts, and ended with almost all his corporate sponsors and business partners dropping him after an unceasing, unhinged, conspiratorial anti-Semitic rant.
The biggest brand to be implicated in the Ye controversy was Adidas.
On Oct. 22, shortly after Ye was kicked off Twitter and Instagram for espousing anti-Semitic views, Balenciaga dropped him as a client.
Days later a viral clip of Ye saying “I can say anti-Semitic things, and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what? Now what?” circulated online, and Adidas ended its association with him too.
“Given the baseness of Ye’s recent comments, and the fact his words are now stirring up antisemitism among others, Adidas had no choice but to act in order to protect its reputation and show customers it is on the right side of morality,” GlobalData managing director Neil Saunders wrote at the time.
Prior to the very public breakup, the German sportswear giant relied on West’s Yeezy brand to bring in 10% of sales, according to analysts at Morningstar.
Following its divorce, Adidas had to slash its earnings forecast for the full year and cut its net profit from continuing operations to €250 million ($252 million) instead of €500 million.
But the breakup was arguably worse for West, as Adidas was Yeezy’s main source of income. The loss of his partnership with Adidas led to the market valuation of Yeezy plummeting and $1.5 billion evaporating from Ye’s net worth.
H&M calls itself sustainable
Sustainability campaigners have always had a watchful eye over the fashion industry and their very public promises to reduce carbon output, even as emissions from the industry continue to rise year after year.
So when fast fashion brand H&M launched its “Conscious Choice” clothing line alongside an environmental scorecard that labeled its garments as more sustainable than others, people were quick to scrutinize whether the claims stood up.
After a Quartz article found H&M had egregiously misrepresented those claims, with many of its “sustainable” clothes being no better for the environment than the rest, a shopper from H&M sued the company for misleading and false marketing.
The proposed class-action complaint claimed H&M’s advertising was “designed to mislead consumers about its products’ environmental attributes,” adding that the company had “misrepresented the nature of its products, at the expense of consumers who pay a price premium in the belief that they are buying truly sustainable and environmentally friendly clothing.”
H&M since launched an investigation into the claims it made and removed the sustainability scoresheet from its website
Rolling Stones thought its $1 shirts were being made ethically
Just a week after announcing a merchandise deal with China’s fast fashion behemoth Shein, the Rolling Stones demanded that their representatives terminate it immediately when an explosive documentary emerged on the labor violations in Shein factories.
The U.K. Channel Four documentary Untold: Inside The Shein Machine reported that Shein workers were subject to 16-hour days, got one day off a month, and earned wages of around 4,000 yuan ($572) a month to produce hundreds of garments for the online retailer each day. Shein later refuted those claims and said it was committing $15 million to improve conditions at its factories.
A spokesperson for the band said, “We do not want to be associated with Shein, having been made aware of the recent revelations about the treatment of workers in its supply chain,” and confirmed that the licensing agreement has been terminated effective immediately.
The collection made to commemorate the group’s 60th anniversary featured clothes and accessories priced between $1 and $5.
Balenciaga pushes it too far with child exploitation
By far the worst and most self-inflicted public relations nightmare to come out of the last year was the Balenciaga child exploitation controversy.
Balenciaga launched a holiday gifting campaign in late November, and in its usual controversial style, it featured child models clutching teddy bear bags dressed up in what looked like bondage gear.
After the photoshoot went viral for the ill placement of children with BDSM imagery, keen-eyed observers of the brand began to uncover child abuse-centered props in Balenciaga’s previous campaigns.
In a Garde Rose Photo Shoot featuring Nicole Kidman and Isabelle Huppert, Twitter and TikTok users found a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court case interrogating whether child sexual abuse imagery legislation curtails freedom of speech rights, that set designers had curiously placed on a desk right under one of Balenciaga’s £2,800 handbags.
In the background of another shoot, viewers could see a coffee table book “Fire from the Sun,” which is a collection of paintings from artist Michaël Borremans depicting images of naked toddlers.
Its conspiratorial connection to child sexual abuse stoked fury online, with the hashtag #cancelBalenciaga trending on Twitter and TikTok.
As it scrambled to do damage control, Balenciaga hastily pulled the campaign and issued an apology. The brand admitted “a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility” in a post on Instagram, and opened a $25 million lawsuit against the team behind one of the shoots.
Brand ambassador Kim Kardashian announced she was “re-evaluating” her relationship with Balenciaga, tweeting “As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images.”
Many wanted Kering, Balenciaga’s parent company, to fire the director Demna Gvasalia for condoning pedophilia and child exploitation.
Demna has led Balenciaga to impressive heights since 2015 and was behind other controversies such as having models walk the runway in a fake snowstorm at the peak of the Ukraine refugee crisis, creating luxury IKEA and Lays Potato chip bags, and putting heels on Crocs .
But he has also been behind the enormous recent success of Balenciaga, whose surreal and post-modern style has pushed it to the top of the hottest brands list every year since his arrival.
Demna got off with just an apology. In the online message, he wrote: “I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them.”
How to avoid these missteps in the future?
For brands to do better in the new year, they might be advised to figure out their brand and values before throwing themselves into the spotlight to make sure they are seen.
“To avoid similar mistakes, brands should slow down; take the time to assess their core values and the expectations and concerns of their customer and wider audience,” says Brunskill.
“The industry moves at pace, trends, and fame faster than ever. Cut-through is hard-won and there’s often a lack of time to deeply audit decisions. Agencies are behest to their clients and to the demands of data but, for credibility and trust, honesty, clarity, and accountability are good places to start,” she concludes.