When Gucci President and CEO Marco Bizzarri first agreed to sit down with Tim Blanks for Parsons's annual Marvin Traub lecture on Wednesday, he had no idea that the date would end up coinciding with a very, very rocky week for his company.
After a black turtleneck and balaclava with red lips by the brand was blasted on social media for seeming to reference blackface imagery last week, Gucci issued a formal apology, with leaked internal letters and interviews from Bizzarri and Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele following shortly after.
Whether it was an eagerness to hear the controversy addressed in person or merely a testament to Gucci's ongoing popularity, the auditorium at Parsons was packed to the gills, with people sitting on stairs and spilling into the aisles.
To his credit, Bizzarri didn't shy away from the topic of blackface at all, instead devoting a good percentage of his allotted time to discussing the company's mistake. He pointed out that the sweater was first released on the runway and online 12 months ago, and that no criticism had been made until now — meaning it wasn't just Gucci's leadership who hadn't noticed the potential problem immediately. But he also said he was grateful to be in America in the midst of the turmoil to develop a "better understanding of what blackface meant for the community, to American people," and said that the event has been a "wakeup call" about the ways Gucci needs to change.
Bizzarri went on to explain the initiatives underway to advance that process, including a scholarship program in global cities like New York, Beijing and Nairobi that will help funnel more diverse talent toward Gucci and an intention to hire more people from different cultural backgrounds to join the design team immediately. Still, he pointed out the difficulties of being a global company that is based in Italy, noting that it's a beautiful country with a history of luxury manufacturing, but a relatively homogenous country, too.
He also said that the mostly-Italian people at the most senior levels of the company were largely there before he got there. While a common action from a new CEO coming in to turn around a struggling brand — as Gucci was when Bizzarri first took the helm in 2015 — would be to replace most employees, Bizzarri said he intentionally tried to turn the company around without pushing people out of their jobs. It's the same attitude he took toward artisans in the brand's supply chain in his first three months when he was told they needed to cut 400 workers. Instead of letting them go, Bizzarri waited to see if then-new Creative Director Alessandro Michele could help shift the company's fate so the jobs wouldn't be lost. While he's proud of those decisions, he admits they don't help on the internal diversity front.
"What should I do, practically talking?" he asked. "Should I fire one of them because I want to inject diversity? Or should I foster instead meetings and committees that make sure people of different ages, different cultures, are part of the discussion?"
One got the sense, hearing Bizzarri speak, that he wholeheartedly and genuinely repents of the company's mistake with the blackface sweater, is willing to take responsibility for it and is doing everything he can think of to try and avoid similar situations in the future.
Still, his assertions that, "Alessandro [Michele] is the emblem of diversity," and, "Gucci is at the forefront of inclusion and diversity," seemed to insinuate that Bizzarri still doesn't fully understand what his critics are trying to get at. Yes, Gucci has cast worth-celebrating all-Black campaigns before and has certainly responded more satisfactorily to controversies than some of its peers like, say, Dolce & Gabbana. The partnership Gucci undertook with Dapper Dan in 2017 after it was accused of knocking him off was proof that the brand is willing to go to great lengths to correct its mistakes.
But it's still a brand headed mostly by white people. Its runways and ad campaigns aren't devoid of people of color, but they're still usually more white than not. And the list of celebrities who have been chosen to represent the brand, whether as Michele's official guests at the Met Gala or in the brand's campaigns, are almost exclusively white: think Jared Leto, Harry Styles, Lana del Rey, Hari Nef, Dakota Johnson and Petra Collins. To declare such a brand "at the forefront of inclusion and diversity" seems, at best, a little out of touch.
At the lecture on Wednesday night, the problem was underscored by the fact that of the 10 people who took the stage over the course of the evening, the only Black person was Kimberly Jenkins, a part-time lecturer at Parsons who has designed exhibitions and courses on race and fashion.
Jenkins was invited to moderate a panel of students who were called to the stage to ask Bizzarri questions in the second half of the lecture, a move that on paper sounded like a great way to address the controversy head-on and involve the student body. But none of the students invited to the stage were Black despite the controversy in question dealing specifically with racism against Black folks (not to mention the fact that two of them "just so happened" to work at Gucci's Wooster store). A representative for Parsons later confirmed that two of the students involved were selected by Gucci, while the other three were selected by Parsons faculty members.
Will the apparent sincerity of Bizzarri's desire to do right by people of color be enough to shield Gucci from more criticism? As the evening wore on, Bizzarri painted a compelling picture of what the brand does well, detailing its investment in eco-friendly innovation, age diversity in decision-making processes and his belief that making employees happy means seeing higher levels of creativity.
But for those wanting proof that Gucci truly understands its diversity problem in a way that makes it equipped to thoroughly turn things around, the lecture fell flat. Here's hoping the brand's new scholarship programs and planned hires will be able to correct that.
Note: This story has been updated from its original version to include confirmation from Parsons about how students on the panel were selected.