Last week, a pink Balenciaga hoodie that features an airbrushed design of the New York City skyline (and retails for £635) led Twitter users to claim that Balenciaga had, once again, committed cultural appropriation.
Clothing — specifically T-shirts — with airbrushed designs rose to popularity thanks to rappers like Jam Master Jay, LL Cool J, and Grand Master Flash wearing pieces created by artists like Edwin “Phade” Sacasa and Marc Ecko in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Buying an airbrushed hoodie or T-Shirt from the high-street shouldn't cost more than £100, so it’s pretty egregious for the French couture house to be charging so much.
“This is *almost* funny, but not,” digital strategist and content Simone Suber wrote on Twitter alongside an image of the hoodie. Suber has worked cultivated social strategies for multicultural brands for L’Oreal, including Carol’s Daughter, and often shares her opinion on industry news on social media. “Most of us [in the Black and brown communities] know this hoodie shouldn’t cost nearly £700, and likely couldn’t — because of systemic socio-economic oppression — pay that price for it,” she tells Refinery29.
But it’s not just the cost Suber identifies as an issue. She says her Tweet resonated with many people, proving that “even the most basic ideas — made obvious by the number of people who replied with specific places in their neighbourhood to purchase something like this — are taken and repackaged for mass consumption.” The most unsettling part of all of this is that it’s further proof the fashion industry loves consuming Black and/or what is often referred to as “hood” culture without paying credit where credit's due.
Since designer Demna Gvasalia took the reigns at Balenciaga in 2015, the house has had its share of controversies: He's been called out for refusing to cast non-white models in his shows, telling 032c magazine, “I would never compromise the credibility of a collection [...] to send an insincere message about something people expect for the sake of correctness.” Last March, casting director James Scully claimed that Balenciaga mistreated 150 models leaving them to wait in a dark stairway while casting duo Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes went to lunch (the house later terminated its relationship with the pair and sent written apologies to modelling agencies). Additionally, Gvasalia has been criticised for charging luxury prices for anti-luxury goods; as Business of Fashion put it, Gvasalia sells "working class brands and motifs to [...] rich consumers."
This pink hoodie isn't the first time that Gvasalia has found inspiration in "lowbrow" culture, either. In June, rapper Swizz Beatz pointed out the similarities between a men’s shirt on the Balenciaga runway and the logo of New York-based record label Ruff Ryders Entertainment, often worn by its artists like DMX, Eve, The L.O.X., and Drag-On. Within Balenciaga, he's also created riffs on the Ikea plastic bag and plastic Chinese mesh slippers. Gvasalia even admitted he frequents cheap thrift stores in his neighbourhood for inspiration. “I see the people trying things,” he told The Cut of people who are forced to be inventive because they can’t necessarily afford the latest high-end fashion. “They make looks. I find this really fascinating.” But it seems like the homage he may have been hoping to achieve got lost as soon the sweatshirt was slapped with a near £700 price tag.
We reached out to Balenciaga for comment and will update this piece if/when we hear back.