13 Fashion Controversies That Sparked Passionate Debate

Questionable fashion industry choices have often led to complicated discussions of cultural appropriation, beauty standards, race and everything in-between

For as long as there has been a fashion industry, there have been fashion controversies.

To be sure, taking risks is a necessity when it comes to the always-evolving art of design, but some key players in the fashion world have stood accused of pushing certain boundaries all too far. Their questionable choices have often become springboards for complicated discussions of cultural appropriation, beauty standards, race and everything in-between.

These moments in particular definitely got people talking — and arguing — about how these complex issues can and do play out on runways and fashion spreads.

Revolve Is Accused of Selling a Fat-Shaming Sweatshirt
Earlier this month, model Tess Holliday called out the online retailer for selling a sweatshirt that read “BEING FAT IS NOT BEAUTIFUL IT’S AN EXCUSE.”

“LOLLLLL @REVOLVE y’all are a mess,” she wrote on Twitter, captioning a screenshot of a sample size model wearing the garment.

Fashionista reported that the sweatshirt was part of an LPA collection that featured shaming quotes that were said to celebrities like Lena Dunham and Cara Delevingne online. Other quotes included “Horrible Result of Modern Feminism” and “Too boney to be boned.”

In the wake of the outcry, Dunham spoke out about her involvement in the project on Instagram.

“For months I’ve been working on a collaboration with my friend Pia’s company LPA through parent company @revolve – sweatshirts that highlight quotes from prominent women who have experienced internet trolling & abuse,” she wrote. “Without consulting me or any of the women involved, @revolve presented the sweatshirts on thin white women, never thinking about the fact that difference and individuality is what gets you punished on the Internet, or that lack of diversity in representation is a huge part of the problem (in fact, the problem itself.) As a result, I cannot support this collaboration or lend my name to it in any way. ”

“I’d like to especially extend my love and support to [model Paloma Elsesser], whose quote was the first to be promoted and mangled,” Dunham continued. “She’s a hero of mine. Like me, she gave her quote in good faith and shared her vulnerability in order to support arts education and to spread her message of empowerment, and she wasn’t consulted in the marketing.”

Revolve responded to the controversy with a statement to PEOPLE, writing, “This morning, images of a forth coming LPA collection were prematurely released on Revolve.com. The capsule collection – originally conceived by LPA alongside Lena Dunham, Emily Ratajkowski, Cara Delevingne, Suki Waterhouse and Paloma Elsesser – was set to debut tomorrow as a direct commentary on the modern day “normality” of cyber-bullying and the shared desire to create a community for those most affected by the epidemic. Proceeds were set to benefit ‘Girls Write Now,’ a charity focused on mentoring underserved young women and helping them find their voices and tell their stories through writing.”

“The prematurely released images featured on Revolve.com was not only included without context of the overall campaign but regrettably featured one of the pieces on a model who’s size was not reflective of the piece’s commentary on body positivity,” the company continued. “We at Revolve sincerely apologize to all those involved – particularly Lena, Emily, Cara, Suki and Paloma – our loyal customers, and the community as a whole for this error. The collection has been pulled. We are proud to donate $20,000 to ‘Girls Write Now’ in the hopes that those who need it can still benefit from what was to be a meaningful, insightful and impactful collaboration by LPA.”

H&M advertises a racially insensitive sweatshirt.

The Swedish-owned retailer faced an onslaught of backlash after running an ad featuring a black child in a sweatshirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle.” White child models were used for other products in the same collection.

The criticism led the brand to issue an apology and remove the image from their website, but they were still forced to reckon with consequences
from their celebrity partners.

“woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. i’m deeply offended and will no longer be working with the @hm anymore…” The Weeknd tweeted on Monday.

The “Starboy” singer starred in the H&M Spring Icons campaign and designed an 18-piece collection for the company last year.

Rapper G-Eazy followed suit on Tuesday, telling his Instagram followers, “Over the past months I was genuinely excited about launching my upcoming line and collaboration with @HM… Unfortunately, after seeing the disturbing image yesterday, my excitement over our global campaign quickly evaporated, and I’ve decided at this time our partnership needs to end.”

“Whether an oblivious oversight or not, it’s truly sad and disturbing that in 2018, something so racially and culturally insensitive could pass by the eyes of so many (stylist, photographer, creative and marketing teams) and be deemed acceptable,” he continued. “I can’t allow for my name and brand to be associated with a company that could let this happen. I hope that this situation will serve as the wake up call that H&M and other companies need to get on track and become racially and culturally aware, as well as more diverse at every level.”

H&M addressed the complaints in a statement, writing, “We understand that many people are upset about the image. We, who work at H&M, can only agree. We are deeply sorry that the picture was taken, and we also regret the actual print. Therefore, we have not only removed the image from our channels, but also the garment from our product offering globally. It is obvious that our routines have not been followed properly. This is without any doubt. We will thoroughly investigate why this happened to prevent this type of mistake from happening again.”

Vogue “misses the mark” with editorial about gender fluidity.

“It” couple Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik definitely made a splash when they posed together for the magazine’s August 2017 cover, but the response was not all positive.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Their spread’s photos and accompanying article were meant to highlight gender fluid fashion, but critics accused Vogue of misusing the term “gender fluid” and thus misrepresenting actual gender non-conforming and transgender individuals.

“I like that shirt. And if it’s tight on me, so what? It doesn’t matter if it was made for a girl,” Malik said in the story about wearing a T-shirt from his girlfriend’s closet. Added Hadid, ”It’s not about gender. It’s about, like, shapes. And what feels good on you that day. And anyway, it’s fun to experiment.”

Vogue issued an apology in a statement to PEOPLE following the backlash. “The story was intended to highlight the impact the gender-fluid, non-binary communities have had on fashion and culture,” a spokeswoman wrote. “We are very sorry the story did not correctly reflect that spirit — we missed the mark. We do look forward to continuing the conversation with greater sensitivity.”

Kendall Jenner is accused of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement in Pepsi ad.

Though not technically fashion, the soda brand continued its tradition of featuring supermodels (à la Cindy Crawford) and picked Jenner to star in a 2017 ad in which she bridges the gap between cops and protestors with a can of Pepsi.

<a href="https://people.com/tag/kendall-jenner/" data-inlink="true">Kendall Jenner</a> pepsi campaign
Courtesy Pepsi

Immediately the Internet was set ablaze, with many criticizing Pepsi for suggesting racial and social issues could be solved with a drink. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice even Tweeted, sharing a photo of her father being pushed by police during a peaceful protest with the caption, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

Pepsi at first stood by the ad, saying, “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.” But the company later pulled it, apologizing for “making light of any serious issue” and apologizing to Jenner, as well.

The ad came around the same time as two other racially insensitive campaigns, one from skincare line Nivea that had the tagline “White Is Purity,” and another from Tory Burch that featured three white models dancing to the hip hop song “JuJu on That Beat” by black rappers Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall. Both brands pulled their ads and apologized.

Karlie Kloss dresses as a geisha in Vogue.
Accusations of yellowface followed Kloss’s appearance in a Japanese-inspired spread for the fashion magazine’s March 2017 diversity-themed issue.

In the spread, titled “Spirited Away,” Kloss wears traditional geisha garments, powdery makeup and a nihongami wig. Shots include her posing alongside a sumo wrestler and in front of a tea house.

Vogue removed the photos from their site in response to the uproar, as the supermodel posted an apology to Twitter.

“These images appropriate a culture that is not my own and I am truly sorry for participating in a shoot that was not culturally sensitive. My goal is, and always will be, to empower and inspire women. I will ensure my future shoots and projects reflect that mission,” she wrote.

Marc Jacobs includes dreadlocks in his New York Fashion Week show.

Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss and a host of other supermodels strutted down the runway sporting technicolor dreadlocks for the designer’s fall 2016 show.

Marc Jacobs show, Spring Summer 2017, new York Fashion Week, USA - 15 Sep 2016
Sam Deitch/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

At first, Jacobs defended his decision to feature the hand-dyed wool extensions. “@radical.lizeth and @emmelephant And all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race of skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded.… Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it,” he wrote on Instagram.

But the designer posted a new message a few days later after reflecting on the matter further, writing, “I’ve read all your comments…and I thank you for expressing your feelings. I apologize for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity. I wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself though art, clothes, words, hair, music…EVERYTHING. Of course I do ‘see’ color but I DO NOT discriminate. THAT IS A FACT! Please continue to express your feelings freely but do it kindly. Nothing is gained from spreading hate by name calling and bullying.”

Kylie Jenner appears in a wheelchair in Interview.

Social media users criticized the reality star and Interview magazine when she posed in a wheelchair for their 2015 Art issue.

Steven Klein

“It’s deeply disturbing,” Emily Smith Beitiks, associate director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability in San Francisco, told CNN of her reaction to the shoot. “People with disabilities are already seen as powerless, and this just reinforces that.”

In a statement to PEOPLE, the magazine defended their choice to use a wheelchair as a way of exploring themes of subjectivity and power.

“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny,” they explained.

“Throughout the Art Issue, we celebrate a variety of women who are both the creators and subjects of their artistic work, and the Kylie feature aims to unpack Kylie’s status as both engineer of her image and object of attention,” the statement continued. “Our intention was to create a powerful set of pictures that get people thinking about image and creative expression, including the set with the wheelchair, but our intention was certainly not to offend anyone.”

A number of wheelchair users challenged the magazine by recreating the shoot. Among them was model Lauren Wassar, who has a prosthetic leg.

“So where are OUR magazine covers?” Annie Elainey, another re-creator, wrote on Tumblr. “For me, the most ignorant part about this shoot was that it was about how she was ‘bound’ to fame, ‘limited’ by fame…A wheelchair is FREEDOM, not imprisonment. SOCIETY and it’s lack of care for access is what limits me, NOT the chair.”

Jordyn Taylor; Annie Elainey

Karlie Kloss wears a Native American-style headdress at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show.

Kloss’s latest controversy isn’t the first time she’s been condemned for cultural appropriation. In 2012, she wore a floor-length Native-American inspired headdress, moccasins, and fringed lingerie at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

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Bryan Bedder/Getty

CBS removed the offensive look from the show’s broadcast following backlash, and Kloss issued an apology on Twitter.

“I am deeply sorry if what I wore during the VS Show offended anyone. I support VS’s decision to remove the outfit from the broadcast,” she tweeted.

Nykhor Paul calls-out the fashion world for its treatment of black models.
In 2015, the South Sudanese beauty drew attention to the industry’s failure to treat dark-skinned models professionally .

“Dear white people in the fashion world! Please don’t take this the wrong way but it’s time you people get your s— right when it comes to our complexion! Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the other white girls don’t have to do anything but show up wtf! Don’t try to make me feel bad because I am blue black its 2015 go to Mac, Bobbi Brown, Makeup forever, Iman cosmetic, black opal, even Lancôme and Clinique carried them plus so much more,” she wrote on Instagram.

“Just because you only book a few of us doesn’t mean you have the right to make us look ratchet. I’m tired of complaining about not getting book as a black model and I’m definitely super tired of apologizing for my blackness!!!!” she added.

“Why can’t we be part of fashion fully and equally?”

Kanye West issues a casting call for “multiracial women only.”

Many questioned the implications of a casting call for West’s Yeezy Season 4 show that the designer shared on Twitter. The call-out requested “multiracial women only.”

Critics on social media and elsewhere were both confused and angered by the casting call, with some accusing West of trying to exclude dark-skinned black women from his show.


One woman who protested at that casting explained her issues with the call on her Tumblr, writing, “This casting call for “Multiracial ONLY” (not MULTIETHNIC which would still be fetishization) asserts that Black can only be beautiful when “MIXED” with another RACE. There is a history of wanting to dilute the Blackness of one’s children because of the longstanding stigmatization of Blackness.”

The rapper stood by his actions, telling Vogue, “The ten thousand people that showed up didn’t have a problem with it…How do you word the idea that you want all variations of black? How do you word that exactly?”

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show features Asian-inspired lingerie.

In a since-deleted op-ed for Cosmopolitan titled “Why Can’t Victoria’s Secret Stop Designing Racist Lingerie,” writer Helin Jung took aim at the undergarment company for the appropriative looks on display at their 2016 show.

2016 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in Paris - Show
Michael Stewart/FilmMagic

“Stripping of cultures aside, the emblems that stood out most were the ones that came from Asia — specifically China,” Jung wrote, according to Mic.com. “The dragon that Elsa Hosk wore wrapped around her body, the embroidered stiletto boots seen on Adriana Lima, the tail made of flames worn by Kendall Jenner.”

“There’s a lot of talk of China as a dominant world power of the 21st century, and the U.S. government, Hollywood, and now Victoria’s Secret, it seems, are pivoting to face a new reality. But the Orientalism on display here doesn’t show an understanding or an attempt at dialogue. It doesn’t close any gaps,” Jung continued.

“The brand and its creative leads shamelessly cherry-picked imagery, breaking apart aesthetic references from wherever they wanted and stitching them back together again. They’re telling us its worldliness. It’s not, it’s a hack job.”

Leslie Jones says designers won’t dress her for the Ghostbusters premiere.

Jones struggled to find a designer willing to work with her ahead of the July 2016 premiere of the Ghostbusters reboot.

“It’s so funny how there are no designers wanting to help me with a premiere dress for movie. Hmmm that will change and I remember everything,” she wrote on Twitter.

Designer Christian Siriano stepped in to help Jones prepare for the glam night, and noted that he shouldn’t be celebrated for working with women of diverse sizes.

Vogue is accused of publishing a racially insensitive cover starring LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen.

In April 2008, the basketball star and the supermodel inspired heated conversations with a cover photo that some people viewed as perpetuating racial stereotypes.


In the photo, James is seen dribbling a basketball and making an aggressive facial expression as a windblown Bündchen smiles in his arm. Critics believed the shot was reminiscent of 1930s-era promotional pieces for King Kong.

James himself was unfazed by the controversy. “Everything my name is on is going to be criticized in a good way or bad way,” he told USA Today. “Who cares what anyone says?”

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