On Monday night, Los Angeles based fashion brand Reformation posted this image to their Instagram account and then promptly took it down. Within seconds the photo received many negative comments and started to circulate on the Internet sparking a debate: Is this image racist and/or classist?
Many people who saw the post were immediately offended. From one perspective, the image depicts a young beautiful model wearing a $198 dress, sitting in the foreground literally above two other women who presumably work at the factory and made the dress. The caption reads "Hot out the factory. The Guava Dress is back."
The positioning of the model could be interpreted as condescending to the garment factory workers who sit behind her in a much less glamorous or prominent position. Comments on the post ranged from "wow" to "this is offensive" to "Great work social media manager."
Does the ad go too far? Supporters of the brand argue that the ad is a reflection of The Reformation's policy of full transparency when it comes to work conditions. This screen grab from the website shows a photo of a factory worker along with information about perks of the job including health insurance and ping pong tables.
Reformation CEO Yael Aflalo is outspoken about ethical and sustainable fashion and offers a tour of the factory on the website.
It's also important to consider pre-conceived notions about factory workers. According to the National Association of Factory Workers as of 2014 there were 12.33 million manufacturing workers in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the workforce. Thinking this image is offensive could be interpreted as suggesting that being a factory worker is inherently bad, which is a pejorative way to view millions of people who work or have worked factory jobs in America.
In other words: If there's no shame in being a seamstress, why do we assume this ad shames, rather than celebrates, the seamstresses in the background? Maybe it's because they are only in the background.
In fairness, the brand has many other behind the scenes promotional photos showing models in the foreground with employees in the background. The Reformation website welcomes you to "The Factory" with a picture of a woman in a dress (most likely CEO Yael Aflalo) in an open-air office setting, smiling on a swing while team members work on computers behind her.
Maybe the elite association we have with white collar jobs that require use of a computer, versus blue collar jobs that demand manual labor is what causes discomfort with the garment worker photo and not this one.
The Reformation website gives equal screen time to both divisions in the "Who we are" section of the website.
This isn't the first time The Reformation has been criticized for imagery. In August 2015 they released the "Get Your Shit Together" collection. The promotional materials for the campaign included an email blast showing a series of images with a young, tall, white model towering over images of other poorly dressed adults who appear to be of less economic means, and who are mainly African-American and Hispanic. The ad campaign was called out for being classist and possibly racist.
Slant News published a piece slamming the campaign, calling it out for being classist and mean-spirited.
But wait, there's more!
There was also that time that Reformation producer Elana Rosenblatt posted a picture of herself eating fried chicken with the caption "Happy Black History Month."
Rosenblatt apologized and stated that she was at a black friend's party to celebrate Black History Month — hence the caption.
Are we being over-sensitive? Was The Reformation just showing an honest day in the life at the factory? Maybe. After all, this isn't a sweat shop. It's a self-proclaimed safe, clean, environmentally friendly, well-run space in downtown Los Angeles championed by a CEO who touts the virtues of fairness in fashion.
After having such a tenuous history of clumsily crossing lines of race and class you'd think the brand would be more conscious of the images they choose to represent the company. Creating content for a brand requires a delicate balance of telling your story and telling a story that won't piss off the public. Like it or not, avoiding or tip-toeing around stereotypes and uncomfortable topics will be a marketing struggle for brands until or unless that particular brand wants to be associated with the controversy or tackling these subjects head on. This is why most big brands avoid having an opinion on social matters. Dodging the bullet of controversy is safer than getting caught in the crossfire of discussion.
Was the photo posted to Instagram Monday night racist or classist? Why did The Reformation post it and then take it down? We reached out to The Reformation for comment and will update this post if and when they respond.
UPDATE: The Reformation has issued the following apology via instagram: