Fashion faux-pas

P.T. Barnum, a 19th century circus showman, famously said: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But I wonder if that famous quote still applies to the cynical, paranoid, anxious society we’ve become, where mass murders are commonplace and children learn school shooting survival skills along with phonics and math.

That’s the question I asked myself when I read about Bstroy, a New York clothing brand, that unveiled its spring 2020 menswear collection on Instagram the other day. The uproar that followed was a sign of our violent times. The company’s new hoodies are covered with bullet holes and display the names of schools where a total of almost 100 kids, teachers and staff were gunned down.

Remember them? I guess a better question would be, how could we forget? Columbine. Sandy Hook. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Virginia Tech.

Except for the bullet holes, you probably wouldn’t look twice at these sweatshirts. Their colors are safely muted powder blues and light greys, and the lettering itself a simple block style. In other words, nothing that would make the sweaters stand out among any others.

But despite their in-some-ways-subdued appearance, somehow the term “fashion faux pas” doesn’t seem to fully capture what happened here.

When the hoodie photos debuted, Bstroy’s designers got exactly what they wanted: attention, airtime, hashtags, and lots and lots of news stories. There was plenty of chastising from consumers, but the rawest reactions came from those directly affected by gun violence.

“Under what scenario could somebody think this was a good idea?” Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter in the Parkland shooting, wrote on Twitter. “This has me so upset. If any of my followers know anybody involved with this clothing line, please ask them to stop it immediately.”

Another wrote, “As a victim of Columbine, I am appalled. This is disgusting. You can draw awareness another way but don’t you dare make money off of our tragedy.”

And yet another: “As a Sandy Hook family, what you are doing here is absolutely disgusting, hurtful, wrong and disrespectful. You’ll never know what our family went through after Vicki died protecting her students. Our pain is not to be used for your fashion.”

As of Friday, there was no sign the company planned to pull the hoodies. And while the public’s outrage was overwhelming, a handful did offer support, believing that the design called much-needed attention to the issues of mass shootings.

“This should enrage people,” one Instagram user said. “This should spark conversation. This is what art and fashion are all about. The problem here isn’t the hoodies, it’s the fact that we have enough school shootings to make an entire fashion collection of them. Seeing these hoodies & reactions shows how much pain there still is and how, as a country, we still have done nothing to stop these senseless [and all too frequent] shootings.”

The designers initially said they meant to make a bold statement. “We wanted to make a comment on gun violence and the type of gun violence that needs preventative attention and what its origins are, while also empowering the survivors of tragedy through storytelling in the clothes.”

After the shirts debuted at New York Fashion Week and they started receiving a lot of backlash, they issued another statement. “Sometimes life can be painfully ironic. Like the irony of dying violently in a place you consider to be a safe, controlled environment, like school. We are reminded all the time of life’s fragility, shortness, and unpredictability yet we are also reminded of its infinite potential. It is this push and pull that creates the circular motion that is the cycle of life.”

I’d be more willing to accept those words, all that stuff about life’s fragility, if it came across as a sincere sentiment. If the hoodies had statements beyond a school’s name. If the designers were advocating in front of the people who can actually do something about gun violence. If the company planned to donate a portion of the proceeds to a nonprofit lobbying for gun control (while the sweatshirts do not appear to be available on their website yet, similar styles available for purchase are priced between $180 and $410).

But Bstroy is using controversy for controversy’s sake. In attempting to be cutting-edge, in piggybacking on fashion’s history of provocation, the company comes across as blatantly commercial and their project appears completely self-serving. Sadly, the hoodies are not only a missed opportunity to advocate against gun violence, they’re a bald-face attempt to make big bucks from capitalizing on tragedy and heartache.