Armani, known for being sleek and polished, recently stumbled. Big time.
It all started in early April when a private citizen named Janet Rosenblatt spotted a striped jacket in the window of Armani’s Beverly Hills store. Given how common stripes are, that wouldn’t have been noteworthy, except that Armani’s navy-and-gray vertical stripe design strongly resembled a concentration-camp prisoner’s uniform.
Roz Rothstein, the co-founder and CEO of the non-partisan organization StandWithUs that educates the public about Israel and combats anti-Semitism, said, “There are many people who live in the greater Los Angeles area who are survivors of the Holocaust and descendants of survivors, like Janet Rosenblatt and I. To have a jacket like this as part of an Armani collection is insensitive to so many of us who are directly or indirectly connected to the greatest tragedy of the Jewish people.”
After spotting the jacket, Rosenblatt called the store manager, while also pressing Armani to pull the jacket on Facebook and Instagram. Roz Rothstein tweeted about it. And Lili Bosse, the mayor of Beverly Hills, also made calls to Armani’s Beverly Hills store and their corporate office.
Gabriela Romo, Armani’s Beverly Hills’ store director, wrote to Rosenblatt, “It was never our intention to be disrespectful and we sincerely apologize for any offence unintentionally caused. We take your complaints with the utmost severity and we wish to confirm that the items in question have been removed from our commercial offering.”
That the jacket is no longer available in Armani’s Beverly Hills store and doesn’t appear on Armani’s website is good news. The bad news is that Armani isn’t the only apparel company to face a Holocaust-related scandal in recent years.
Italian clothing-maker Miu Miu made news in 2017 for three pieces with five-pointed yellow stars on the chest reading “John,” rather than “Jude.” Spanish clothier Zara made headlines in 2014 for selling a blue-and-white striped shirt with a six-pointed yellow (sheriff’s) star on the chest. And English sportswear maker Umbro had to publicly apologize in 2002 after naming one of their sneakers Zyklon, like Zyklon B, the gas used to kill concentration-camp prisoners.
Each of these incidents raises multiple questions. For instance, what was the origin of the particular design? Is the design a result of ignorance or malice? Did nobody at the company see the design and flag it internally as a problem? Umbro claimed ignorance at the time. However, we generally don’t know the answers to these questions. Armani, for example, did not respond to my requests for comment.
From a Jewish point of view, it’s good that there has been both a public outcry and a corporate response after each of these incidents. Still, the incidents themselves remain deeply troubling.
Brooke Goldstein, the founder and executive director of the Lawfare Project, emailed, “It is disgusting that brands would fetishize the Holocaust in the name of profits. Jewish suffering is not a fashion statement. The Jewish community cannot remain silent while the most grotesque atrocity committed against our people is appropriated and monetized by fashion brands.”
The Holocaust remains a chilling chapter of recent history, having ended a mere 76 years ago. And yet, even as the last survivors walk among us, their suffering is being claimed by comfortable Westerners who cloak themselves in victimhood.
Apparel is inherently expressive, and at Armani’s price point, it’s even aspirational. What we wear communicates not only how we understand ourselves, but also how we wish to be seen. Fashion houses know this, which makes one wonder whether designers have evoked quintessential examples of victimhood—Jews wearing yellow stars or concentration-camp uniforms—because that reflects their own values or what they believe their customers idealize. Either way, that would amount to playing dress up with a dark era, when Jews were publicly marked and stigmatized and their attire was mandated, not chosen. Based on public polling, another option is total ignorance about the Holocaust.
John Galliano loudly demonstrated that anti-Semitic designers exist, but it seems unlikely that brands trying to telegraph hostility to Jews would apologize or disappear offending items. Still, the aforementioned incidents were incredibly tasteless. They were also costly monetary and reputational missteps that never should have happened.
Clothiers need more oversight built into the design process. And fashion directors would be wise to take their teams to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, showing clear examples of what to avoid and why. Sensitizing designers to history is the best way to avoid future clothing controversies, because the Holocaust will never be retro chic.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. State Department speechwriter, is now an independent writer in metro Washington.